Global history begins at home for SSHRC Insight Award finalist

History professor draws on artifacts in UAlberta collections to trace the impact of globalization on a human scale.


(Edmonton) For someone who has built a world-renowned academic career by examining the earliest forebears of what has come to be known as globalization, Beverly Lemire will tell you some of her most important resources are right here at home.

“The research environment at the University of Alberta offers amazing possibilities of collaboration, and these have enriched my scholarship tremendously,” says the professor in the Department of History and Classics. “The most exciting interactions are those with scholars engaged in material culture studies.”

Those new ideas and fresh thinking have landed the Henry Marshall Tory Chair a nomination for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Impact Award, a federal award designed to spotlight and support the country’s top social sciences and humanities research projects.

Lemire is a finalist in the $50,000 Insight Award category for her groundbreaking studies related to the transformation in material life that ensued, particularly in England and Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, as all parts of the world came in closer connection with each other

“My work focuses on objects and object groups (as well as commodities) to explore the human-scale effect of these changes, as greater numbers of people from different parts of the world interact with greater and greater quantities of goods—everything from tobacco to tea, cotton to sugar.”

Currently, Lemire is the principal investigator of a project funded by a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant awarded in 2014, entitled “Object Lives and Global Histories in Northern North America: Networks, Localities and Material Culture, c. 1700s–2000s.”

Using intensive analysis of selected objects from Montreal and Edmonton, Lemire and colleagues from universities and museums across Canada and England are looking to uncover and revise understandings of how northern North America shaped and was shaped by connections arising from trade, colonialism and migration—and extended its influences into global arenas. Many of the artifacts used in the study are housed at the U of A.

“It is exceptionally rewarding to explore the on-campus collections such as the Clothing and Textiles Collection in the Department of Human Ecology and the Mactaggart Art Collection,” said Lemire, who was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2003. “I bring my students to these collections regularly, as well as assessing specific objects for my own research. The conversations we have about these objects, and the objects themselves, are catalysts for new ideas and new thinking about historical processes.”

Lemire is also organizing an international conference to be held in 2016, titled Dressing Global Bodies, that will showcase new research on the centrality of dress in global, colonial and post-colonial engagements, emphasizing entanglements, comparative and cross-cultural analyses.

She is also completing a book for Cambridge University Press that addresses the transformation of material culture and consumer practice between 1600 and 1820.

The $50,000 SSHRC Insight Award recognizes outstanding achievement arising from a research project funded partially or completely by the council. It is given to an individual or team whose project has resulted in a significant contribution to knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world. Winners will be announced Nov. 3.