MA Medieval and Early Modern Studies / Course details

Year of entry: 2019

Course unit details:
The Secret Life of Objects

Unit code HIST65172
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by History
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The course will be structured in four sections.

Section 1 offers an introduction to historical approaches, methodologies, and theories pertinent to the study of material culture that range across chronological and geographical boundaries. Sections 2, 3 and 4 follow a thematic structure and explore different types of objects and their meanings. These sections cover issues of manufacture, trade and consumption, to the display, use and meanings of objects in daily life. Sections 2, 3 and 4 take the form of on-site workshops at museums, galleries and other cultural institutions where objects can be examined in a variety of contexts.

Section 1 - Introduction: Objects and their Histories
1. Materialism and History
2. Gift Exchange

Section 2 - Objects in Motion
3. Porcelain (Manchester Museum)
4. Clocks (Manchester Art Gallery)

Section 3 - Displaying Objects
5. Wunderkammern and Dolls Houses
6. Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Manchester Museum)
7. Building the Home (Staircase House/Gaskell House)
8. Decorating the Home (Whitworth Art Gallery)

Section 4 - Objects of Devotion
9. Devotional Objects
10. Love Tokens
11. Memento Mori

This module is team taught and the precise content of seminar topics may vary in any given academic year according to the availability of specific teaching staff.


' To familiarise students with the skills, methods and theoretical models relevant to the study of material culture.
- Introduce students to the skills necessary to identify and build relationships with non-academic partners and institutions (e.g. the heritage industry).
- Enable students to gain experience in developing object-centred history projects using the resources of various cultural institutions.
- To increase student awareness of how understandings of History are shaped and interpreted by contemporary cultural institutions.

Learning outcomes

Knowledge and understanding :
- Interpret objects as primary sources and situate them in their appropriate historical context.
- Understand the different techniques, methodologies and theories that historians have used to interpret objects within the field of material culture.
- Understand how objects relate to key historical concepts (e.g. gender, class, religious belief).
- Understand the contrasting ways in which objects were used and the insights that they provide into the social and cultural lives of past cultures.
- Understand the importance of display (both in historical settings and in contemporary cultural institutions) for shaping interpretations of objects.

Intellectual skills:
- Demonstrate an increased ability to use objects to open a dialogue with the past.
- Summarise and critique the different techniques, methodologies and theories that historians have used to interpret objects within the field of material culture.
- Take a critical view of the benefits and constraints of object-centred histories.

Practical skills:
- Demonstrate enhanced research and essay writing techniques specific to the study of material culture (with the possibility of designing a virtual exhibition).
- Use specific objects to produce a catalogue entry that would be appropriate for use in wider public settings (e.g. museums and galleries).
- Use archives, collection catalogues, and electronic databases critically to research object-centred histories.

Transferable skills and personal qualities:
- Demonstrate enhanced communication skills (oral and written).
- Develop effective networking skills with practitioners in non-academic institutions (e.g. curators).
- Organise own learning through self-management and work to deadlines.
- Using ICT for research and presentation purposes.
- Demonstrate the ability to work in a group and show leadership.
- Identify, analyse and apply a wide range of data to formulate and solve problems.
- Ability to bring analytical and research skills to bear on the formulation and design of proposals.

Teaching and learning methods

This module is supported by the University of Manchester's online learning system, Blackboard. This will be used to provide relevant course materials and any additional online resources. Students' weekly learning journals and the final essay will be submitted online via Turnitin on Blackboard.

Links to other web resources available through Blackboard.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Recommended reading

' Appadurai, Arjun (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986)
- Brewer, John and Porter, Roy (eds),Consumption and the World of Goods (1993)
- Clunas, Craig, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (1991)
- Crowley, John, The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities & Design in Early Modern Britain & Early America (2000)
- Findlen, Paula (ed.), Early Modern Things, Objects and their Histories, 1500-1800 (2012)
- Frye, Susan, Pens and Needles: Women's Textualities in Early Modern England (2010)
- Girouard, Marc, Life in the English Country House (1978)
- Hamling, Tara, Decorating the Godly Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (2010)
- Hamling, Tara and Richardson, Catherine (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings (2010)
- Harvey, Karen, History and Material Culture: A Student's Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (2009)
- MacGregor, Neil, A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010)
- Miller, Daniel, The Comfort of Things (2008)
- Roche, Daniel, A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800 (2000)
- Weatherill, Lorna. Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660-1760 (1996)
- Styles, John andSnodin, Michael,Design and the Decorative Arts Britain 1500-1900 (2001)
- Vickery, Amanda, The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (1998)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 128

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Sasha Handley Unit coordinator

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