Saturday, 16 April 2016

#5: Object dialogue box

Last week I went along to ‘Objectively Speaking – the Value and Practice of Object-based Teaching’ a conference at the British Museum sponsored by the Vivmar Foundation. Sessions covered things like encouraging ‘slow looking’ techniques; using objects with special needs pupils; and training dermatologists in observation skills with the help of exhibits in Salford Art Gallery.

The most interesting session for me used an ‘object dialogue box’. This proved to be a wooden suitcase-sized hexagonal container which workshop leaders Alexandra Woodall and Graham Moore (from Leicester University and Museums Sheffield) slowly unrolled to reveal compartments full of unusual, not-easily-classifiable objects. A round metal tray squashed into a flat rectangle; a polished inlaid box with tufts of thick white hair sticking out of each side; a long thin leather lace-up shoe which no foot would ever fit into; a crumpled letter.

We were told to choose one each and take it up to the museum’s Enlightenment Gallery to let our chosen object lead us to an object on display there. This worked; I had picked an animal horn with a plughole stuck in the end of it, which paired itself with a beautiful carved and painted shell in one of Hans Sloane’s collections. These two objects went together because both were a combination of man-made and natural. The intricacy of the pearly whorls in what had been the sea creature’s home, and also of the tiny inked pictures on the shell were breathtaking, all the more so in comparison with the more basic horn-and-plughole. 

A fellow museum professional at the workshop had chosen the misshapen shoe; it led us to a huge plaster cast of a foot in a Roman sandal. This meeting indeed gave rise to a couple of dialogues between the objects, with the tiny shoe sniping at the sandal. 

Both object-to-object encounters helped me to look closely at the displays in ways I would not otherwise have done. I noticed that the little toe on the huge plaster foot was misshapen – swollen and with a tiny nail, as often on real feet. Also that the broken shell seemed a strange hybrid; its tiny, exposed interior spiral compartments were an uneasy part of what the artist was trying to turn into an artwork. There could also have been fruitful follow-up questions for both objects: why were shells decorated in this way? Did the artists feel they were adding to the beauty of the natural world? What parallels to such practices do we have now? Was the foot cast from life? Whose foot was it? Where is the rest of the statue, if it exists? 

participants match their objects to those on display

So what was going on in this exercise? It seemed important that the objects offered from the box were not easy to classify – hybrid, or damaged, or unidentifiable, or just plain weird. They thus provided a ‘sideways’ approach to the objects in the gallery, as it were, one which circumvented the historical and intellectual context provided by the gallery and which was mediated visually, or even viscerally, rather than through words. 

Why might this be a good thing? The workshop leaders call their approach ‘imaginative unknowing’ and argue that ‘imaginary make-believe… is as important in the work of museums as contextual object knowledge’. Or as they described the latter during the workshop, ‘knowing A, B and C’.
I have some reservations about this. I think that placing factual and imaginative knowledge in opposition to each other can lead to simplistic dichotomies – texts v. objects, the classroom v. museum spaces, Gradgrind v. Queen Mab. We all know that creativity and intuition are part of research and learning in both the sciences and humanities, and are not absent from rigorous factual research. And knowing A, B and C is very important.

It is also my experience that the prioritisation of an imaginative approach commonly encourages participants to start engaging with a gallery or collection, but it is not clear how it sustains such an engagement over longer periods. (A criticism which is also true of my own museum-based creative writing workshops).  One example of such an extended engagement might be the activities of a historical novelist, over a long period imaginatively reworking evidence provided by both documents and objects.

So I wonder how such an object dialogue could be continued, beyond finding a sideways ‘way in’ to the gallery and kickstarting an engagement. What might such an approach look like when used with contextual documentation, for example? How could you take account of, rather than circumventing, the intellectual underpinning and rationale for particular displays?

But even as I write this, I can hear the ghosts of Orwell and Coleridge rebuking me for using abstractions in an unexamined way and having a simplistic understanding of human imaginative faculties. Well, it’s a start. Watch this space for something more sophisticated (I hope). Thanks to the workshop leaders for a stimulating session.

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