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Material Culture


Ten years ago or thereabouts, I attended a history conference at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. My topic was the Social Gospel, that 19th century religious movement which crossed denominational, even sectarian lines and redirected the thrust of religion in American life. Technically I should post these observations on my other blog, Building the Social Gospel, which was in fact the title of my Oshkosh paper.

Casual conversation with the conference organizers–two elder statesmen of the Whig persuasion–suggested they were intrigued by my topic. After a cocktail or two (or three), when posturing began to fade, they flat out asked me what there was to say today on an academic topic that had “been done.” By this I gather they meant there could be nothing new to say on a subject thrashed by scores of graduate students for fifty years or more. By this time I was getting a little uneasy, an ersatz architect among certified historians; a bull could have skated more easily in that china shop. Any unease I might have felt had no effect on my presentation the next afternoon, however. In fact, during the afterglow I learned just how uncomfortable some historians have been with material culture. My title said it all: I was interested in the physical consequences of a social movement.

This consequential relationship is central to the Agincourt Project. It was at the core of each seminar or studio; each of them begun with this simple question “What from Agincourt is being auctioned today on eBay?” The story of that imaginary northwest Iowa community has already been written in its material culture; our detritus; the paper trail left in the wake of our passing.

That question comes more immediately to mind this afternoon as I prepare for the funeral of a good friend, the 80-plus-year-old former secretary who mothered my academic department a gaggle of years ago. Any words I might contribute at her memorial service will fade with the setting sun that day. Hundreds of our former students and faculty, however, will carry her memory forward; we may even pass it to others. Now I wonder how her presence had shaped the place we labored.

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