Review of: A. Schillig: Material culture and family in Switzerland (1700–1900) | H-Soz cult. Communication and specialist information for the historical sciences | History on the net

In her book “House Stories”, Anne Schillig bridges the gap between historical family research and the exploration of houses as material objects. She asks how “changed family constellations” (p. 14) were related to the transformations of rural architecture between 1700 and 1900. The time frame of the investigation focuses on the so-called saddle time, but gives it a generous framework to track long-term social and architectural developments in rural areas. The starting point is the observation that modern European family forms have been thoroughly researched in their historical changes since the 1960s, but houses as material objects have been largely ignored by social history. The increasing attention of historical scholars to aspects of material culture, which has been growing over the past few years, has so far not changed much. The author attributes this, among other things, to the selective perception of research in other disciplines on the part of historical science. Above all, the house research work was almost completely overlooked, which was due, among other things, to its mostly regional layout and focus on structural issues.

In view of this disparate research situation, Schillig sees her task initially in bundling the approaches and research results from historical studies, European ethnology and building research from more than a hundred years that are relevant to her question. In addition to history and German studies, she also studied ethnology, which shapes her interdisciplinary view of the subject. Admittedly, the transfer of ethnological approaches to social history can already look back on a long tradition.[1] Above all, however, Schillig calls for an increased “readiness for university research, more with institutions outside the academy, such as the open-air museum [Ballenberg]to work together ”(p. 160). In addition, she rightly advocates a “readjustment of the existing concept of source”, since “material sources” and questions of material culture are still of secondary importance compared to written sources.

In the empirical parts, the author also succeeds in showing the potential of mostly unpublished or only partially published museum research for historical analysis. The structure of the work along established research directions stands in the way, however, because the presentations of the state of research on material culture (Chapter 2), house research (Chapter 3) and historical family research (Chapter 4) take up (too) much space and do almost all of the work. The historical material is not analyzed until the end of Chapters 3 and 4, in both cases on the basis of existing research. Even if the range of the research work taken into account and the sovereign pointing of the respective approaches is considerable, this gives the book the character of a manual at times.

Due to the dominance of the presentation of the state of research, at least the first of the two empirical parts of the work, the diachronic analysis of a selection of 50 meaningful case studies from the series “Die Bauernhäuser der Schweiz” (39 volumes, published 1965–2019), literally goes under and is From the point of view of the reviewer, it turned out to be far too concise: Schillig summarizes her observations in a highly abstract way on a few pages (pp. 59–69). It is up to the reader to take a closer look at a table in the appendix, in which information on the location, dating, building type, material, spatial structure, windows and doors, furnishings and living culture, residents and documented renovation phases of the individual houses are gathered.

Only the last chapter “House stories” is primarily empirical and offers case studies of five selected houses from rural areas in different Swiss regions. Four of them were moved to the Swiss open-air museum Ballenberg decades ago; only one is still in its original location. Critical of the sources, Schillig points out that the houses in open-air museums are curated museum objects and therefore emphasizes the importance of accompanying written records for the interpretation of the findings. The author makes numerous illuminating observations in the five case studies, some of which should be mentioned at this point. Schillig describes the example of a house from Baselland that was owned by a family for more than 200 years who shared or shared the two floors of the apartment, depending on the family constellation. A farmhouse from western Switzerland, on the other hand, documents numerous renovations and the temporary cohabitation of two generations of the farming family, two subtenants and a three-person craftsman household. For a semi-detached house from the Bernese Oberland, more than 20 changes of ownership have been documented over the almost 200 years of the observation period, from which “a confused network of related and unrelated house owners” has developed (p. 133).

Schillig’s remarks on the use of the living rooms are also interesting: when a house was subsequently divided up, for example, a second stove was not always built in, so that the rights of use of the communal kitchen had to be negotiated. In contrast to urban living culture, the rural parlor remained a multifunctional space well into the 19th or even 20th century, which was used for living, eating, sleeping and working from home. The allocation of the rooms to the individual residents: inside, on the one hand, functional considerations (heatability, quality of the furnishings, light) and, on the other hand, their social roles. While the houses themselves often outlived the centuries, changes in the family cycle required spatial flexibility inside, which was achieved by inserting partition walls and ceilings. Schillig therefore speaks of “modular[r] Room layout ”(p. 154). However, the experience of these house histories in the open air museum reaches its limits, since mostly only a (later) time section is shown and later, sometimes lower quality additions were often not rebuilt.

How the author imagines the concrete implementation of the extension of the “usual research and cognitive process to include the perspective of the haptic-cognitive”, which she is complaining about, is unfortunately not clear to the reviewer (p. 159 and inspection protocol p. 165). It is also regrettable that pictorial representations were not used as a source (not even the painting of a farmhouse room from around 1840 on the cover), while literary sources are at least put into productive dialogue with the material findings in a house example.

The merits of this work are firstly in the synopsis of research on home and family from different disciplines and in showing their ability to connect to current historical discussions on material culture. At the same time, it reveals how shifts in methodological trends and economic cycles of certain research subjects as well as decades of ignoring work in other disciplines inside and outside the university can sometimes have a negative effect on the state of research on a topic. Second, the author sets a good example by taking the non-university knowledge production by experts in the history of material culture (here: in museums) seriously.

[1] The work of Hans Medick is particularly worth mentioning, but Schillig, strangely enough, ignores it: see Hans Medick, “Missionare im Ruderboot”? Ethnological modes of knowledge as a challenge to social history, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 10 (1984), pp. 295-319.

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