Reviews / Comptes rendus - Thomas J. Schlereth (ed.), Material Culture: A Research Guide

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Thomas J. Schlereth (ed.), Material Culture: A Research Guide

Kenneth McLaughlin
St. Jerome's College University of Waterloo
Thomas J. Schlereth (ed.). Material Culture: A Research Guide. Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas, 1985. 224 pp. Cloth $25.00, ISBN 0-7006-0274-7. Paper $9.95, ISBN 0-7006-0275-5.

1 In Artifacts and the American Past Thomas J. Schlereth suggested that museums had become our "major encounter with the past," profoundly influencing our sense of history and history as a way of knowing. In his latest book, Material Culture, A Research Guide, he has taken us that necessary step forward, providing an explanation and an explication of material culture as a means of acquiring a deeper and more complete sense of the past. The result is an exciting and exhilarating book.

2 Schlereth's own sensitive and perceptive mastery of the field of material culture studies pervades this impressive collection of essays. The book's inception was in response to a special issue of the American Quarterly in 1983 which surveyed the teaching, research and writings of American scholars for whom artifacts constituted important evidence in the documentation and interpretation of the American experience. Those essays have been revised and rewritten for this publication and the result is an invaluable guide to the field of material culture studies. Canadian readers will be glad to learn that despite the primary focus on American life, Canadian research is included and placed in the context of the larger areas of study.

3 Each of the essays in this book sets an impressive standard of scholarship, highlighting the assumptions and concepts, directions and dimensions of research in diverse fields relating to material culture. While assessing the landmark studies, this collection of essays is equally concerned with the newly emergent subfields of research in material culture. The interdisciplinary nature of material culture studies is evident in the selection of essayists: Peirce Lewis is a cultural geographer; Dell Upton, an architectural historian; Carroll Purcell, a historian of technology; Kenneth Ames, a domestic arts scholar; and Simon Bonner, a folklorist. Interestingly, there is little overlap in either content or themes, testifying to the richness of the field as well as to the editor's skill. Not everyone will agree with the various points of view expressed in these essays, for the authors are always quick to point to flawed research or research still to be done. Although not a panegyric to material culture as the only form of historical inquiry, most authors would agree with Kenneth Ames when he suggests that "what we need are not more manifestos claiming objects are relevant, but more people showing how they are."

4 Schlereth's contributions to this book merit special comment. His preface is a finely tuned essay describing the multidisciplined and multifaceted perspectives of the book. Chapter 1, "Material Culture and Cultural Research," is a brilliant introduction to a field in which many of us tread warily. His essay, "Social History Scholarship and Material Culture Research," originally published in the Journal of Social History, is a seminal work, relating as it does the findings of material culture scholars to the burgeoning field of social history, thereby making both fields of enquiry more relevant to the human experience. Schlereth accomplishes this with an envious ease, devoid of cant or jargon. Lastly, drawing on his wide and remarkable knowledge of the field, is "A Guide to Research Sources." Coupled with the extensive bibliographic references that accompany each chapter, this concluding essay makes this book an essential reference work for anyone in the fields of public history and social history. It would also be indispensable for anyone working in museums or in the area of preservation or local history, and it should be required reading for all of us trained in legal and constitutional history.

Kenneth McLaughlin