History SS565: The Material Culture of Early America, Instructed by Nile Blunt
Where Learning Happens by Kristin Bair O’Keeffe
In Nile Blunt’s The Material Culture of Early America, seniors learn about Early America between 1607 and 1812 by way of objects: maps, furniture, silver, gravestones, portraits, and more. By tracing and analyzing stuff that once was used, held, sat on, admired, polished, and passed down from generation to generation, they are able to chart our country’s transition from attempting to achieve a specific British identity to the birth of a uniquely American identity. Stuff, because, as Blunt puts it, a chair is not just a chair. “A chair can speak volumes when you know its historical context, and we can understand so much about the expectations, experiences, hopes, and dreams of people who built, purchased, and used this chair. For instance, we can
learn so much about Thomas Jefferson not just from reading one of his letters or treatises, but also by examining the objects that he lived with and used in his daily life.” While students also look at photographs or renderings, as well as read, discuss, and give presentations, their primary work is analyzing various objects housed in the Addison Gallery of American Art, the Academy Archives, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology. “We’ve got mind-blowing resources right here on campus,” Blunt says. “The idea for this course was born out of my deep interest in our cultural institutions. I wanted to create an elective that is focused on working closely with the educators in those places and really using those resources.”
Photos by Neil Evans
Each week students visit one of these three places to examine, discuss, and hash out how specific objects may have been used, who might have made them, what they symbolize, what hints they offer about the social milieu of that time period, how they relate to other objects and historical events, and much more. Each session unfolds like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, as Blunt provides little or no information about the objects at hand. Instead, he encourages students to sharpen their observation skills, consider what they know about a particular time period, analyze, and speculate. Deftly led by Blunt and at least one educator at each location, students learn to put objects into historical context.
Seniors Jisoo Chung and Olivia Cabral study the “wine quart cann” made by Paul Revere (c. 1770).
Addison Gallery of American Art | Silver During their initial visit to the Addison Gallery, students studied four pieces from the silver collection, including a “wine quart cann” made by Paul Revere (c. 1770) and the Jacob Hurd teapot (c. 1750). The wine quart cann impressed many students, including Olivia Cabral ’14: “What grabbed my attention was definitely seeing REVERE, one of Paul Revere’s maker’s marks, engraved on the first silver piece I sat down in front of. It was definitely a ‘wow’ moment.” As the items were being examined, the students, Blunt, and Jamie Kaplowitz, Addison education associate and museum learning specialist, discussed a series of questions, including: • What information do we have about the person who created this object?
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• What kind of object is this, and how might it have been used? • What is the style, and what aspects of its form/design indicate this style? • What do the materials themselves tell us about the consumers and their societies? Each question deepened the discussion and moved students closer to the answers (or, in some cases, further away; a few students misidentified a pair of sugar cube tongs as ice cube tongs). Afterward, many appreciated the impact of being able to engage directly with an object. “I am much more likely to remember what I learned about Paul Revere and his silver through my own personal experience viewing it as opposed to reading about it,” said Cabral.
Melanie Oliva ’14, Dan McGurl ’14, and Nile Blunt (right) discuss the subtleties of the Magnalia Christi Americana.
The Archives | Rare Book The rare book session with Blunt and Paige Roberts, director of PA’s Archives and Special Collections, took place in a small room on the second floor of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. The room was brightly lit, the air was stuffy, and bookshelves lined one wall. It was an appropriate spot to study Magnalia Christi Americana by Cotton Mather, which was printed in 1702 and part of the Phillips family library. “The extraordinary thing about this copy of the Magnalia,” said Roberts, “is that it is signed ‘Samuel Phillips’s 1820.’ This allowed the class to explore interesting questions and issues of provenance. It is unclear which Samuel Phillips this is. Did
Samuel Phillips himself sign the book? If so, why did he sign his name that way? Samuel Phillips Jr., who founded Phillips Academy, died in 1802, so who wrote his name in the book and why?” Kavan Canekeratne ’14, who, prior to this class, had never been to the archives, was amazed. “The Magnalia Christi Americana was one of the most influential texts of its day. The chance to work with such an important piece of history was one of the best in-class experiences I have had at PA,” he said.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology | Gravestones
As students analyzed various gravestones in pairs, Slater laid out three important points that, in fact, extend to all objects that students studied throughout this course: 1. All styles change; it’s the nature of material culture.
2. Style change takes time. 3. Style change of material objects reflects the style change of thought and ideology. At the end of the course, it was obvious that the students “got it.” Not just the specifics of the subject at hand, but also the significance of PA’s collections and the opportunity to work with them. “For me,” said Casey Durant ’14, “the most important takeaway from this class is that there are many different and interesting ways to study history.” This pleases Blunt, as he plans to integrate PA’s collections into his teaching whenever possible—and encourage other faculty members to do the same. “These are teaching places,” he said. “They are places where learning happens.”
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Although hunkering down among a bevy of headstones would have set a definite mood, Blunt and his students were unable to do so due to exceptionally deep snow in Andover’s South Church Graveyard. Instead, they attended a workshop in the Peabody Museum led by Donald Slater, museum educator, which included eerie and fascinating details about 18th- and 19th-century headstone styles, such as Death’s Head, Cherub, and Willow and/or Urn. Students also tackled seriation, Pomp Lovejoy’s epitaph, and the deconstruction of objects.
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Chris Hohlstein ’14 listens as Donny Slater introduces the various kinds of gravestones.
Andover | Spring 2014