nl en

Materiality: The Agency of Objects, the Biography of Style, and the Transfer of Culture


This course is an Honours Class and therefore only available for students of an honours college

Enrolling in this course is possible until the 27th of January, using the link at ‘registration’ during this period.


Materiality has become a key concept in the humanities and social sciences, but what does it mean? Is it simply another term for the material qualities of an object, for the social and cultural construction of the meanings that societies attach to materials (associating porphyry for instance with Roman Emperors, or fur with luxury and decadence), or, as some theorists believe, simply the name of a problem? In this course we will try to identify the nature of this problem and why it has become so central, and consider in particular what happens when we study the transfer of cultures from the perspective of materiality, and in situations of global connectivity. The tutors of this course are all founding members of the Material Agency Forum, sponsored by the Leiden University Global Interaction and Diversity Research Focus. For more information about MAF see the website:

Scholars in fields ranging from political theory and literature to sociology, art history and economics are currently moving away from an understanding of culture transfer in terms of aesthetic or artistic superiority towards a reconsideration of the ways in which humans and things constitute each other. This “material turn” is, of course, explicitly relevant for the three disciplines that have always been centered around the object, and that now seem to rediscover its agency in cultural historical terms: art history, anthropology and archaeology.

In this course we will take for the first time in Leiden a critical look at various forms of culture transfer across the world from the joint perspective of these three disciplines and starting from the problem of materiality. After a survey of the material turn and the issues at stake in it, the main focus will be on three main scenes of such transfer: the Rome of Augustus, Napoleon’s Paris, and the contemporary world. In each case the clash between what has been known as ‘classical culture’ and the outsiders: the exotic, the primitive, and the Barbarian, is a major focus.


2 February 2016: Introduction. The Material Turn

3 February 2016: Augustan Rome (1).

9 February 2016: Augustan Rome (2). The Classical, the Primitive and the Egyptian

10 February 2016: Napoleonic Paris (1).

16 February 2016: Napoleonic Paris (2). The Classical, the Primitive, the Egyptian and the Exotic

17 February 2016: Culture Transfer in a Globalized World (1). China and china

23 February 2016: Culture Transfer in a Globalized World (2). Global Modernism and its Primitivisms

24 February: Museum Visit (Amsterdam Rijksmuseum: The Dutch Republic and Asia)

2 March: Guest Lecture (to be announced)

Mode of instruction: Lectures, student presentations


Tuesdays & Wednesdays: 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24 February, 2 March; 11:00 – 13:00 hrs


De Oude Sterrewacht / Old Observatory, Sterrenwachtlaan 11, Leiden
Room C0.02 (on 9 February: C1.02)


  1. C. Gosden, What do objects want?, Journal of archaeological method and theory 12(3) (2005) 193-211
    1. P. ter Keurs. 2014. “Entanglement: Reflections on People and Objects.” In Social Matters(s). Anthropological Approaches to Materiality, pp. 45-60.
    2. T. Ingold. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture.
    3. B. Olsen, In Defense of Things. Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects (Lanham etc, 2010), Introduction, pp. 1-21.
    4. A. Gell, Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory of Art (Oxford, 1998), Introduction.
    5. R. Neer. 2010. “The Speed of Light.” The Emergence of the Classical Style, pp. 71-103.

Assessment method

Presentation, final paper

Maximum number of students





Enrolling in this course is possible until 27 January via this link .


Prof. dr. Caroline van Eck