Questioning Things: A Quarter Century of Material Culture Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

Questioning Things: A Quarter Century of Material Culture Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison invites visitors to look closely, to sit down, to compare, to connect, and to interrogate the common and wondrous objects that have animated the work of scholars and students across our campus.  It shares things that make us curious, things we might covet, and things that open new worlds of intellectual possibility. For the past 25 years, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a national leader in the study of Material Culture, the interdisciplinary study of the material traces of the past.  In partnership with the Chipstone Foundation this exhibition celebrates the contributions and retirement of Stanley and Polly Stone (Chipstone) Professor Emerita of American Decorative Arts and Material Culture, Ann Smart Martin, and looks ahead to the future of Material Culture on campus now rooted in and reaching out from the School of Human Ecology.  With work ranging from Elizabethan chairs to stylish pumps adorned with rosemaling, from impossible books to fossil pots, Questioning Things reunites a quarter century of UW scholars and alumni to reflect on the many questions objects may inspire. Through conversational labels highlighting diverse objects from eight Wisconsin collections, visitors will learn the kinds of questions material culture approaches help answer.


Questioning Things was curated by Sarah Anne Carter and three graduates of UW Material Culture Studies, Ryan Grover, Cortney Anderson Kramer, and Jared Lee Schmidt, with the curatorial collaboration of Maeve M. Hogan and Natalie Wright. Thank you to the Center for Design and Material Culture staff and students Adriana Barrios, Heidi Bechler, Kate Davidson, Samantha Garlock, Carolyn H. Jenkinson, Dakota Mace, Roberto Torres Mata, Laura Sims Peck, Sophie Pitman, Nora Renick Rinehart, and Abby Sharp. Special thanks goes to graphic designer Creative Vixen Design. This exhibition was developed with generous support from the Anonymous Fund and the Chipstone Foundation.

We extend gratitude to the many loaning institutions and individuals who made this exhibition possible: Virginia Terry Boyd, the Chazen Museum of Art, the Chipstone Foundation, Martha Glowacki, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Collection, the Kohler Art Library, UW–Madison Libraries, the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society, the UW–Madison Archives, the UW Physics Lecture Demonstration Collection, the Department of Special Collections, UW–Madison Libraries, and the UW Zoological Museum. Finally, thank you to Ann Smart Martin and her many colleagues and former students who participated in this exhibition.

Questioning Things was on exhibit in the Ruth Davis Design Gallery August 24 – November 20, 2022

Twenty-Five Years of Material Culture at UW: Honoring Professor Ann Smart Martin

Over the past twenty-five years Professor Ann Smart Martin, has transformed the ways students and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison engage with material things. She has invited all of us to consider how the simplest objects—a shop ledger, a ceramic shard, a candlestick, a table or even a ribbon—record vast histories of shared human behaviors. Through her widely lauded publications, innovative teaching, and impactful public humanities and collaborative exhibition projects, Smart Martin has shaped Material Culture Studies both locally and internationally. In all of these endeavors material things and the questions they pose have been at the center of her work—including many of the things on view in this exhibition. The questions she posed of these objects were answered with unforgettable stories. We learned how material things shape and were shaped by culture and identity, preserved early industrial technologies, structured international systems of finance, and revealed how people made sense of their most intimate spaces.

While she was not the first professor at the UW to teach about the ways that the human condition could be gleaned from everyday objects, Smart Martin codified Material Culture Studies at this university into a well-respected certificate program. Just as importantly she invited colleagues to share methodologies and approaches that connected schools and faculty across campus. She served as the Director of the Material Culture Studies Program since its inception and in recent years helped to establish the Center for Design and Material Culture. Smart Martin truly excelled in organizing several comprehensive research exhibitions for her students on campus, online, within local cultural institutions, and nationally at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Many of the objects on view here are marked with a star icon indicating they were featured in one of Smart Martin’s more than ten major student-engaged projects. 

Ann Smart Martin forever changed the ways the UW teaches with and asks questions about material things. Her work elevates the importance of campus, regional, and national collections. Her retirement this year challenges all of us to honor her by developing new material culture research, collaborations, and even more excellent stuff.