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Material Culture: Getting Started

Understanding Material Culture Studies

What is material culture? Material culture studies? And what does materiality mean?

Material culture are physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture. This can include furniture, clothing, toys, tools, buildings, and architecture. Print material culture can include items like music sheets, comic books, and magazines in addition to books. Non-material culture includes things like beliefs, values, and social roles.

Material culture studies is the scholarly analysis of material culture. This is typically done within fields like archeology and anthropology, but it is also of interest within the fields of history, sociology, and cultural geography. Material culture studies engages with methodologies and interests across disciplines, united through an interest in studying the relationship between people and their relationship to things.

Materiality is a concept used when analyzing material culture within the social sciences. It is generally the idea that the physical properties of an object impacts the way it is used. In material culture studies, this can be used to better understand an obscure item or to learn about cultural practices and use through an analysis of its physical qualities and condition.


This guide is intended to help students with being their research on material culture and materiality in the Rubenstein Library. In addition to holding various manuscripts, books, and journals, the Rubenstein Library also holds numerous objects and artifacts in its collections. Typical archival and print material like manuscripts and books can also be the subject of material culture studies and this guide provides an introduction to students for viewing printed material beyond their texts.

Note: It is neither a complete guide to material culture studies nor a comprehensive list of object and artifact resources in the Rubenstein Library. This guide is an entry point, and provides a sample of some of the resources we have available and how they can be used for research. For the next step in researching material culture and materiality, I would encourage you to reach out to Rubenstein staff directly or through our contact form.

Online Resources

Materials in Our Collections

Rare large two-sided silk banner reading “Justice” carried in parades by the Ilford (London) Women's Social and Political Union in 1909-1910, from the Lisa Unger Baskin Collection.

Confederate pocketbook from the Trinity College Historical Society collection.

Prosthetic glass eyeballs from the History of Medicine artifacts Collection.

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