Analyzing Visual and Material Objects

Adapted from Sarah Gold McBride (2013) and Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982), 1–19.


Step 1: Description

In this step, limit yourself to what you can observe in the object itself. This is called internal evidence.

  1. Substantial Analysis

Describe the object. What do you see? What material is it made out of? What are its physical dimensions? How is the object put together? Measure and/or weigh the object if possible.

  1. Analysis of Content

What is the subject matter of the image or object? For example, if you are analyzing a painting, what people do you see? Icons or symbols? Inscriptions?

  1. Formal Analysis

What is the object’s form or configuration? Is it two-dimensional or three-dimensional? Describe the light, color, and texture of the object.

  1. Contextual Analysis

Where are you when interacting with this object? In a museum or classroom? How is the object or image currently displayed? Behind glass? Is it a replica? How might that affect your evidence gathering?

Step 2: Deduction

In this step, you will move from analyzing the object itself to thinking about the relationship between the object and the viewer. You will link the world of the object with the world of the person interacting with the object.

  1. Sensory Engagement

What does it feel like to hold or touch the object? Link the object to its historical context and the circumstances of the world in which it was created. What would it have been like to use or interact with this object in the past? Handle the object if possible.

  1. Intellectual Engagement

Is this object representational of real life? If this is a pictorial object (such as a painting), what is the time of day in the image? Season? Can we see the effect of weather or the passage of time anywhere? What might the role of the observer be relative to the world depicted in the image? What transpired right before (or after) the events depicted in the image, or, before (or after) this object was handled?

  1. Functional Analysis

How might this object or image have been used? Where would it have been placed, carried, displayed, or worn in the past? Did this object or image always have that use? What other functions may it have served over time?

  1. Emotional Response

What is your emotional response to the object? For example, joy, fright, awe, revulsion, indifference, curiosity? Be mindful of how your reaction may be conditioned by the world you live in, and how it might differ from the reaction the object would have provoked at the time of its use or creation.

  1. Geotemporal Analysis

Can we tell where or when this object was created just by observing and holding it? How might we be able to tell its place and time of origin based on the material or visual qualities of the object?


Step 3: Speculation

In this final step, review the information you gathered in Steps 1 and 2, and create hypotheses about the object. Use your data to formulate theories to explain what you observed and/or felt about the object, or to help you compose questions about the object for further investigation.

Once you have composed your hypotheses, begin searching for scholarly sources that can validate the questions or theories you have written. This is when you will consult external evidence for the first time