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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

How face masks can help us understand the world

When historians only focus on written sources, they risk missing vital aspects of the historical record. The material traces of the past, the things people have chosen, made or used, can offer important evidence allowing us to understand the historical value of the material world.

We can understand the relationship between material culture and history through five main lenses. First, cognition: How do people think with and through things? Next, technology, or how do things help us achieve everyday goals? Next, the symbolic: What can things come to mean or signify, or, how do things relate to belief or the immaterial? The category of social distinction allows us to think through how things sort people into groups or create boundaries and hierarchies. Finally, memory challenges us to ask how material things shape our understandings of the past.

These five approaches offer a new framework for thinking about how material culture intertwines with the study of history and provide a roadmap for future scholars to explain the value of material sources.

The COVID-19 crisis is altering our relationship to material things, and the stuff of this crisis will be important sources for historians. The stark choices we are all confronting as we practice social distancing—or we or our loved ones face quarantine, hospitalization, or job loss—highlight what objects may afford or allow for. Some items, like cloth masks, might feel vital to our personal and community safety and our ability to move in the world, while other objects may seem to hold hidden risks, traces of unknown people who have engaged with them before. Concerns over the level of PPE and ventilators are simultaneously understood as supplies in a chain of financial decisions and as vital life-saving tools for medical staff and patients.

Objects come to stand in for new ways of interacting with each other as we all do our part “to flatten the curve” or, barring that nationally, keep our own communities as safe as possible from the spread of COVID-19. Masks, gloves, toilet paper, our children’s kindergarten worksheets, at-home summer camp activities, or the sourdough bread you may be baking or the seeds you have planted with the new time you have, take on metaphorical meanings and become physical receptacles for personal and national stories.

Our long-term relationship to things will likely change in some ways due to this pandemic. Perhaps we are paying attention to material things in new ways, too. The material traces of these transformations will be vital sources for future historians who want to understand how our universities and institutions maintained the important work we do of supporting and educating our students and building and sharing cultural resources through this crisis.

I can’t help but think about the red-checked cloth mask I started wearing in the early days of the pandemic through that lens. The five material culture approaches can shape the way I understand this small piece of cloth:

  • Cognition—Can this item really help me determine where my germs end and another’s begin?
  • Technology—What makes a safer mask and how do we know? Who decides?
  • Symbolic—How does this item represent something I can do to help or something I can control? Does it have public health and well as political meanings? What values and messages does it convey?
  • Social Distinction—How are others in my community approaching this? Why are we responding differently? How can I help? What aspects of social identity can a mask present?
  • Memory—What will this mask mean to us someday when this is over, perhaps sitting in an acid-free museum storage box? Whose story will it tell? Is it a story about public health and its successes or failures, supply chains, or protest?

The material choices we make today matter to our individual lives and also reflect broader and meaningful cultural patterns. These micro and macro patterns leave material traces behind them that thoughtful historians should consider.

Featured Image Credit: “Surgical face mask” by NurseTogether. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.  

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