Research, writing, editing and photography by Ralph Mills  

An introduction to Ralph Mills' research


In January 2017 I was awarded a PhD by Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD), the research arm of Manchester School of Art (Manchester Metropolitan University). I studied miniaturisation, as exemplified by small mass-produced everyday ornamental objects from the recent past.

As part of material assemblages, miniature objects form part of the material memories of the lives of working-class people and the places in which they lived.

Influences and inspirations:

I am an adherent of Sven Lindqvist's ethos of Dig Where You Stand, which attaches value to the history of "ordinary" people rather than elites (See Fires of Prometheus for more background.) I am also inspired by the revealing of social issues by the documentary "witnessing" of photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, who explores the connections in decline and loss between people and abandoned place, in her case a rust belt community.

My "Miniature material culture" blog


1. Material Memories

Using my archaeological background, I am looking at the material memories of places and individuals, collecting and sharing them in order to both connect with those who lived in the recent past, and also to demonstrate the wealth of interest seemingly “dead” places and "mute" objects can have in the present. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that although the famous “attractions” act as hotspots, people are equally fascinated by the everyday, because that is where we all live.

Because I am researching the recent past, it is important to understand what happens to material once it has been discarded, through loss, breakage, abandonment, or as garbage. I must establish how to relate objects and memories. It is also vital that I explore, create and promote ways to share the things I find, so that the challenges, excitements and fascination I experience can be communicated to others, and especially those whose memories are linked to deserted places. I need to hone techniques of recording and sharing material memories, be they archaeological or creative, by writing or using other media.

Amongst other activities, I am collaborating with artist and fellow student Ela Niznik, looking at the surviving remains of a Polish Displaced Persons Camp in Staffordshire, England, to record and share material memories of the families who lived there after WWII.

My "Material memories" blog
2. PhD research - Miniaturisation
My PhD research is an investigation of miniaturisation, focusing on nineteenth century mass-produced miniature objects in working-class contexts from the New and Old Worlds. This project has developed from my MA dissertation.1

The Victorian context was marked by a miniaturization of visible symbols2

We remain quite ignorant about the daily lives of large sections of the [nineteenth century] population (and especially their material culture) outside the writings of social commentators3

Only a small number of researchers have examined the phenomenon of miniaturisation and, by extension, what it might tell us about those "ordinary" people in the recent past who acquired and displayed the ornamental and decorative miniatures that became available to everyone as a result of the advent of mass-production.

Because, as mostly non-utilitarian objects, they are desired, acquired, displayed and valued through individual choice, miniatures may reflect the desires, opinions, tastes, fantasies and enthusiasms of their owners, and may illuminate such intangible aspects of "everyday life" as status/class, power, control, gender, childhood, adulthood, emulation, gentrification and nostalgia. These are important because "...without people artifacts would have no value at all. We cannot ever hope to understand artifacts - especially the commodities made and used in modern times - outside their entanglements."4

Mass-produced nineteenth century miniatures evolved from objects fashioned since the distant past, yet their 'meanings' and 'functions,' if discussed at all, present a confused picture. Often denigrated both in the past5 and present, miniatures have been recently suggested6 to be metaphors, to be providing intelligibility in a mysterious world, to be performance and to be representations of landscapes. As elements of bric-a-brac they have also been dismissed as lowly "toys"7 the "pedestrian" possessions of "simple households"8 and to be scorned as "trivial" and "low."9

Though small representational things have a global presence, there has been little published work on both miniaturisation and the roles of mass-produced miniatures in the recent past. Stewart discussed the phenomenon of miniaturisation and collection10 while Bailey has considered the phenomenon of miniaturisation in relation with his work on Neolithic figurines.11 D'Arne O'Neil commented on the small number of archaeologists who have examined miniatures.12. John Mack wrote about curated miniatures in general.13 Mullins (a potential collaborator) has written on material culture and bric-a-brac. His latest paper14 discusses "innocuous things" but even he has only touched lightly on miniaturisation. In the UK, Casella's detailed examination of figurines from nineteenth century contexts15 is a very rare example of a detailed archaeological study.

A reduction in dimensions does not produce a corresponding reduction in significance.16

My research question is: What can the phenomenon of miniaturisation, as reflected by the global trade and consumption of mass-produced miniatures, reveal about the nineteenth century working-class people who delighted in, desired, acquired, displayed, collected and discarded them?

