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Letter from the Director


Program Director, J.Ritchie Garrison

The Winterthur Program in American Material Culture was founded in 1952 as a partnership between the University of Delaware and the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. Except for the fields of archaeology, art history, and ethnology, few academic disciplines then paid much attention to material culture.  What was radical about the Program at its founding was the inter-institutional commitment to treat cultural objects as critical forms of empirical evidence for many different scholarly disciplines and to teach in the Museum’s collections. Those values continue to shape the Program.

Although the Museum was already famous in 1952 for its collection of American Decorative Arts, it subsequently added an extraordinary library for research and teaching purposes, and a graduate-level Art Conservation Program and analytical laboratories for the treatment and scientific study of objects. Meanwhile, the University of Delaware hired faculty in a wide range of fields that contribute to the combined teaching missions of both Institutions.  Winterthur Fellows take courses on both campuses and interact with graduate peers in many fields of mutual interest. No other academic institutions in the United States maintain this density of academic and collections-based resources dedicated to the study of material culture.

The scale and depth of these resources support a wide range of research and study over many different time periods and regions. Fellows now are as interested in the modern era as in the seventeenth or eighteenth century periods the Museum’s collections are renowned for. The core components of the curriculum are taught at the Museum, primarily during the first year of study, but all Fellows work with other students—formally in University courses, and informally. These opportunities take advantage of the University’s distinguished faculty, library facilities, laboratories, instructional computing facilities, and symposia.

Objects and ideas drive the Program. We encourage Fellows to explore a  range of historiographical and intellectual interests, but we also insist that they learn to think about objects as cultural agents with their own temporalities and complex contexts. To learn about objects requires disciplined looking, inductive reasoning, careful recording, and sometimes scientific testing. All Winterthur Fellows have the rare privilege of handling objects in the collection because studying things requires  access to objects not just forms of representation. The Fellows’ work is empirical, often field based, and grounded in academic knowledge. It balances critical thinking skills and theory with responsive public engagement.

Finally, the Program’s small size, funding, and cohort model permits us to offer a level of mentoring and experiential learning that has served our students well for more than 60 years.

Dr. J. Ritchie Garrison

Director, Winterthur Program in American Material Culture