This New Year’s Eve, we look back at 2020, a year many have described as ‘unprecedented’. The coronavirus spread around the world from the start of the year, and the ensuing pandemic and resulting lockdowns have completely altered life as we knew it.Read more
Posts tagged ‘material culture’
This axe can now be found at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. It was used on 12 January 1830, to execute Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a maid, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmhand, for their role in the murders of ‘womanizer’, Natan Ketilsson, and Pétur Jónsson, an unfortunate bystanding victim. The crime took place in 1828 at Natan’s farm, Illugastaðir, where they lived and worked. This was the last execution to be carried out on Icelandic soil. Although, Iceland did not abolish capital punishment until 1928.Read more
By Xinyi Wen (@HPSWarburgian)
Red, umber, carmine, massicot yellow, ultramarine… in a 15×15 inches humble drawer, 63 kinds of pigments constituted a vibrant, colourful world. Each pigment was held in a labelled paper box lining inside the wooden grid, indicating these ingredients’ mobility and their flexibility of spatial arrangement. This drawer, together with other 28 counterparts of seeds, stones, fruits, roots, and animal parts, made up the cabinet of John Francis Vigani (c. 1650–1712), the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.Read more
By Meg Roberts (@megeroberts)
Fancy some Regency-era cheese on toast? By the late eighteenth century, cheese toasters were all the rage among the British upper classes. The six removable trays in this particular toaster from the period could each hold a small slice of toast or bread, topped with cheese. To make the toast, hot water would first be poured into an opening in the stem of the handle until it filled the container underneath the six trays. As the heat quickly permeated the silver plate and copper interior (both excellent heat conductors), it would simultaneously melt the cheese and keep the toast warm.Read more
If you walk into any charity shop, you are more than likely to find, somewhere, a box or folder full of old knitting patterns. The majority of people would overlook these – to those that cannot knit, the sheets look like indecipherable code, but even to those that can, the patterns are considered dated. But these publications are an archive of everyday material culture of their own, which merit engagement.
By Maggie Kalenak
Either encased under glass in brooches, lockets and hair accessories or woven with wire to create three-dimensional ornaments and chains, the use of hair in sentimental jewellery was a fixture of British fashion from the 17th century through the end of the 19th, reaching its height in popularity between 1810 and 1850. Representing the Romantic fashion for the sentimental, in 1854 Wilkie Collins wrote that hair jewellery, was, “in England, one of the commonest ornaments of women’s wear.” Hair, especially women’s hair, was largely fetishised and commoditised in the 19th century. Being worth its weight in silver for most of the century, hair was an outward symbol of class, gender, taste and sensuality. The exchange of hair between lovers, friends and family members represented the most intimate of relationships. The wearing of hair became an expression of love and being loved. Hair was used in both romantic jewellery (exchanged between sweethearts) and mourning jewellery which would be created from the hair of the dead and worn by friends and family in remembrance. An iconic example— after the death of Prince Albert in 1839, Queen Victoria was never again without a lock of her beloved’s hair on her person. The creation of hair jewellery was both a skill worked by women in their homes and also, by the mid-19th century, a commercial industry.
Image: Photograph by Maggie Kalenak
 Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 256. First published in 1854.
Alice Procter is a historian of material culture based at UCL. She has six years of tour guiding experience at heritage sites and galleries and runs Uncomfortable Art Tours, podcasts and writes under the umbrella of The Exhibitionist. I had the chance to interview you her about her work and to discuss how her tours fit into wider critiques of national history, spaces and narratives.
In an age before electrical lighting, in cramped cities with few sources of natural light, mirrors acted as a tool to bring light into homes. They were also decorative, placed alongside paintings to accentuate the splendour of ordinary domestic environments. Venice, and particularly Murano, became the centre of European mirror production during the Renaissance, with Venetian mirrors earning their fame both for their technical innovation and their beauty.
In recent rhetoric, the ‘rise’ of consumerism has been challenged. Our throw-away culture has led to a multitude of problems for the environment, as well as issues surrounding body-image, debt and over-corporatisation. In a recent article, George Monbiot, for example, argued that ‘regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems’. Whilst the scale of this problem and its issues are in many ways unique to our age, questions surrounding the ethics of consumerism are certainly not new and our passion for acquisition is one which has its roots deep in the past.
Museums are wonderful yet bizarre places. A treasure trove of pieces of the past. Hundreds of objects, rare, fragile, ordinary, extraordinary, arranged in glass cases, beautifully isolated from their original surroundings. This perhaps slightly sterile environment allows us to appreciate the beauty and ingenuity of objects. But is this really how we ought to view their history?