What can I learn about miniaturisation from the fact that mass-produced miniatures are linked not only by the phenomenon of miniaturisation itself, but also by their presence and agency in macro-contexts (e.g. working class homes, waterfronts, brothels, taverns, slave quarters), micro-contexts (e.g. the parlour mantelpiece), typologies (e.g. figurines, dolls), themes (e.g. pastoralism, patriotism), associations (e.g. marbles, doll parts and miniature food vessels), behaviours, (e.g. display, collection) and intrinsic and extrinsic meanings?

Figurines were mechanisms of desire and not simply reflections of function and narrowly defined social position, so their consumption potentially holds insights into essential dimensions of everyday desire that ideology shapes profoundly yet can never utterly control or contain.17

For this project a miniature is defined as: an object that is a scaled-down representation of a real or imagined original and which was manufactured in large numbers in the nineteenth century.

My research is aimed firstly at investigating miniaturisation as a materialising phenomenon - a human cultural and creative behaviour - and secondly at providing added informational value and dimension to miniature objects, specifically those acquired by working-class people.

It is not a taxonomic, listing or cataloguing exercise. It will focus on a representative group of mass-produced ceramic figurines and dolls (e.g. "Frozen Charlottes" and "Flatbacks") and base-metal miniatures (e.g. pipe tampers) manufactured during the nineteenth century, but with appropriate reference to miniatures of earlier and later periods. It will be based on artefacts mass-produced and consumed in the UK but will include those exported to and consumed in the New World.

To answer my research question I propose carrying out a material culture study that will include established theoretical elements such as agency, manipulation, consumption, collecting, exchange, gifting, ownership, object life histories and deposition, as well as critically questioning the identification and interpretation of miniatures (especially "child-related"). I shall research nineteenth century archived sources. I shall examine published reports online or in online-accessible databases and archaeological collections. Utilising both qualitative and quantitative tools, I shall source and analyse material and data from selected historical archaeological field investigations, both published and from curated assemblages in the UK and USA, creating case studies based on contexts that will include households, taverns, pioneer settlements, brothels, mining camps, schools and male-only communities. I shall research the intrinsic and extrinsic meanings of miniaturisation and mass-produced miniatures, attempting to discover how and where people acquired miniatures and how the objects were promoted, marketed and traded globally. I shall include miniatures found by non-archaeologists, such as those in The Portable Antiquities Scheme database. I shall carry out a comprehensive literature review, and interact and collaborate with archaeologists, historians and art historians.

My project will also include significant elements of practice - activities designed to provide feedback about attitudes, tastes and values that will enhance my research. These could include archaeological excavation of nineteenth century contexts, collaboration with researchers in the USA and a public event involving a large hands-on collection of charity shop miniatures with encouragement/facilitation for visitors to engage with objects, choose favourites, comment on and create stories about them, photograph, draw, arrange them on "mantelpieces" and bid for them in an auction. I have set up a web site18 and blog19 to engage with both academic and general audiences.

My research will add significantly to our understanding of the phenomenon of miniaturisation: aiming to explain why it was and is so common and what it meant and means. It will help to fill a significant gap in our knowledge of nineteenth century material culture: what were miniatures, what did they do and what impact did they have? These questions apply equally to the roles these objects play in contemporary everyday life. My work will therefore inform historical and contemporary archaeology, material culture studies and the history of art and design.


1 Mills, Ralph, 2010. Miniatures in historical archaeology Toys, trifles and trinkets re-examined. Unpublished MA dissertation, University of Leicester.
2 Beaudry, Mary C., Cook, Lauren J., and Mrozowski, Stephen A., 1996. Artifacts and Active Voices: Material Culture as Social Discourse. In Orser, Charles E. (Ed.) Images of the Recent Past. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, pp 272-310.
3 Matthews, Keith, 1999. Familiarity and Contempt. The archaeology of the 'modern.' In Tarlow, Sarah and West, Susie (Eds), The Familiar Past? Archaeologies of later historical Britain. London: Routledge, pp 155-178.
4 Orser, Charles E. 1996. A Historical Archaeology of the Modern World. New York: Plenum.
5 Anon., 1903. Bric-à-brac. New York Times, March 8.
6 Back Danielsson, Ing-Marie, 2007. Masking Moments: The Transitions of Bodies and Beings in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Doctoral thesis. Stockholm University, Faculty of Humanities, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies.
7 Crawford, Sally, 2009. The Archaeology of Play Things: Theorising a Toy Stage in the 'Biography' of Objects. Childhood in the Past: An International Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp 55-70.
8 Heberling, Paul M., 1987. Status Indicators: Another Strategy for Interpretation of Settlement Pattern in a Nineteenth-Century Industrial Village. In Spencer-Wood, Suzanne M. (Ed). Consumer Choice in Historical Archaeology. New York: Plenum Press, pp 199-216.
9 Pearce, Susan M., 1994b. Objects as meaning; or narrating the past. In Pearce, Susan M. (Ed) Interpreting Objects and Collections. London: Routledge, pp 19-29.
10 Stewart, Susan, 1993. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press.
11 Bailey, Douglass 2008b. Prehistoric Figurines: Barbie Dolls, Walt Disney, and Sex Abuse. The Joukowsky Institute Workplace Lecture.
12 O'Neill, D. 2009. The first millennium BC stone and metal miniature repertoire of the Awam cemetery, Marib (Yemen). 2 vols. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Sydney.
13 Mack, John, 2007. The Art of small things. London: The British Museum Press.
14 Mullins, Paul R, 2012. The Importance of Innocuous Things: Prosaic Materiality, Everyday Life, and Historical Archaeology. In Schablitsky, Julie M and Leone, Mark P (Eds) Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things. Society for Historical Archaeology, Special Publication Series 9, pp 31-44.
15 Casella, Eleanor Conlin, 2004. The Alderley Sandhills Project: The Archaeological Excavation of Two Rural Working-Class Cottages, Alderley Edge, Cheshire. London: English Heritage.
16 Stewart, ibid.
17 Mullins ibid.


