Opening up the discipline of history to new approaches

Students with historical artefacts

Sources are the raw material of history. However, as a staple of historical training, material culture has generally been absent from most university history programmes. The written word has traditionally been seen as the principal form of evidence but today's historians are increasingly recognising the value of sources beyond text.

Dr Karen Harvey, of the University of Sheffield's Department of History, is leading the debate about how historians approach material culture – considering objects as sources and opening up the discipline of history to new approaches.

The inclusion of material culture in the history curriculum demands new research practices and skills. Dr Harvey received a Senate Award for Excellence in Learning and Teaching from the University in recognition of her dynamic approach to introducing material culture into her teaching. As a cultural historian of 18th-century Britain, with a special interest in gender, identity and power, she uses a wide range of written, visual and material sources in her work. She investigates how people have engaged with, used and made material culture.

As Academic in Residence at Bank Street Arts, an innovative cross-disciplinary arts centre in Sheffield, she is exploring her research in the context of a Georgian domestic space and with artists.

Teapots, candlesticks, floor plans, portraits, advertisements, conduct books, diaries and novels are the sources used by students taking the third-year history module, The Making of the Modern Home: Gender and Domesticity, England 1650-1800.

The teaching and learning methods used here by Dr Harvey are various and are designed to suit the range of sources. Students have given individual presentations on aspects of the home, group presentations on single rooms, and dramatic performances of 18th-century autobiographies.

A grant from the University's Knowledge Transfer Opportunities Fund, supported by the Higher Education Innovation Fund, enabled Dr Harvey to develop the project Displaying Drink: Ritual at the Eighteenth-Century Table, in collaboration with curators from Museums Sheffield.

Drawing on her work on ritual and drinking in 18th-century England, the resulting display in Museums Sheffield’s Metalwork Gallery helped place objects from the decorative art collection more firmly in their wider historical, cultural, social and political contexts.

Dr Harvey said, "The display brought academic research out of the University into a broader public domain, encouraging visitors to reflect on the cultural significance of mundane practices of drinking. This was an exciting collaboration between two of the major cultural and educational institutions in the city."