By Alexandra Woodall

Museum and gallery audience engagement and collections-based activity often centres on sensory response to handling real material. Likewise, interdisciplinary work in university settings may use physical artefacts as teaching and learning tools, as methods in themselves, or for object-based and pedagogical research: in all of these, sensory epistemologies are prioritised. This brief article explores how (and whether) object-based activity has moved online during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, looking at similarities and dissimilarities in embodied practices between museum settings, and work in academic institutions.

[Image: Krasis, Oxford – a walk to the postbox noticing materials that might be used to make sculpture, by kind permission Dr Jim Harris]

The last 12 months has seen a rapid shift for cultural organisations and academic institutions alike. This pace of change, indeed, that there is change at all within these institutions is noteworthy, yet here, I explore this move in relation to physical use of objects during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a landscape where touch is now forbidden as a major health and safety – even as a potential life or death – issue, never mind the usual access or conservation concerns, museums and universities have shifted from running their activities in physical spaces to, almost overnight, moving many of these (sometimes clunkily, sometimes creatively) online into the digital realm. While some traditional formats (lecture, public talk, and even some artist-led workshops) lend themselves reasonably well to this newly imposed format, what happens when a session usually centres around physical engagements with material objects – touching them, manipulating them, making them? Are there useful practical solutions recognising the embodied possibilities and potential of the digital realm? Are there non digital solutions with which organisations have been experimenting?

Rather than offering answers, this article raises questions alongside examples, to provoke and stimulate. What are the strengths of this ‘new’ way of doing object-based learning? Is it indeed new? Is it indeed object-based? Where might it fall short? How do practitioners reflect on this new situation? And what lessons can be usefully carried forward into the future?

Based on anecdotal evidence gathered through a quick (largely unscientific) ‘survey’ on Twitter and subsequent serendipitous and generous conversations with interested colleagues (to whom I offer huge thanks), in this article, I explore some creative and practical examples of object-based online activities from this year, that might be of use (either practically, or for reflection and provocation) for creative practitioners and academics alike. (There is far more on the Twitter feed than could be included here, so do have a look at that, as well as the numerous embedded links.)

Several cross-cutting themes are spotlighted in this snapshot of practice: authenticity, conservation, new technologies, manipulating material, online and object pedagogies, self-teaching, performativity, the materiality of the digital. Of course, these topics are messy and overlapping. What is an authentic object? What is an authentic experience? What is an authentic object experience? What are the implications of 3D technology for conservation? What is it to teach with objects? Does technology help, hinder, both or neither? How is the current situation impacting on our thinking through object-based epistemologies, ontologies and pedagogies? How is the digital embodied? Where do digital collections sit within this? Has the process of teaching ourselves to use new technologies paralleled the process of teaching ourselves to engage with objects? What is it to perform with objects?

What now follows is a brief outline of some of the practices that have piqued my curiosity and imagination during these conversations. While some museums and universities have shifted entirely to a (didactic in style yet sometimes innovative in technology) mode of broadcasting, sharing packets of information, producing, or using digital collections, thereby removing much of that primary sensory and material engagement, others have focussed more on the things in themselves, on participation, ‘objects at home’, sensory responses, and even reflections on the materiality of the digital. Does this say something about the ways in which different organisations have different values when it comes to materiality? Are museums and universities really doing what they say they are doing when it comes to objects? (See Dudley’s call to ‘shift the focus back to physical objects’, for example here (2010: 4).)

A certain amount of scene setting is required prior to any object-based workshop. Whether this is practical and focussed on the safe handling of objects, or more abstract and enquiry-based, encouraging participants to generate (and sometimes answer) questions, nevertheless, when working with physical objects, there is a certain performativity, a theatricality of the reveal, the manipulation, the exclamation from participants. Wow. What is in this box? What might it be? What do you think it is for? How do you think it was made? What could it be if it isn’t what it is? How can this build-up of expectation happen online? Indeed, can it? 

Likewise, as anyone who regularly uses objects with groups will know, object-based learning acts as a great leveller – everyone can share their thoughts, their ideas, their own object stories, with no prerequisite information, experience or ability necessary: the process is entirely democratic. Can this be replicated in the digital world? A wonderful discussion with Dr Jim Harris, Teaching Curator from the Ashmolean brought this question to the fore: there can be no adequate replication of the haptic experience online – and some of this democracy has also thereby been removed, with a concurrent radical sense of loss (of self and object) to staff and students alike during the year. The pandemic has had an existential effect on what it is that we, as object educators, do.

