An Introduction to Material Culture

Moe Hachem
Written by Moe Hachem on
An Introduction to Material Culture

What is material culture?

Material culture is the study of the objects, art, and architecture that surround people. It is the study of the physical and material tradition of humankind.

Why do we value material culture?

Art and architecture are not valued by artists or their patrons alone, but by entire cultures.

Some of the reasons we value material culture are:

Material Value

Artwork is sometimes valuable because of the materials it consists of such as gold or marble. The are many artworks that have been stolen precisely because of their monetary value.

Intrinsic Value

We can place value in artwork because of the inherent qualities present within itself. The intrinsic value of artwork might change from era to era. from today. Van Gogh, for example, found his work unappreciated until a long time after his death.

Religious Value

Objects and artwork may be associated with religion. Art makes the divine relatable and accessible to humankind. The simplest example is to look at how religious building pay great attention to detail and craft to the point that the buildings themselves are a hybrid between architecture and sculpture.

Nationalistic and Cultural Value

Art and material culture can possess an incredible cultural value that entire cultures might be willing to wage wars to retrieve these artworks. If we look at the Second World War, for example, entire battalions had the sole task of protecting and preserving valuable artwork.

What are the types of material culture?

Many items fall under material culture, and they range from small everyday things such as forks, and up to the gigantic and wonderous works of architecture.

Art as material culture

Art is an expression of the time. Art informs us about the way of life, and what the prevailing attitude was or is in a society. Often time, art can even be seen as a precursor to societal change. What makes art unique is the message it delivers is subjective to the person viewing it. A portrait of a ‘peasant’ uprising will evoke different reactions from a king, and a farmhand. The king would be furious, and the farmhand would be hopeful that change is coming.

Product design as material culture

A fork offers valuable insight into material culture. What we might take for granted today carries a long heritage of development that allowed it to become what it is today. Products offer insight on technological advancements in terms of craft and manufacturing processes. We learn very quickly when we examine these products the social status of their owners, their way of life, and how they approached everyday problems.

Architecture as material culture

Architecture evokes identity and is more utilitarian when compared to art. For architecture to be good, it needs to fulfil its purpose. The value of architecture cannot depend on looking good to be considered valuable. A beautiful hospital is useless if the space within it fails to serve its purpose.

Architecture creates space that encloses us, and this changes how we experience architecture. You can look at art and appreciate it from a distance, but our experience of architecture remains incomplete if we don’t experience both inside and the outside.

Digital product design as material culture

Digital design as material culture is a new entry into the world of material design. Previously, material design used to be out of actual materials, but today this has completely changed. We design digital applications that we interact with, use, and depend on daily. While we cannot touch digital applications or art, they have become an important milestone in human culture.

Why study the history of material culture?

We study material culture because to learn about our creative expressions and that of those that came before us. When we understand the work of those that came before us, we can stand on their shoulders to see further down the horizon line of our abilities. Insight of the past will help us gain a deeper understanding of the future. Material culture teaches how specific styles came to be, and helps us appreciate how technology influenced art, architecture, and design.

Final Thoughts

The study of material culture helps us understand how to see and create value in the work that we create. In today’s day and age, it’s easy to create anything we imagine, but it’s also disproportionately harder to create anything of value.

When we study past creations, we can begin to understand what creates value, and we can learn how to add value to our work.

Future lessons will not be delivered as long hard to read articles, since there’s plenty of those out there. Instead, I will show you the principles that we can learn from art history, and how we can apply them.


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