Interdisciplinary Dialogue: Researching Material Culture

Date: Thursday 22 November 2012

Time: 10.30am – 4pm

Location: Kanaris Theatre, Manchester Museum


This event draws together four speakers who are all engaged in material culture research yet from different disciplinary and theoretical approaches. All speakers work with the premise that objects and materials are pivitol to the creation and enactment of everyday life and, taken together, the papers highlight how material culture approaches can be of use to researchers not explicity engaging with debates around materiality, as material culture is central to the constitution of routines, memory, relationships and culture. Each paper will outline the speaker’s particular methodological and theoretical approach to examples ranging from university corridors, ordinary domestic objects, ‘digital’ objects, and homelessness, to explore the possibilities and challenges of carrying out research into material culture. The day is focused both on what a range of material culture approaches can tell us and also explores different routes into how this can be engaged in, in terms of methodological possibilites.


10.30 Registration, tea and coffee
10.55 Welcome and Introductions
11.00 ‘Thinking through Things: the craft(iness) of organising materials’ – Rachel Hurdley, School of Social Sciences, University of Cardiff
12.00 ‘It’s not rubbish, it’s an archaeological find!: Taking a collaborative archaeological approach to the material culture of homelessness’– Rachael Kiddey, Archaeology, University of York
13.00 Lunch
14.00 ‘Digital Objects and the Internet: ‘Tales of Things’’ – Chris Speed, School of Architecture, University of Edinburgh
15.00 ‘Old, new and favourite things: understanding the lives of domestic objects’ – Sophie Woodward, Sociology, University of Manchester
16.00 Close

Session outlines

‘Thinking through Things: the craft(iness) of organising materials’ – Rachel Hurdley, School of Social Sciences, University of Cardiff

Following a brief introduction to my projects exploring the organising of people, space and stuff at home and work, we will work with the furniture, rooms and things we have to hand. Where do you put the house keys when you get home? Who decides which photos are printed and framed (if any)? What do you do with the bunny ornaments people still insist on giving you, because you liked them when you were eight? Do you have a room or a space you think is really yours? How do things, identities and domestic space and time connect and disconnect? What stuff counts in making, maintaining, repairing identity as a tenuous ongoing process? And who is pushed to the margins of what counts as a person, if only certain stuff matters? How do destitute asylum seekers, for example, make identities with and through things, when their ‘identity’ depends on a piece of paper, or scars on the body? Who has an office of thei own, a desk and a wall for bookshelves? What strategies do you use to make yourself visible or invisible at work? A coat over the glass door panel, or draped on the back of a chair? A well-timed visit to the coffee shop? Does a glass wall really produce a culture of openness, and how out-of-date are the pinboard notices? How is culture organised into the materials and spaces of an institution? These questions open up ways of thinking through things as materials which are deeply enmeshed in the workings, and working out of culture. We can use these as a starting point to the much more exciting process of moving stuff, including bodies, around the place.

‘Contemporary homelessness – an archaeological approach’ – Rachel Kiddey, Department of Archaeology, University of York

Traditionally, archaeologists have identified material culture left over from the ‘deep’ past and used artefacts – pottery sherds, bones and flint – to infer and reconstruct how the people who left such things might have lived. More recently, archaeologists have applied such methods to contemporary cultures. If we can find out about the remote past by studying the ‘things’ left behind it stands to reason we can apply the same theories and methods to cast light on contemporary cultures that we think we understand. The only difference is temporal.

This talk invites the audience to suspend preconceptions of contemporary homelessness and come to it fresh, experience it represented only by its material culture. Exploring artefacts gathered from two contemporary homeless sites in Bristol and York (UK), the talk draws on oral histories collected from homeless people that seek to explain why certain items are commonly found, how they are used and what they mean to the people who used them. Film and photographs help illuminate what this tells us about homelessness in the 21st Century and how the process of working collaboratively with homeless people might be therapeutic for everyone involved and inform community and public archaeology in the future.

‘Digital Objects and the Internet: ‘Tales of Things” – Chris Speed, School of Architecture, University of Edinburgh

This talk will reflect upon the temporal characteristics of the emerging phenomenon known as the Internet of Things. As objects become individually tagged with unique identities through the addition of small electronic chips or bar codes, their history is recorded and made available to others across a network. The advent of this ever-growing catalogue of histories and connections means that every object will require a firewall around it to stop people placing stories and information upon it. This means that objects in shops, museums and households are likely to be ‘hacked’ by shoppers, visitors and family members suggesting that owners will lose control of what a particular artefact means in a collection.

‘Old, new and favourite things: understanding the lives of domestic objects’ – Sophie Woodward, Department of Sociology, University of Manchester

Piles of unwanted clothes sent by a mother to her daughter living overseas; a barely used waffle iron languishing at the back of a cupboard; a kitchen table inherited from a grandmother but used everyday – its provenance rarely thought upon or remembered. These everyday examples of domestic objects highlight the centrality of objects in the enactment of everyday life, culture and relationships. Some items are used all the time, may then fall into disuse and find themselves at the back of a cupboard, or are loaned to a friend or finally fall apart: they are therefore dynamic as their usages and materiality shifts over time. The dynamism is captured by thinking about the ‘lives’ of objects and will here be explored through everyday domestic objects to highlight both the possibilities of studying material culture (as it offers a route into thinking about everyday life and culture more broadly) and also the methodological challenges that are posed by such an approach. These issues arose from my previous research on wardrobes, where clothing was approached not solely as a publicly presented identity but also as they reside in the wardrobe as an externalisation of memories, aspirations, or a former self. I will explore whether this approach can be extended to the home, as a kind of wardrobe writ large, where different genres of domestic objects (such as furniture, domestic appliances) are considered in the totality and through temporal cycles of usage; where items are stored and how they are moved within domestic spaces. This talk will explore material methods, ranging from follow the thing, object contextualisation through to object interviews.


There is a charge to attend this event, and places will be offered on a first come, first serve basis.

To register, please contact Victoria Higham via email ( to reserve your place.


  • £30 – Standard Fee
  • £15 – Concession (full-time student/retired/unwaged)

Payments are to be made via:

  • Cheque (Made payable to ‘The University of Manchester’ and posted to Victoria Higha, Morgan Centre, Sociology, University of Manchester, 3rd Floor, Arthur Lewis Building, Bridgeford Street, Manchester, M13 9PL)
  • Debit/Credit Card


Directions to Manchester Museum at

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