This book seeks to answer the question, What is the history of thinking about how to study the past through things? To respond, Miller has written a historiography concerned with analyzing historical predecessors to modern material-culture studies. Succinctly, the book is “an outline theory of how people have thought about objects as evidence” (10). It is also an intriguingly personal book in which scholarly inquiry is structured [End Page 142] around human experiences, some of which are events from Miller’s life, such as pondering Hermanus Posthumus’s painting Landscape with Roman Ruins (1536) while taking a train from Bern to Berlin. Others are more purely intellectual experiences, such as Miller’s detailed engagement with thinkers like Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (about whom Miller authored an important book), Johann Christoph Gatterer, Karl Gotthard Lamprecht, or Gustav Friedrich Klemm.1 Miller’s grounding claim is that the current interest in material culture emerged from a long historical process traceable to early modern antiquarianism. Miller seeks an alternative history of history in which the panoramic cultural analyses of Edward Gibbon and Jacob Burckhardt are exceptions and object-centered histories the norm.
Miller opens with an analysis of objects in twentieth-century conceptions of history. His text varies widely to include not only prominent philosophers of culture (Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Arnaldo Momigliano, et al.) but also the painter Giorgio de Chirico, the art historian Francis Haskell, and others. Miller’s frequent forays into the world of literature are striking: Rainer Maria Rilke and Virginia Woolf appear as theorists of material culture. The book’s middle chapters treat a series of historical engagements with objects, discussions of Lamprecht, early modern antiquarianism, the University of Göttingen’s late eighteenth-century curriculum, early archaeology, the concept of Kulturwissenschaft (culture studies), and the founding of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in 1852. Nineteenth-century Germany looms large in his choice of examples. The book concludes with the observation that “our histories are deeply connected to objects” (200), but, once again, Miller presents it through a personal recollection—this time, cleaning out his deceased father’s closet. He then remarks that “because we can hold them [objects] in our hands or lay our hands on them, because we can sometimes actually feel the past, the connection between learning and person endures” (210). Objects force us into an empathetic relationship with the subjects that we study. Closing with a quote from Nietzsche, Miller figures antiquarianism as a way to ennoble human experience.
No one will argue with the main point of this distinctive and unusual book—that antiquarianism and modern material-culture studies share some sort of common intellectual terrain. Nor would anyone contest that material-culture studies’ recent prominence has something to do with the desire for an experiential, tangible history. But whether the book reveals that history or is simply one scholar’s highly individual engagement with it, as filtered through thinkers that he admires, is another question. Miller is a perspicacious reader of philosophy, literature, and history, but that trait is also his curse. Some of the book’s internal analyses fit uncomfortably into its larger structure, and some of its key concepts remain undertheorized. For example, at several points Miller refers to material culture’s role in creating knowledge haptically, but the haptic is much less straightforward [End Page 143] than his references to it allow. Important writings by Prown and Candlin might have helped to refine the idea that touching the past really makes it come alive.2 This book is best approached as a scholarly memoir that documents one person’s search for the deep history of material-culture studies.
1. Miller, Peiresc’s Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, 2000).
2. See, for example, Jules David Prown, American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture (East Lansing, 2000); Fiona Candlin, The Object Reader (In Sight: Visual Culture) (New York, 2009).