Reviews / Comptes rendus - Schlereth, Thomas J., Artifacts and the American Past

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Schlereth, Thomas J., Artifacts and the American Past

Del Muise
Carleton University
Schlereth, Thomas J. Artifacts and the American Past. Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1980. 294 pp., ill. $13-95 hardbound.

1 This volume brings together ten previously published essays dealing with aspects of and approaches to the study of material history in America. For the past decade and more, Tom Schlereth, who teaches in the American Studies Department of the University of Notre Dame, has been one of the few articulate proselytizers for the burgeoning field of material history outside the museum community proper. Much of this book records his attempts to integrate material history into his teaching of American studies, that interdisciplinary hybrid so common in American universities but only recently accepted widely in Canada. As such, it often reads like a series of exercises on how to organize class-room activities dealing with aspects of the material past. It is interesting to note that the experimental nature of much of the teaching described here would probably not have been possible within more traditional departments of history.

2 Schlereth, an advocate of "artifactual literacy" and "material culture consciousness," attempts to liberate history from the confines of the class-room and introduce it to the innovations taking place all over the world in the field of museums and historic sites., His introduction, "History outside the History Classroom," presents a rationale for much of what follows. The sophistication of his approaches and suggestions, along with the sustained presentation of academic underpinning for his judgements, might render the volume a bit intimidating for the uninitiated. But for those practiced in the field of material history, the ground covered will seem fairly familiar.

3 This volume is divided into three main sections, dealing in turn with graphics and photographs, historic sites, and landscape as a source for the exploration of the material past. In all of the essays Schlereth attempts to come to grips with the new artifactual literacy which he maintains is sweeping North America. Centennials and bicentennials have raised the consciousness of the general public about their heritage in a way thought impossible in earlier years. This revolution in expectations has, he argues, created a unique opportunity for historians and material culturalists in general. The field of history now has enormous possibilities for expansion, and the museum and historic site provide the leading edge of his new process of democratization. No longer the preserve of a few old moss-backs or the exclusive plaything of the monstrously rich, important as both of these contributions may have been, the museum of today has to look to a broader audience with a more diverse set of public programming objectives. More particularly, this volume addresses itself to the fuller integration of the work of class-room teachers with the objectives of museum curators to produce a new awareness of the material past and its importance in the educational process.

4 The individual essays in the collection are largely self-contained. On graphics as artifacts he discusses historical photography, mail-order catalogues and urban cartography as leading examples of material that has survived in sufficient quantity to bear examination, no matter where in North America one resides. The section on historic sites looks at houses, museum villages, and the 1876 American centennial celebrations as examples of avenues into the American past that are commonly accepted. When looking at landscapes the focus tends to be on vegetation and cultural patterns in the rural setting or on specific regional studies focusing on architecture. One essay which examines the concept of above-ground archaeology looks to the common artifacts of everyday life that have survived, especially in terms of the built environment. In some of these essays Schlereth attempts to cover too much ground, but the book is designed to make its readers read further (an intention reflected in the fifty pages of notes appended to the volume). The final essay, "Collecting Ideas and Artifacts: Common Problems of History Museums and History Texts," lists a series of fallacies concerning the interpretation of history found in the field of American history, along with a few reflections on what history should be all about. That essay encapsulates Schlereth's approach to the role of artifacts in opening up new vistas to the understanding of the American past and should be of interest to Canadian historians and material culturalists.

5 Schlereth's advocacy of the notion that history can exist outside the class-room and in clear view for everyone to see might get a bit wearing in repetition, but he delivers his message powerfully. Taken together, the essays present a primer for community access to its own history from a variety of perspectives. The examples he chooses to illustrate his argument may be well known and sometimes nationally oriented, but the message is clear that those resources exist everywhere in one form or another if only we have the wisdom to find and preserve them. In the Canadian context, the recent professionalization of the museum community and the emergence of material history as a sub-discipline of significant proportions have highlighted the necessity for further reassessment of current practices and future prospects in the field. The last decade or so has witnessed an expansion of the museum community never imagined in Canada. Its agents are just now coming to grips with the realities of operating the public programmes and related activities that must be a part of every museum's activities. Only time will tell if they are going to be successful in bringing museums and the general public together. Schlereth's book, though it is addressed more to the unconverted university-based historian than to the museum professional, presents a reasonable assessment of the accomplishments in a variety of fields and points out the possibilities for further development. It warrants a serious examination from concerned members of both constituencies.

Del Muise