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Making sense of things: an introduction to material culture

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This module is designed to follow our key introductory Level 1 module, The arts past and present (AA100), which you are strongly advised to study first. It introduces you to the study of objects, or material culture, in both the past and present from a variety of different perspectives. These include heritage studies, art history, classical studies, history, philosophy and religious studies. Making sense of things will prepare you for Level 2 study, giving you opportunities to develop a range of critical and analytical skills within the context of this exciting new subject.

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No current presentation - see Future availability

This course is expected to start for the last time in April 2014.

What you will study

The first week introduces you to the study of material culture. You will look at why objects are studied in humanities, as well being introduced to some basic approaches to the subject. During this week you will also make your first contact with your tutor and other students via online forums.

Most of the teaching, as throughout the rest of the module, is by case studies, both online and in a printed Study Companion. The text-based materials are also accompanied throughout by audio-visual material.

The rest of the module is presented in three books, each covering four weeks of study, and separated by assessment weeks. At the end of Book 2, there is a week of group work, mainly online, in which you will carry out research and work with fellow students towards a tutor-marked assignment (TMA). You will be expected to study for about fifteen hours a week.

Book 1: Approaches

The first book emphasises key skills applicable across the humanities, and key concepts which you will apply through the module. You will explore the origins of the ‘idea’ of material culture and approaches to describing, classifying and interpreting objects, drawing on the disciplines of archaeology, history, anthropology and ancient history. The first chapter introduces the key concepts of ‘object biography’ and the ‘life cycle of things’, by considering how late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century museums attempted to order and classify objects from across time and space. Chapter Two develops skills of close observation and description, considering different ways of writing about objects. Chapter Three broadens out to consider ways in which the historic, social and physical (or archaeological) context of objects can aid in interpreting them, focusing on the House of Menander at Pompeii as a case study. The final chapter focuses on classification, with reference to the study of ancient Athenian vases.

Book 2: Contexts

The second book emphasises the critical significance which an understanding of material culture has played in our developing understanding of history. You will look at the way scholars have used the study of objects and their contexts to shed light on a specific period of European history, from about 1200 to 1700. In particular, the focus is on the place of objects in the wider culture of the age and how they illuminate our understanding of religious and intellectual developments during the Reformation and Renaissance. In the first two chapters, you will study the central role that sacred objects played in the everyday lives of Europe’s Catholic population and the extreme reaction to them in Protestant circles, culminating in the mass destruction of much of the material culture of the medieval past during the Reformation. In the final two chapters, you will examine how technical developments in creating objects encouraged new ways of thinking about and understanding the world. This will be through case studies concerned with the origins of the printed book and the preparation of anatomical specimens.

Book 3: Afterlives

The unifying theme of the final book is the afterlives of objects, by which we mean what happens to objects when they acquire new uses or meanings. You will examine what happens to objects when they move from one social and historical context to another, and therefore the changes in the way these objects are understood. You will explore specific questions of power, ‘commodification’, memory and ownership and more general questions of change and transformation. Chapters One and Two examine religious and secular ‘relics’ and their contagious power; what happens when religious objects are transformed by global tourism; and whether tourism diminishes the ‘sacredness’ or ‘authenticity’ of such objects. Chapter Three explores issues of memory and absence with reference to Holocaust museums. In Chapter Four you will consider philosophical issues surrounding the ownership and display of objects. In particular, moral issues that arise in relation to objects removed from their place of origin, and in relation to bodies and parts of bodies collected by museums.


Level 1 modules provide core subject knowledge and study skills needed for both higher education and distance learning, to help you progress to modules at Level 2.

As this module builds on the skills and knowledge developed through the study of The arts past and present (AA100), we strongly advise you to study AA100 first.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service.

Preparatory work

We strongly recommend that you study The arts past and present (AA100) before registering for Making sense of things, as it builds on the skills and knowledge gained from studying that module.

However, if you have successfully completed one of our previous introductory Level 1 modules in arts and humanities – such as A103 (now discontinued) – this may be suitable preparation for you to study this module.

Our Moving on to A151 website highlights key sections of the module and will help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge and skills to study this module.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

If you have a disability

One of the learning outcomes of the module is to enable you to develop your skills of independent observation and analysis of particular objects found throughout the study materials. Students whose disability or additional requirement means they are unable to do this are likely to experience difficulty in achieving this learning outcome. Blind students who once had useful sight may be able to draw upon this experience. All images used in this module are available in electronic format and can be magnified within the limits of standard computer applications. Textual descriptions will also be available but using these could conflict with the required learning outcome. Students who are concerned about their ability to meet the learning outcomes are encouraged to contact the Student Registration & Enquiry Service for advice before registering for this module. Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future. Our Services for disabled students website has the latest information about availability.

Elements of the module are delivered through a website and include the use of online forums for group working. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in using a computer or the internet and have concerns about accessing this type of material you are advised to talk to the Student Registration & Enquiry Service about support which can be given to meet your needs.

If you have concerns about taking this module or the support that you would have, please contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service for advice.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Visit our Services for disabled students website for more information, including:

  • help to determine your study requirements and how to request the support that you need  
  • Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs)
  • using a computer for OU study
  • equipment and other support services that we offer
  • examination arrangements
  • how to contact us for advice and support both before you register and while you are studying.

Study materials

What's included

Module books, other printed materials, DVD videos, website.

You will need

A DVD video player.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this course as it includes online activities, which you can access using a web browser.

  • If you have purchased a new desktop or laptop computer since 2007 you should have no problems completing the online activities.
  • If you’ve got a netbook, tablet or other mobile computing device check our Technical requirements section.
  • If you use an Apple Mac you will need OS X 10.6 or later.

You can also visit the Technical requirements section for further computing information including the details of the support we provide.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material, mark and comment on your assignments, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. You are strongly encouraged to take advantage of group tutorials (in a local study centre and online) and any day schools that might be arranged in your area.

Contact our Student Registration & Enquiry Service if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in April 2014 when it will be available for the last time. From October 2014 Voices and texts (A150) and Making sense of things: an introduction to material culture (A151) are being merged into one 60-credit module Voices, texts and material culture (A105).

How to register

We regret that we are currently unable to accept registrations for this course. Where the course is to be presented again in the future, relevant registration information will be displayed on this page as soon as it becomes available.

Student Reviews

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Distance learning

The Open University is the world’s leading provider of flexible, high quality distance learning. Unlike other universities we are not campus based. You will study in a flexible way that works for you whether you’re at home, at work or on the move. As an OU student you’ll be supported throughout your studies – your tutor or study adviser will guide and advise you, offer detailed feedback on your assignments, and help with any study issues. Tuition might be in face-to-face groups, via online tutorials, or by phone.

For more information read Distance learning explained.

Are you already an OU student ? Go to StudentHome for information on choosing your next module.
Course facts
About this course:
Course code A151
Credits 30
OU Level 1
SCQF level 7
FHEQ level 4
Course work includes:
3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

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