The Material Culture of Mass Politics in Scotland, c. 1815 - c. 1914

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of History, Classics and Archaeology


My research is primarily aimed at addressing an imbalance in the use of sources by historians of nineteenth century mass political movements. Largely, histories of mass politics have taken a top-down approach, assessing the narratives and arguments of political leaders. Often, the experience of those who made up these movements has been reduced to statistical analyses of their demography or their fluctuating involvement. This is less a problem of method as it is a problem of sources. The majority of engagement with nineteenth century political movements is through their written works. The vast wealth of radical newspapers, songs, poetry and literature which were generated by these movements has allowed for in-depth studies of their language and beliefs. However, the availability of these sources has meant that other forms of evidence have been overlooked. As well as a thriving print culture, the nineteenth century saw a rapidly emergent material culture. Adherents to mass political movements collected household objects adorned with radical imagery, created and marched with radical banners and forged medallions to show their political allegiance. Through an analysis of this material culture in a specifically Scottish context, my research aims to access the individuals who made up the mass political movements of the nineteenth century. Even a superficial engagement with the objects themselves provides a window into the beliefs of the rank-and-file members of these movements. By examining the imagery used in and on these objects we can understand what political beliefs were held as valuable by their owners. More than this, when examining objects for which imagery is a central factor, such as banners and flags, we can see how different political beliefs were related and conflated. By looking beyond the objects themselves, however, we can begin to access the identities of the individuals who owned them. For example, the purpose of an object is of massive importance. Those objects which were decorated with political imagery but were not made for specifically political purposes suggest that politics was central to the identities of active participants in mass movements. On top of this, the life cycle of each object can give insight into the workings of the movements. If the origins of an object can be ascertained, then it will be possible to gain insight into the links between radical communities in different areas of the country. The reuse of objects is important also, as it allows an understanding of how a radical history was revived and reused by varying groups throughout the century. Essentially, the study of material culture can be used to build a history of mass political movements in Scotland from the bottom up in a way that studying the writings of leaders and prominent members cannot. Thus, where material culture has previously been used to illustrate historical debate, my research aims to centralise it. In doing so, I hope not only to create a more rounded history of nineteenth century Scottish politics but also to create a strong case for the use of material culture as a legitimate source base more widely. As material culture is an underused source base, I aim also to explore and analyse the varying methods of engaging with it in order to inform any future research on the subject.


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Description Student Development placement 
Organisation National Museums Scotland
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution In my placement at the National Museum, I have been tasked with producing a critical gallery report, which will suggest, rationalise and PICTURE a display which concentrates on the political history of Scotland. As part of this, I will also update existing catalogue records with providential information gathered during the research of political objects. Also, I have and will be assisting in general curatorial tasks, such as case maintenance at the National War Museum.
Collaborator Contribution NMS has afforded me full access to its collections and archives, the research of which will benefit both my placement and my wider thesis. I also have access to professional training in object handling and collection catalogue systems. On top of these, the NMS staff have provided me with valuable curatorial insights into their collections and collecting in general.
Impact The outputs of this placement will be internal. For NMS, this will consist of an internal report on existing displays and collections as well as an updated electronic catalogue. Aside from training and experience in the application of curatorial skills, the outcome which benefits me will be an improved PhD thesis, which will incorporate the resources made available by NMS.
Start Year 2020