by Sharon Macdonald

The aim of Materializing Sheffield is to explore Sheffield’s identity in relation to its material culture and physical presence. How has the cityscape been formed and what bearing does it have upon the ways in which the city is seen and experienced by those who live there or those who visit? Which of the city’s histories have been crystallised into material form – as buildings, museum objects, art works, or personal possessions – and which have not? Materializing Sheffield explores the interrelationship between materiality and memory by looking at the ways in which histories and identities are variously remembered and forgotten, and the extent to which they can be retrieved through exploration of material remains. It also addresses the ways in which Sheffield’s material culture and cityscape are variously perceived and experienced by different social groups, and how this in turn may affect their identities and senses of belonging. Importantly, Materializing Sheffield also looks at how the city’s material culture might be re-presented and re-shaped in the future.

In collectively creating Materializing Sheffield the contributors here have a double aim. On the one hand, we bring together a rich range of articles about Sheffield and, to some extent, neighbouring areas. By doing so, we seek to show new angles on the city and its past; and to illustrate how looking at Sheffield via its material culture can throw light on understanding the relationship between place, culture and identity in the city. This collection of e-articles will, we hope, be of interest not only to those who already know the city, but also those coming to it for the first time. Perhaps it might even act as a kind of alternative guide-book to the city – showing interesting places to visit, providing historical depth to the cityscape and introducing different Sheffields and ways of seeing them.

Sheffield’s material cultures

Although it would have been possible to look at any city, indeed any place, through a material culture perspective, Sheffield is perhaps especially appropriate. It is well known as a producer of some of the most historically significant and durable of materials, namely steel. Moreover, its identity has been bound up with this. The city has been and still is widely identified as a ‘steel city’, a name referring not only to a prominent item manufactured here, but also to a particularly significant place in world industrial history, as well as distinctive work-life patterns, and a characteristic socio-economic predicament. The fact that ‘steel’ is also used as a metaphor for a particular character trait – to be ‘steely’ or to ‘have nerves of steel’ refers to a toughness and resilience, with an edge of stubbornness – also seems apt, and feeds back into local self-perceptions.

This volume is not, however, only about steel. It is about material cultures in myriad form, as explained below. Nevertheless, the steel heritage is particularly significant – an aspect of the city’s identity that, we argue here, needs to be embraced rather than treated as a source of embarrassment; and understood in contemporary and future-looking terms rather than as an unfortunate residue from the past. Steel is part of what makes Sheffield unique. At the same time, however, it binds it into connection with other steel cities around the world. Bilbao (Spain), Bhilai (India), Bochum (Germany), Nowa Huta (Poland), Pittsburgh (USA) , Sydney (Nova Scotia) , Whyalla (Australia) – these are just some of the cities around the world that have been, and to varying extents still are, major steel producers, though it is probably not too locally chauvinistic to say that none has the historical pre-eminence of Sheffield. But how much do such cities share and how much do they differ? How did steel-making shape their cityscapes, socio-demographic patterns, material cultures and identities? To what extent do they variously forget, celebrate or commemorate that heritage? These are all important questions – mainly beyond the scope of this particular volume but directly addressed in a major international conference held in Sheffield: Steel Cities. Our contribution here to understanding the steel city of Sheffield provides further material for this comparative enterprise.

A material culture perspective: place and identity

In focusing on Sheffield’s material cultures, we recognise the materiality of place. How a place is perceived and experienced is crucially shaped by features such as its buildings, the lie of the land, the flow of its waterways and traffic systems, its art works, its heritage sites and the objects that people, variously, associate with it.

Material culture matters because it is so often a repository of meanings. In particular, as has been repeatedly shown by those who research material cultures of myriad forms, material culture is frequently a focus for people’s sense of identity – of who they are. Material culture is both invested with meanings and in turn gives substance to those meanings. Material culture materializes: it gives tangible physical form to what might otherwise remain abstract and inchoate. It acts as a connector between different individuals, giving them a tangible common focus and representation of their shared identities. And it acts as a connector between past and present, carrying memories from the past and providing access to pasts and lives that might otherwise remain invisible to us.

Over the past decade a reinvigorated field of material culture studies has grown up, partly in acknowledgment of the powerful affective dimension of the material in everyday life. In social and cultural studies, a focus on material culture has also had analytical advantage in that it allows studies which do not predetermine social groups as the boundaries of the study, but instead begin with objects or places and then trace either their different movements and entanglements or the multiple interests in them. Such studies typically highlight diversity in the ways in which particular objects or places are seen – as well, sometimes, as powerful commonalities.

Importantly, material culture studies are not the preserve of any one discipline. On the contrary, a full understanding needs a combination of different perspectives. Archaeologists bring their expertise on interpreting material remains to periods where there may be an absence of documentary records; and archaeologists who study historically documented periods offer an alternative and often challenging material perspective on those times, rather than merely serving as ‘handmaidens’ to the discipline of history. Architects bring their understandings of buildings and materials – both functional and aesthetic; and planners, heritage management and landscape specialists all variously prompt us to consider the combination of material and social factors involved in shaping the cityscape. Social psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists variously explore the ways in which material cultures are experienced, the social relations involved in their production and consumption, and the meanings with which they may be invested. And artists, designers and other visionaries contribute their perspectives on how we can work with materials in order to think, and live, in new ways.

This capacity of material culture to act as a shared focus for different disciplines has been critical to the genesis of this e-volume. It began as an event of the Material Culture and Museum Research Group at Sheffield University – a group that I established in 2001. This group consists of a large number of researchers in many disciplines across the University, and to some extent beyond it, with various but overlapping interests in material culture. By coming together, and focusing discussion on particular themes (in this case Sheffield), we have been able to converse across disciplines. Speaking personally, what I have found most rewarding and exciting here is the combination of finding so many shared interests but at the same time so many areas of complementary expertise. By presenting some of this in this e-volume we collectively hope to illustrate this to a wider audience too – and to invite others to join this enterprise.