On a Hypothetical Material Culture Studies Association
By Nicole Belolan
When Patrick asked me if I had any thoughts on a hypothetical “Material Culture Studies Association,” Thomas J. Schlereth’s essay “Material Culture and Cultural Research “ in Material Culture: A Research Guide (1985) came to mind. My professor and adviser, Kasey Grier, used the essay in a graduate-level material culture course to start a conversation about what constituted a “field of study.” In that essay, Schlereth noted that material culture studies “possess[ed] most of the disciplinary accouterments” (such as journals). He added that there were “tentative plans for a national professional association” (6). Thirty years later, to the best of my knowledge, there is still no national professional material culture organization. Do material culture scholars (academics and public intellectuals/museum practitioners alike) need or want one?
Professional organizations in the humanities do a lot. They award prizes, execute conferences, and distribute news and journals to their members. In my experience thus far, the conference component has been the most critical, particularly for its networking potential. Over the past few years and within the next few months, I have presented or will present “scholarly” material culture research at nine “academic” conferences. Of these nine conferences, three have been/will be nominally (and actually) about material culture. Three were/are in my “actual” discipline of history. Most of these conferences were/are hybrids that attract academics and the public alike; themes have ranged from disability studies and “women’s health” to Quaker history. Despite the lack of an MCSA, as a material culture scholar trained in the discipline of history, I have no trouble finding a variety of places to give papers about material culture—and it’s usually not at a history conference. I would imagine many of you, regardless of discipline, can say the same. If organizing conferences is a major function of a professional group, would one more conference be too much? Or, am I underestimating how professional organizations serve their members, the field, and public interpretation of what they hold dear?
I learned something useful at all of the conferences I have attended. Even though they are “academic,” conferences that address material culture or that provide outlets for material culture research tend to attract a wide array of people: academics, craftsmen, hobbyists, people’s grandparents, activists, and curators and archivists…If material culture as a field or discipline is interdisciplinary and attracts a broad audience, does it need a formal event where we meet regularly? It’s not as if we don’t cross paths, organizing “material culture” panels and meeting as “interest groups” within larger organizations. (For the record, I prefer high-quality one-day conferences to multi-day affairs with a dizzying array of concurrent sessions. In my experience, it is rare that you get the feedback you need or want at the behemoths.)
I will continue to seek a variety of conferences to attend as a presenter, audience member, or organizer. (I’ve been involved with the Material Culture Symposium for Emerging Scholars at UD for four years now). Would I join and be an active member of a hypothetical MCSA? Probably, but organizational memberships really start to add up for us interdisciplinary folk. Would I go to MCSA conferences? Certainly, at least when it’s feasible in terms of both time and money. Am I losing sleep over the absence of an MCSA? Not really. Ever since I cobbled together an American Studies curriculum with history, literature, and material culture coursework and museum internships as one of the last AMST majors at Penn State, University Park, and despite the fact that I am in an “actual” discipline now (history), I’ve never really had an intellectual home. I’m OK with that.
In the mean time, without an MCSA conference to attend, I look forward to interacting with you all on Twitter! #materialculture
Nicole Belolan is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture and is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware working on a dissertation about the material culture of physical mobility impairments in early America. @nicolebelolan | nicolebelolan.or