The Uses, Meanings, and Values of Natural Objects: University earth science objects and collections as material culture

  • Hannah-Lee Chalk

Student thesis: Phd


As an academic discipline, the earth sciences generate, use, and retain vast quantities of objects. This 'material archive' exists, first and foremost, as a functional scientific resource; the objects that it contains were never intended to express culture. Since the earth sciences rely heavily on claims that its objects of study remain the same as they were in nature, it follows that the specimens contained in university earth science collections are treated as objective scientific evidence. In this sense, the material that is collected, used and retained by earth scientists may appear to be devoid of culture - passive, inert and neutral.This thesis sets out to challenge these assumptions by treating university earth science objects and collections as material culture. In material culture studies, geological materials appear in a variety of different forms and contexts, however, such work has tended to focus on either their occurrence in the landscape, or their use as raw materials from which objects are made. Thus, while the earth sciences provide an abundant source of 'material' for material culture studies, rarely (if at all) do they seem to provide the culture. Furthermore, while the treatment of 'natural' objects as cultural artefacts has become increasingly popular in museology, much of this work has concentrated on the processes and practices that are enacted on these things in museums. Museology has therefore tended to consider these things in what effectively corresponds to their retirement, meaning that with few exceptions, little attention has been paid to their active use as functional scientific objects. This research explores the implications of treating university earth science objects and collections as material culture through the empirical investigation of contemporary object-related practices in UK earth science departments and university museums. As such this thesis addresses questions surrounding the relevance of existing theories and methods, in both material culture studies and museology, for exploring natural scientific objects and collections. These questions are approached through four thematic chapters concerned with the coming into being of earth science objects, their transformation into collection items, their functions, and their mobility.
Date of Award1 Aug 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPeter Wade (Supervisor) & Nicholas Merriman (Supervisor)


  • Museology
  • University Museum
  • Collection
  • Material Culture
  • Earth Sciences
  • Object

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