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John Fenn, Head (Research and Programs), American Folklife Center
Created: July 29, 2021
Last Updated: September 23, 2021
The American Folklife Center (AFC) produces guides for the purpose of directing users to resources and collections in support of research on a range of topics connected to folklife, cultural heritage, and ethnographic documentation.
This guide is part of a series of topical guides focusing on "areas of distinction" within AFC collections, as articulated in the Center's Collection Policy Statement. These topical guides are intended to be curated access points for AFC's rich resources, rather than comprehensive of definitive listings.
This guide provides an introduction to doing research on the topic of material culture using American Folklife Center collections. For the purposes of this guide, 'material culture' can be thought of as the physical objects embedded in and arising from cultural traditions and everyday expressive practices. Folklore studies of material culture typically address how objects are designed, made, and used, and what they mean (on various levels) to those who make and use them. Folklorists are also interested in the objects themselves, and in such matters as their shapes and dimensions, the materials from which they are made, their decorative elements, and the variations between different makers and groups, as well as variations over time and place.
The Collection Policy Statement for the American Folklife Center identifies material culture as an area of distinction for our collections, noting:
Folklife and material culture encompass a broad array of community traditions and tangible forms of expression, including but not limited to craft, folk art and vernacular architecture as well as customs and practices such as foodways, folk medicine and beliefs, secular celebrations or life cycle rites of passage.
Many American Folklife Center collections include documentation of material culture. Examples include the WPA California Folk Music Project collection (AFC 1940/001) with its rich array of technical drawings and photographs of folk instruments; the September 11th Documentary Project collection, featuring photographic documentation of spontaneous memorials as well as commemorative drawings by grade school students; and, many of the American Folklife Center's 'field survey' collections documenting traditional culture in regions across the United States. These collections and guides are fully described in the Digital Collections section of this guide.
The following guide offers general research strategies for use of the American Folklife Center collections.