by Georgia Vullinghs
I came up with Eighteenth-Century Scotland and Stuff in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, when the ESHSS put out a call for proposals to create digital learning resources for secondary school history pupils learning at home. I thought this would be a great opportunity to share some of my object-based research with young historians. I suggested an online learning resource that explores Scotland’s past through historical objects and what they meant for the people who made and used them. This was also a funded project – thanks, ESHSS! It is important that organisations remunerate research work where possible and move away from a volunteer culture that exploits (if innocently) the needs of early career researchers to get experience and disseminate their research.
People have been researching history through objects for centuries. The Antiquarians of the eighteenth-century fascinated over artefacts as survivors from ancient pasts. Most of us are familiar with looking at objects in museums as a way to learn about history. Historical artefacts offer a tangible connection to past peoples and places. But when we are taught the basics of history in school – and, indeed, in the early years of university history training – ‘things’ are rarely presented as historical sources. Often they are used as illustrative material, or supporting artefacts for documentary sources. Through this learning resource, I wanted to introduce school pupils to the ways in which they can examine material culture as evidence. It encourages them to consider the objects themselves but also the way people used, exchanged, and thought about things in the past to shed light on broader cultural, social, economic, and political histories.
I chose to base this resource on my specialism in eighteenth-century history. For Scotland, and the rest of the British Isles, the eighteenth century was an era of expanding global trade, with numerous consumer goods from foreign countries becoming widely available. Industrialisation transformed not only the types and quantity of materials accessible to people but, by the end of the century, significantly changed the social and economic face of Scotland. It was also a period of political upheaval, from the Jacobite risings in the first half of the century to parliamentary reform and Radicalism in the second. Material culture was central to participation in various political movements; a powerful tool with which people could identify themselves with particular beliefs and values. However, the history of eighteenth-century material culture is also one of colonialism, empire, enslavement, and exploitation. I thought it was important to address these historical connections in the resource through my discussion of object histories. One of the reasons for studying material culture as evidence for the past is that it can open up narratives that are less obvious in the usual documentary sources. Through thinking about the objects in this resource, pupils will be introduced to some new histories within familiar themes, such as the cultural response to the 1707 Union, or the role of fashionable commodities like tobacco in shaping Scotland’s global relationships.
From Jacobites to Transatlantic trade, Empire, and Radical politics, the SQA curriculum covers a range of topics relating to eighteenth-century Scottish history. Each object case study in Eighteenth-Century Scotland and Stuff speaks to a specific theme, but of course they overlap, too. They can be read individually or together, as meets the needs and interests of the learner. Combining short essays with images, further reading, and question prompts, I hope the resource offers a new and engaging lens for students (and teachers) to explore the curriculum content. While junior pupils might need a little more support to work with the resource, it is designed so that seniors can use it to learn independently. The objects are selected from a range of Scottish museums. However, the varying levels of accessibility to search collections and find images online did shape the list of collections featured. I hope when museums open again pupils can go and explore their local collections to find out more.
Georgia Vullinghs is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Her project ‘Loyal Exchange: the material and visual culture of Jacobite exile, c.1716 – c.1760’, examines the material experience of and response to Stuart exile. Her wider interest is in eighteenth-century Scottish social and cultural history. You can contact Georgia on Twitter as @history_geeks or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She welcomes feedback on the Eighteenth-Century Scotland and Stuff project, so please do get in touch.
Ideas for Further Reading
- Dyer, Serena, ‘State of the Field: Material Culture’ in History, 106: 370 (March 2021), pp. 282-92.
- Hannan, Leonie and Sarah Longair, History Through Material Culture (Manchester: 2017).
- Harvey, Karen, ed., History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources (2nd ed., London: 2017).