In 1998 the editors of the Utah Historical Quarterly devoted the fall issue of the journal to “The Tangible Past.” Architectural historian and guest editor of the volume Thomas Carter observed the following in his introductory essay: “Despite the increased interest in material culture around the country this type of research has not made significant inroads into Utah or for that matter the West in general.”1 Since Carter’s observation seventeen years ago, material culture has made significant inroads into Utah history and Mormon studies altogether. And today, with the ascendancy of interdisciplinarity, more and more scholars of Mormonism are including material culture in their research.
While this new literature has enriched our understandings of the Mormon past and some of it is very good, much of it views objects reductionistically as static symbols having singular meanings. And sometimes material culture is a trendy garnish on top of the “real” story. Discussions of symbolism, in particular, are often exercises in speculative semiotics that interpret religious symbols outside their historic fields of cultural production. In this brief essay, I will touch on a few ways in which scholars might think more rigorously about representation. I will also locate material culture within frameworks that go beyond it. [From the text]