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Things in History: Researching Material Culture - HIS00105M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Elizabeth Spencer
  • Credit value: 10 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

This module provides a practical and theoretical introduction to working with historical objects and material culture. It introduces students to the range of ways in which historians have made use of material culture in the course of their research, and the way in which such approaches have influenced historiographies of the medieval, early-modern, and modern periods. In practical workshops based in two York museums, students will learn how to handle historical objects properly, and the deceptively complicated task of describing them accurately. They will also learn how to ‘read’ objects, working out how attributes such as material, finish, or provenance can be interpreted and analysed in order to tell historians about their production, use, and value in the society in which they were created.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Introduce students to material culture studies
  • Build understanding of the theory and historiography of material culture
  • Show students how to interpret objects and their significance
  • Develop familiarity with historical objects and how to safely handle them
  • Facilitate students’ ability to use historical objects in their own research

Module learning outcomes

At the end of this module students will be able to:

  • Understand the historiography of material culture
  • Safely and correctly handle historical objects
  • Identify relevant differences between the qualitative features of objects
  • Interpret objects in order to understand their historical significance
  • Technically describe objects and their contexts

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend a 2-hour seminar, two 4-hour workshops and a mini-conference in the spring term.

The provisional programme is as follows:

Week 1: Briefing (1 hour)

Week 2: Context/theory seminar: Objects in History (2 hours)

Week 3: Practical workshop I: Handling Objects. Museum TBC (4 hours)

Week 4: Practical workshop II: Collections, held at the National Railway Museum (4 hours)

Weeks 5-8: Independent project work

Week 8: Project Mini-Conference (3 hours)


Task Length % of module mark
University - project
Project portfolio
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will submit a project portfolio in week 10 of the spring term for summative assessment, comprising of a 300-word curatorial description and a 1000-word reflective essay.

The short technical description of their chosen object(s) will focus on one (or more) of its attributes, including but limited to its material, size, colour, maker, provenance, dissemination or location. They may include up to 3 photographs of their object alongside the description. Students will also write a reflective essay which effectively describes the object and explains its historical significance.

Prior to that in week 8, students will make a short presentation to the group at the mini-conference about their chosen project, the research they have undertaken, and their likely direction for the reflective essay.


Task Length % of module mark
University - project
Project portfolio
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive constructive verbal feedback from the module convenor and their peers during the mini-conference, which they can then take forward into the completion of their final project portfolio.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Hicks, Dan and Mary Carolyn Beaudry (eds). The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Harvey, Karen (ed.). History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources. London: Routledge, 2009.

Kwint, Marius, Jeremy Aynsley and Christopher Breward (eds). Material Memories: Design and Evocation. Oxford, 1999.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.