Earlier this week, the Object Dialogue Box made the journey from Sheffield to London to meet its curious cousins at the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum. I was delighted to have the opportunity to lead a workshop ‘Extraordinary objects and imaginative unknowing’, with Graham Moore, the Children and Young People Coordinator at Museums Sheffield, as part of ‘Objectively Speaking’, the annual national partnerships conference at the BM.
Here is the blurb we put together about our session:
Museums collect objects so that we can know about things. But what happens if we challenge this knowledge? What happens if we begin from a position that accepts and admits not knowing? And what if we prioritise this imaginative unknowing as a strategy within museum interpretation?
This workshop aims to explore some of these questions through a practical object-based activity using Museums Sheffield’s Object Dialogue Box. Containing a series of extraordinary objects created by artists Karl and Kimberley Foster, the box encourages a sort of imaginative knowing, or, one might say, an unknowing, that often runs against the grain of traditional curatorial readings of objects. Impossibly possible objects act as catalysts for play and imaginary make-believe, which, we argue, is just as important in the work of the museum as c.ontextual object knowledge.
I learnt so much from the process of working together, as well as from the conference itself. Graham’s style of unravelling the box is different from my own. His ritual is a slow, meditative one. A hypnotic, soft voice, and a slow reveal, section by section, with time to reflect on what it is that can be seen at each stage. I loved his quiet and understated approach. I’d love to experiment more with the effect of an individual’s performance on the experience with the objects. Above all, it was fun to work together and share ideas about using the box. Graham talked about how he’d noticed that people often tell stories in the first person, but sometimes (less confidently?) in the third person. I’d never noticed this overtly. We also had interesting conversations about the ’emperor’s new clothes’ phenomenon that sometimes we both worry about. Keen to make sure we went out in the galleries (unlike other conferences which tend to forget their location), off we went with our groups up to the Enlightenment Gallery. We kept disbelievingly saying: ‘wow – we are actually doing this at the BM!’ It felt like the Object Dialogue Box had gone home, even though it has never been there before. The Enlightenment Gallery and all its attempts to catalogue, rationalise, order the world and its knowledge (albeit through mermen) beautifully juxtaposed with this box of irrational, unfamiliar familiarities, and the impossibility of knowing… Unknowing. Hopefully not its last visit there. Our delegates were enthusiastic and full of imaginative thoughts, stories, questions. We left buzzing.
The workshops were part of the day-long conference #objectbasedteaching. Divided into three themes (collections use in academic teaching, creative teaching practice, and digital objects), unfortunately we were limited just to the morning presentations because we had to deliver our session twice after lunch. Susan Raikes opened the day hoping it would inspire, challenge and stretch. Keynote speaker Claire Brown, whose company Thinking Museum is based in Amsterdam (and who I have chatted to on Twitter but had never met in real life) started by noting just how little people really look and notice in galleries. We had to look at a painting to see what we noticed in a very short space of time, then a bit longer. Her talk focused on the use of objects for three different ends: to develop transferable skills; to stimulate curiosity and wonder; and to combat museum anxiety. She focussed on the skill of looking in particular, drawing our attention to Slow Art Day (today!): the more you look, the more you see. Referring throughout to a tactic called ‘thinking routines’ (which rang slightly cultish alarm bells for me), she spoke about staying curious for curiosity’s sake, playing open-endedly, and using this to develop confidence in museum visiting. I totally agreed with her – for me there was nothing particularly radical (does this matter?) in her presentation. A sort of preaching to the converted. I reflected afterwards though, that her talk would have been probably quite controversial and really inspiring as a new approach for some delegates, and that has to be a good thing. Anything to encourage curiosity-based enquiry. Her thinking museum certainly got a huge amount of positive feedback on Twitter.
Next Claire Ackroyd and Sofia Maskin from Bradford Museums talked about the development of a cross-curricular session there called ‘The Art and Science of Noticing‘. Children make ‘noticings’ on their museum journey. (What a wonderful word!) This session was completely delightful and captivating. A return to the simplicity of thinking through making drawings and using proper drawing pencils to do so.
After this, Sandra Kemp talked about a collaboration between the V&A and Imperial College, making visible the invisible in nanotechnology, taking an MSc cohort out of their comfort zone to think about materiality in new ways by looking at museum objects. Practical ideas included having museum trails on placemats in the museum cafe, and blogging in the first person as if an object. Above all this was a paper about rethinking epistemologies. How do we know what an object is? Indeed, what even is an object?
Next, the brilliant Helena Tomlin talked about a project she has been working on with the University of Manchester – a dermatology visual research project, ‘Under My Skin’, a curious collaboration between dermatology, museology and art practice. Observational skills, she argued, are absolutely essential to all these. The dermatologist has much to learn from the artist. She referred to research at Harvard where doctors had also worked closely with art collections when developing observational skills (see Training the Eye). Doctors gained confidence through this looking in a new way. Studies of materiality underpin all these disciplines. What can I see? What does what I can see tell l me? (And how can a talk which shows a juicy Bomberg oil painting fail to inspire?!) Helena called for the establishment of a national network for using underused collections with doctors and for doctor training (and an audience member suggested medical student too). What a wonderful idea. I hope it comes to fruition. It’s sort of the other half of the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing. The arts as esoteric and therapeutic, and as practically teaching ways of seeing and ways of knowing.
And of course, of imaginatively unknowing.