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This conference seeks to foster insightful discussions and research on the profound influence of material objects on the course of history and the formation of societies and their cultural identities. The theme invites scholars from diverse academic fields to examine the relationship between material culture and personal and collective identities within historical contexts. 



The conference aims to explore various facets of the theme, including but not limited to:
  • Material culture and cultural history: Investigating how material objects are not only products of society but also instrumental in shaping its cultural history and identity.
  • Embodied History: Digging into how history is embodied in the design and context of everyday objects, revealing the nuances of their historical significance.
  • Texts and objects in modern times: Examining the contemporary reception and interpretation of texts and objects, shedding light on their evolving role in shaping modern cultural identities.

Keynote Speakers:

Recovering Materiality from Paper Repositories: Photos, Pamphlets, Playgrounds (Ben Highmore)
In his book The Practice of Everyday Life the Jesuit historian and theorist Michel de Certeau recounts a visit to a ‘living history museum’ in Vermont. He finds ‘innumerable familiar objects, polished, deformed, or made more beautiful by long use; everywhere there are as well the marks of the active hands and labouring or patient bodies for which these things composed the daily circuits, the fascinating presence of absences whose traces were everywhere.’ Even here in a space overabundant with historical materiality de Certeau recognises that there is no magical contact with the past, and that we need our imagination to make those ‘absences’ resonate. In this talk I want to look at another place where the ‘presence of absences’ entices us: the photographic archive. Photographs are ambiguous things – promising so much, and yet withholding the very thing that we might want to know: what did this feel like? We know of course, that as with any piece of historical evidence, a photograph is a mediation of the past. But is there something in that mediation (in the framing and organising of visual evidence in a photograph) that provides a privileged access to the past?

Ben Highmore is Professor of Cultural Studies in the School of Media, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Sussex. His most recent book is Lifestyle Revolution: How taste changed class in late twentieth century Britain (2023). Previous books include The Art of Brutalism: Rescuing hope from catastrophe in 1950s Britain (2017) and Cultural Feelings: Mood, mediation, and cultural politics (2017). His book Playgrounds, the experimental years is coming out with Reaktion Books in September 2024.


Disrupting from Within: material culture and the mainstream (Leonie Hannan)
Since the end of the last century, material culture as both a primary source and a methodology has been influential for many historians. In its unsettling of assumptions about who or what could be an historical actor and its focus on questions of agency and identity, material culture history has been a usefully disruptive player in the discipline as a whole. Of course, as scholars such as Frank Trentmann and Giorgio Riello observed in the 2000s, there have been periods and genres of historical research more inclined to a material approach than others. This remains the case. However, in recent years the so-called ‘Material Turn’ has retained its relevance to emerging fields of enquiry, not least studies of the emotions and sensory experience. The mainstreaming of material culture history has also meant that it increasingly forms a part of undergraduate study, and a plethora of postgraduate programmes now attend to this subject and approach. As historians of gender previously found, there are certain losses in this process of assimilation and this talk will consider the paths by which material culture history can continue to disrupt in ways that are intellectually generative. In doing so, it will draw on a number of trends within recent work including Re-construction, Replication and Re-enactment (RRR) and consider projects that deliberately refuse the expedience encouraged by our institutions of higher education.

Leonie Hannan is a Reader at Queen’s University Belfast and a social and cultural historian. Her first monograph, Women of Letters: Gender, writing and the life of the mind in early modern England (Manchester, 2016), explored themes of gender, the home and intellectual life. Her more recent work has focused on the home as a site of scientific exploration for the many and is the subject of her second monograph: A Culture of Curiosity: Science in the eighteenth-century home (Manchester, 2023). Hannan has also written about methods for material culture research in history.

Material Culture Exhibition
Led by Bishops Gate archivist Stefan Dickers, who has actively built a collection of material items of significant for the LGBTQ+ community, we are encouraging all conference attendees to bring an item of material culture to share.


All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking in advance is required.