What is material culture?

Material culture is the expression of culture. It is the physical objects of a culture, such as tools, domestic objects, religious objects, works of art, including visual, literary, and performative art. 

Resources at Harvard

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Founded in 1866 by philanthropist George Peabody, the Peabody Museum is among the oldest anthropology museums in the world, and still occupies its original nineteenth-century building. The Peabody is well known for its significant collections of archaeological and ethnographic materials from around the world, many of which were acquired during the era of European and American expansion, exploration, and colonization.

Harvard Art Museums

The Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum together form the Harvard Art Museums. The Fogg Museum is known for its collection of Western paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, photographs, prints, and drawings from the Middle Ages to the present, particularly its collections of Italian Renaissance, British Pre-Raphaelite, 19th century French art, and 19th- and 20th-century American paintings and drawings. The Busch–Reisinger Museum is the only museum in North America dedicated to the study of art from the German-speaking countries of Central and Northern Europe in all media and in all periods. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum has collections of Asian, ancient Mediterranean, Byzantine, and Islamic art. 

Folklore Collections

Arts institutions have both collections of material culture and accompanying libraries, usually open to the public, with research on the material culture held in the institution's collection. Museums also have both collections of folklore materials and institutional archives, which can be mines of information.


ARTstor is a not-for-profit organization funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation whose purpose is to develop a database of digital images and accompanying scholarly information for use in art history and other humanistic fields of learning, including the related social sciences. The ARTstor Digital Library includes approximately 300,000 images covering art, architecture and archeology. It is a database of curated collections of art images and associated data covering many time periods and cultures, and documenting the fields of architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, decorative arts, and design, as well as many other forms of visual culture.


Europeana is a database of the digital and digitized cultural heritage materials of thousands of European archives, libraries and museums.

The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Institution is the world's largest group of museums and research centers.

The National Gallery of Art (US)

The National Gallery of Art is the national art museum of the United States and one of the largest museums in North America.

American Folk Art Museum

Since 1961, the American Folk Art Museum has been the leading institution shaping the understanding of art by the self-taught through its exhibitions, publications, and educational programs. As a center of scholarship, it showcases the creativity of individuals whose singular talents have been refined through personal experience rather than formal artistic training. Its collection includes more than eight thousand works of art from four centuries and nearly every continent—from compelling portraits and dazzling quilts to powerful works by living artists in a variety of mediums.

Shelburne Museum

Shelburne Museum is a museum of art, design, and Americana located in Shelburne, Vermont, United States. Over 150,000 works are exhibited in 39 exhibition buildings, 25 of which are historic and were relocated to the museum grounds.