by Dr. Carroll Van West
The MESDA Summer Institute has trained both students and young museum professionals in the practice of material culture study annually for nearly forty years. Through a unique combination of hands-on object exploration, primary source research, and intensive fieldwork, the Institute embraces a multidisciplinary, experiential approach to decorative arts education.
Over the last few decades the academic approach to interpreting history has changed dramatically. While previous historians analyzed political, military, and institutional milestones, recent studies embrace social relations and cultural change, gender, race, religion, and economics. This shift has opened the door to incorporating architecture and decorative arts as critical elements in writing a more comprehensive American history. More than ever, scholars are turning to landscapes, buildings, and objects to enrich their understanding of the past. This is most recognizable through the inclusion of once marginalized groups, who left far fewer written documents than they did material culture evidence of their role in shaping our culture.
Because of its experienced faculty, professional network, and proven track record, MESDA’s Summer Institute teaches a methodology that emphasizes “reading” material objects as historical evidence. This object-centered approach enhances historical scholarship and brings new research questions into the open. The result is better research, better questions, and expanded professional networks: three steps to a stronger field of American material culture studies.
MESDA’s Summer Institute has played an important role in shaping the careers of many scholars in the field of American material culture. Landmark publications written by Institute alumni include Ron Hurst’s and Jonathan Prown’s Southern Furniture, 1680–1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection; Maurie McInnis’s Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade; Louis P. Nelson’s The Beauty of Holiness: Anglicanism and Architecture in Colonial South Carolina; and Betsy White’s Back Country Makers: An Artisan History of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee.
MESDA is dedicated to ensuring that the Summer Institute meets the highest educational standards through meaningful interaction between our excellent faculty and the high caliber of students who choose to attend. Through a proven methodology, the Institute teaches an approach that informs the cultural history of the South and extends into related regions throughout America. Through its Summer Institute, MESDA is educating scholarship leaders, not followers.