Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Exploring "Dimensions of Material Culture"

Written by Ellery Foutch - November 2012

What is “material culture”? For students in Art History / Design Studies/ History 464, the answer is unfolding over the course of a semester by exploring University of Wisconsin collections, learning from local experts, and contemplating a variety of “things”—the material world to which people give meaning and which, in turn, influences their lives. The class takes the perspective that what we make, see, inhabit, eat, acquire, cherish, and discard—all are important agents of communication and part of broad social and cultural contexts. We are all part of a complex system of makers and consumers, interacting with the world of made objects and constructed spaces.

To this end, co-instructors Lauren Kroiz and Ellery Foutch have planned a variety of guest lectures and site visits, in which students learn different ways of interpreting and interacting with material culture. This year, the Dimensions course, a requirement for the Certificate in Material Culture, is organized around three themes: land and landscapes, the body, and technology. The course is a capstone in the Material Culture Program, traditionally offered every fall and co-taught by faculty in Art History and Design Studies; it was originally developed by Professor Jean Lee and Virginia Boyd, with support from a UW-Madison Chancellor’s Collaborative Teaching Award for Senior Faculty.

In the first unit of the semester, students contemplated human interactions in the environment and the constructed concept of the “natural,” from painted landscapes in the Chazen Museum of Art to sessions devoted to urban planning, landscape garden design, and interventions in the Wisconsin landscape due to agriculture and foodways. Allen Centennial Gardens provided an exemplary site to explore and juxtapose conventions of formal garden design and the human desire to demonstrate control over the natural world, while the intrusion of the active sprinkler system gave a visceral indication of the technology and effort required to maintain these constructions! In presentations and discussions with former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz and Art History professor and member of Madison planning commission Anna Andrzejewski, students thought critically about urban planning and the built environment of suburbs—how the layout of streets, sidewalks, shopping centers, and family homes affects social interactions. With facilities cultural resource manager Daniel Einstein and amongst the dusty rafters of the UW Dairy Barn, where the single-grain experiments took place, and the gleaming machinery of Babcock Dairy, students learned of the University’s role in nutrition science as well as the architectural and landscape modifications constructed for the care of livestock and the cultivation of a milk-consuming society on a grand scale. Guest speaker and Folklore faculty Janet Gilmore further discussed Wisconsin’s population of Hmong immigrants and their relationship to the state’s foodways and landscape. 

Allen Centennial Gardens

Prof. Andrzejewski and Citizen Dave
Einstein and UW Dairy Barn

To investigate the concept of Bodies and Material Culture, the students learned about Associate Professor of Marketing Joann Peck’s quantitative research on consumption and touch, or what motivates shoppers to touch and buy products.  The class then visited the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society, where curator Leslie Bellais discussed Victorian-era undergarments, showing the students examples of 19th-century body-shaping garments, corsets, bustles, hoops, and more. The shaping of bodies was also explored through discussions of turn-of-the-century bodybuilders and popular exercise programs, which the students attempted by following the instructions for bodybuilder Eugen Sandow’s popular dumbbell exercises and calisthenics. Bodily modifications of skin, rather than muscle, were the focus of visiting speaker and Milwaukee-based author Amelia Klem Osterud’s discussion of turn-of-the-century “Tattooed Ladies,” sideshow performers who bared their elaborately-decorated skin to paying customers. A visit to the recently-reopened Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection gave students an opportunity to study curious artifacts of Victorian hairwork firsthand, objects that were both made from bodily material—human hair—with the intention of adorning the body. Yoruba practices of bodily adornment and beadwork were the focus of another visit to the Chazen Museum of Art, led by art historian Henry Drewal.

TECHNOLOGY will be the third and final theme of the semester. Given the historic election year, two classes will be devoted to the material culture of campaigns and elections, visiting the Wisconsin Historical Society and curator Paul Bourcier to see examples of historic campaign material (from buttons to powder compacts), and reading about the history of ballot design, voting machines, and the infamous effects of “hanging chads,” “pregnant chads,” and material implications of ballots and ballot designs in the 2004 Presidential election. The course will conclude with a discussion of material cultures of teaching and learning, from the materiality of books (seen firsthand in Special Collections and Rare Books with librarian Robin Rider), to the traditional tools of art history classrooms: slide projectors and the recent transition to powerpoint and digital technologies. Faculty Associate in Astronomy and Director of Space Place James Lattis will guide students in a very different kind of “looking,” demonstrating the technologies in use at the historic Washburn Observatory.

Campaign materials, Wisconsin Historical Society

Students are working in groups to produce final projects that apply methods of material culture study and analysis learned in class, with projects that range from researching the material culture of yoga practice in the United States to potential landscape plans for the Class of 1920 Memorial Plaza. The combination of assignments and topics examines the way that things help us to connect to the world, see the world in a new way, and give meaning to our lives.


Ellery Foutch is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Humanities and the Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received her PhD in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 with a dissertation entitled “Arresting Beauty: The Perfectionist Impulse of Peale’s Butterflies, Heade’s Hummingbirds, Blaschka’s Flowers, and Sandow’s Body.” She earned her MA from the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art and a BA from Wellesley College. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science.

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