Asja uuritakse. Mõttevahetus materiaalse kultuuri uurimise üle Eestis ja Ameerika Ühendriikides / All Things Considered. An interview about the material culture research in Estonia and in the United States of America


  • Jason Baird Jackson
  • Kristi Jõeste
  • Ave Matsin
  • Madis Rennu



Jason Baird Jackson (b 1969) is a professor of folklore studies and anthropology at Indiana University and directs the university’s museum of ethnography, which is called Mathers Museum of World Cultures. The museum is focused on all of the peoples of the world and has an ethnographic collection containing practical things like tools, aesthetic things like beautiful clothes, and everything in between. As a professor, Jackson is involved particularly in helping students who mean to do research in folklore and ethnology broadly, but often particularly in the study of material culture and in preparing students to work as curators at museums.

In the interview, the questions of theory, practice, and research methodology are discussed.

Theories can help us look for and understand commonalities. They are a bit like techniques or tools that can help us with different challenges. We are likely to use more than one of them to complete any task. Dorothy Noyes has written about what she calls humble theory. These are the theories that expand beyond a single case but they are not trying to be all-purpose, ambitious theories in the same way we might think of Marxism or of a comprehensive ecological view. They’re more situational. Such theories are suitable for ethnographic work.

There are object-focused methods that are useful in the museum context. A collection may be 150 years old and we cannot exactly interview the people who may have used these objects. But the objects are there, available to us. How are we going to learn from them? In Estonia, a number of people have used museum objects to learn or refine weaving, knitting, or other kinds of techniques. This sort of work does happen in the U.S., but it is currently much weaker than ethnographic work on material culture. The skills, how to study collections and the associated documentation, are hard to learn.

In America, the traditional crafts and technologies are mainly studied by ethnic groups whose aim is to revive the heritage of their ancestors. The other kind of craft researchers are those who are involved in some kind of historical reconstructionist approach. The number of scholars involved in what we could think of as craft research is relatively small. From a point of view of a museum director, the museum collections could be used more intensively.

For example, the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology, developed at the Smithsonian Institution, teaches graduate students how to study collections. A considerable amount of time is spent trying to evoke experiences of “close looking.” It focuses on trying to encourage students to slow down, for instance, when they are engaged visually, tactilely with an object. Spend three or four hours with just one object. Sketch it. Measure it. Smell it. Look inside of it. Ask yourself questions
about why it’s worn? Why are there scratches or marks in certain places?

Also the question of material culture in the context of artistic research and creative activities is discussed. Artists working with ethnographic material would also benefit from close looking and other slow object research methods.

Practice-based and practice-led research in crafts implies that a practitioner who has mastered certain level of contemporary skills is going to go deeper through a research process, retaining still his/her identity and primary skillset as a maker, but who gains and will continue to gain skills suitable for doing material culture research. As a scholar of basket-weaving, for example, it would be beneficial to have some hands-on knowledge on the craft, but it would not All Things Considered
become the dominant aspect of one’s professional activities. Knowledge of the crafts that one studies enables to ask better questions about it.

If you hold the view that we should be concerned with all of humanity and not just the limited slice of powerful humanity, then material culture is the main line of evidence that we have – because very few people in human history have left
written records of their lives. But everyone has touched and used objects and some of them survive and we can use them. If we are not only going to study elites, then we are going to need a technique and material culture study is that technique, at least when it comes to people in the past. If we study the material lives of contemporary people, we’ll have a richer sense of their lives as a whole than if we focus simply on the things that they write or the text messages they send.

In material culture studies, the notion of slow scholarship is gaining momentum. It is about patient documentation, watching, studying that may pose a challenge to both researchers and the ones researched.

Our task is to offer inspiration from the museum collections that we’ve amassed, that’s the reason to have built and cared for them. They have to serve some good social purposes. Even studying something produces change. No culture or society is static. The past is the resource that people are always using for the future, but there are more and less careful ways to do this.


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