My miniature material culture blog

3. The Charity Shop Project

The charity shop and the thrift store are places that can be regarded as archaeological contexts in that they contain disused, abandoned, unwanted, forgotten, recycled and discarded objects from the recent past. The local charity shop collects whatever random objects anonymous people at a particular moment no longer want. As such it is a rich source of contemporary and near-contemporary material culture. In them, one can find what Pearce called "spurious masterpieces," "ordinary" objects, most of which were once owned by "ordinary" people. These sometimes rundown storefront premises, often in less desirable locations, are especially relevant to examinations of the lives of the "people from below."

I am utilising archaeological concepts to survey a particular class of artefact commonly discovered in charity shops, the decorative miniature - mostly ceramic, small-scale representations of a bewildering range of originals, real and imagined. Their ubiquity indicates that these objects play an important role in contemporary society, just as they did in earlier periods. My aim is to learn something about the people who discarded these objects, people perhaps not normally represented in museums and galleries, as well as those who subsequently acquire them.

Why your trash is an archaeologist's treasure

4. The Topsoil Project

In the past, archaeologists have routinely ignored topsoil, stripping it away and dumping it, unexamined, in their haste to reach the sealed and stratified deposits that might lie beneath it. Any finds from topsoil are usually lumped together as "unstratified" and, if anything, merely listed. Yet topsoil could be regarded as our biggest archaeological context. It is everywhere, and is easily accessible to everyone. Though this means that it is often (and usually) much-disturbed, it also means that it collects material that is discarded today and was discarded yesterday.

However I decided that the fragments of pottery I was finding in the much-disturbed topsoil of my vegetable garden almost certainly originated in "night soil," human waste collected from the outdoor lavatories ("privies") of nearby communities and spread on fields as fertiliser. I could see almost immediately that sherds of plain white forms were signicantly outnumbered by pieces of colourfully-patterned wares, and that it seemed that light blue patterns were more common than dark blue and other colours. There were only one or two fragments of more highly decorated pictorial wares. Was this because they were more expensive, or better cared for?

In July 2017 I shall be leading the small scale excavation of a building beside the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, at Ty Coch. This follows the regular unearthing of nineteenth-century material during restoration work.

The topsoil project

5. The anti-museum project

My over-ambitious, lofty, long-term and probably naïve goal for my anti-museum project (working title), is to create a digital artefact - a "virtual museum" - the crowd-sourced galleries of which would be accessible by everyone.

We all curate narratives that illuminate our everyday lives. Many of those narratives relate to objects. However museums-within-walls are historically descended from the collections of elites, can rarely display more than a fraction of their accessioned collections, are by definition fixed in one place (so have to be visited).

I visualise a simple-to-use digital museum to which everyone could contribute both exhibits and, most importantly, their accompanying narratives and through which everyone could browse and search. Using digital tools the "visitor," wherever they are in the world, would explore within the museum for objects and their stories, and assemble and create personalised exhibitions that match their individual interests.

I also see my anti-museum as offering a resource to museums that so often have to reject, politely but sometimes hurtfully, the donations of objects that, though not of interest to the curators for entirely justifiable reasons, are hugely important to the potential donors.


It is my intention that my research eventually leads to an increase in people's value of everyday decorative material culture from the recent past and today. This will entail establishing networks with communities and a wide range of organisations, from charity shops through volunteer-run museums and archives to commercial entities and other academic bodies. I believe that digital media provide vital tools for achieving these goals.