The Library of Congress
Title image from African-American Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection

Using Material Culture to Interpret African American Life


Overview | Facilitator Framework | Exercise | Guide


Documents and artifacts are rich resources because they enable us to determine what happened in the past, but also because they offer subtle and not so subtle messages about who we are as a people, what we value (or don’t value), how we see ourselves, and how we see others. Our objects and documents are reflections of ourselves.

In this workshop, we undertake a material culture analysis of objects in the American Memory collections that relate to the history of African Americans from the Civil War to the early years of the twentieth century. We strive to understand some of the ways that African Americans were portrayed in popular culture, some of the ways that they portrayed themselves, and the ways that these portrayals reflect larger historical developments at the turn of the century.

We will explore some of the ways that museums use objects as storytellers-including juxtaposing them for contrast, clustering them thematically, and arranging them chronologically to show change, and we will consider how teachers and students can use these techniques of arrangement in learning from and teaching with artifacts.


After completing this workshop, participants will be able to:

  • Describe ways that African Americans were portrayed in popular culture after the Civil War, ways they portrayed themselves, and how these portrayals reflected developments in American society and politics;
  • "Read" an object for meaning and develop questions about the context in which the object was produced;
  • Use and arrange multiple documents or objects to construct a history; and
  • Develop a lesson for students that explores the value of objects as reflective of American culture.

Tasks in brief

In this workshop, participants will:

  • Practice material culture analysis with two objects in juxtaposition;
  • Use additional objects to construct an image of African-American life based on information in these objects;
  • Rearrange these objects to suggest larger themes and ideas;
  • Search for images in several American Memory collections and conduct a material culture analysis;
  • Discuss material culture analysis and its application to teaching and the handling of controversial imagery with this approach.


  1. Selected documents and images from these American Memory collections:
  1. Material Culture Analysis Guide

NOTE - This workshop was developed by Gretchen Sorin, Director and Professor of Museum Studies, Cooperstown Graduate Program, Cooperstown, NY 13326.

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Last updated 09/26/2002