How can material objects help us better understand the complex, contested, and sometimes contradictory history of philanthropy? This question guides the new special issue of The Public Historian, “Material Culture as a Methodology for the History of Philanthropy,” guest edited by Amanda Moniz. Moniz, the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, has brought together a group of articles that explore how physical objects can help tell stories about charitable giving across place and time. We asked Moniz to tell us more about the issue.

How does the special issue broaden the popular understanding of “philanthropy”?

Many Americans today associate the word “philanthropy” with large financial benefactions. That understanding owes to the rise of big philanthropy during the Gilded Age. Before that period, “philanthropy” referred to humanitarian sentiments or activities that could, but did not necessarily, include financial gifts. This special issue uses that broader, historical understanding. For public history institutions, this approach can help engage audiences in considering the dynamic relationship between everyday philanthropists’ giving and that of prominent benefactors. Philanthropy is a way people debate and set priorities for communities, and exploring different methods and scales of giving together can help audiences understand those historical and contemporary conversations.

What can we learn about the history of philanthropy by centering material culture?

As the authors in this issue discuss, examining the history of philanthropy through material culture offers opportunities for deep emotional engagement. Moreover, considering this topic through commonplace objects, such as charity collection boxes, highlights the role of everyday people in pursuing social change through giving. Meanwhile, other objects bring to the fore histories of the labor behind philanthropic fundraising or the generation of philanthropic wealth. Exploring this relatively unfamiliar historical topic through material culture expands and enriches the range of stories we can tell.

What are some of the topics covered in the special issue?

The articles in the special issue range widely, from exploring the sights and sounds of philanthropy in colonial Oaxaca to analyzing a diversity of philanthropic endeavors across the nineteenth-century United States to examining mass giving in twentieth-century Britain. Topics include innovation in fundraising, sociability and the performance of philanthropy, charitable recipients’ perspectives, labor in charitable institutions, and more. They also include discussions of teaching with philanthropy objects in higher-education history courses and the contemporary Indigenous Data Sovereignty Movement in relation to the history of philanthropic gifts of Indigenous cultural heritage materials to museums.

What do you hope that readers take away from the special issue?

I hope that readers will be inspired to explore the history of philanthropy and to use material culture as one their methodologies. The history of philanthropy is a small subfield academically and, as an area of public history, largely unfamiliar to audiences. Public historians have rich opportunities to conduct research creatively and to bring compelling new stories to audiences. I would be eager to hear from readers already working in this vein or who are interested in doing so.

We invite you to read the special issue, “Material Culture as a Methodology for the History of Philanthropy,” for free online for a limited time.

Print copies of this issue (46.2) and other individual TPH issues can be purchased on the journal’s site. For ongoing access to TPH, please ask your librarian to subscribe and/or purchase an individual subscription.