Yet, just as museum objects are themselves survivors that lost their original way to be found elsewhere, so the academic engagement programmes at the University of Oxford are still running. These include the fabulous Krasis project. Its blog explores the highly competitive interdisciplinary object-centred Krasis programme which annually invites 8 Teaching Fellows (ECRs) to run a series of collections-based seminars for 16 UG and PG students. Of course, this has shifted online: Week 4 ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ demonstrates how embodied practices can still occur in a pandemic world, in which the current situation reveals both impossibilities (of access to the physical collections), and possibilities (through forcing shifts in research to using what we have to hand).

Krasis, Oxford – a walk from the postbox noticing materials that might be used to make sculpture, by kind permission of Dr Jim Harris

Logistical concerns about both furloughing staff and quarantining objects have shaped practices particularly in museums with vibrant schools’ programmes (interestingly, handling sessions are still wanted by teachers since schools have the relative safety of ‘bubbles’, according to Lucy Maycock, Schools Learning Officer at the Horniman Museum). All school sessions there usually centre around handling objects, but with the team largely furloughed, it was only later that virtual school sessions were developed, giving the team time to create high quality sessions strategically designed just for KS2 to be of use post lockdown. (KS1 would not be able to focus for such long periods during an online session). These virtual sessions require two staff to deliver, in addition to teachers in the school, and are live (on Zoom), using a high quality DSLR camera to zoom into objects. Intensive work is also required from teachers to oversee and facilitate the classroom activities and manage the chat (since audio is impossible in this format). This significantly reduces the performative enquiry-based delivery of museum learning staff in the physical session, although one positive has been the enabling of layered learning, such as use of videos to explore how objects were made.

At Museums & Galleries Edinburgh, the pandemic could have been a major catastrophe for the Auld Reekie Retold project, the biggest ever collections project to take place there, precipitated by outgrowing their existing stores. With all staff working off site, access to objects became almost impossible, yet the project has successfully shifted online (despite local authority software issues), with a vast process of data cleaning alongside digitisation of registers and documentation taking place from home. Storytelling, involvement of digital volunteers, engagement activities and ambitions to capture user generated content in the collections database Emu are all activities that will continue beyond lockdown. Regular media posts delve into the lives of objects further: Cooking up the Past, in which a recipe for soda scones enables a cook-along with viewers at home is a fun way to engage the senses. The repackaging of what is already known has gone some way to mitigate lack of physical access, and this team has embraced digital opportunities. (Incidentally, another respondent Puku B, who usually works in schools teaching food history, noted that working online actually enabled sensory practices that cannot happen in schools – namely being able to use and make recipes with nuts in.) 

Meanwhile at Leeds Museums’ Discovery Centre, Learning and Access Officer (Memberships) Emily Nelson agreed there is nothing that she can offer online that lives up to a visit to the Discovery Centre. Her role usually involves loaning boxes of accessioned material to schools. So when the first lockdown came about, Emily loaded her car with as many boxes as would fit in (having had careful risk assessment conversations with collections colleagues), and thus the Museum from Home videos began. At the Powell-Cotton Museum, Learning Engagement Officers, Emma-Jayne Hamlington and Fiona Moore, have been producing Museum Maker craft activities, but also using the time to create school loan boxes using the museum’s handling collections.

Other examples involve audiences and participants creating their own object-based sessions thereby dealing directly with the thingness of things from home. At the University of Sheffield, Dr Naomi Hetherington teaches on the Foundation Programme in the Department of Lifelong Learning. She has transposed her object-based sessions (usually taking place in Weston Park Museum) into homework with students creating their own object boxes, based on a collection of object boxes at Yale University, which in turn are derived from the pedagogies of education reformer Elizabeth Mayo (1973-1865) and her 1831 ‘Object Lessons’. In another session, students compared the materiality of a 19th century miniature children’s book, with the sensory experience of using a Kindle. 

Others have entirely transplanted the digital for the physical. Dr James Baker at the University of Sussex describes his practical session on digitisation using Zoom. Other academics have prioritised use of digital collections, for example valuing being able to zoom into super high resolution images (and often see more than the object itself would reveal) and tours (Mappa Mundi, Monticello, British Museum and Turning the Pages at the British Library were some of the sources mentioned). At the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, Education Manager Ruth Fletcher uses a visualiser for virtual object teaching. The rare books community is well used to working digitally with their collections, and practical notes on Tech Tools for Engagement from a session by Rare Books Librarian Tabitha Tuckett at UCL, and a blog by Allie Alvis on digitally communicating materiality explore practical and theoretical aspects. 

At Glasgow University, the approach to object-based learning is explored on this Sway site. (I had never heard of Sway, a digital storytelling app on Office which also raises the serious point that the year has been an enormous digital learning curve: we are all at different points on the ladder – which might not be the case in our ‘normal’ work as educators who use objects creatively). Here, Dr Natalie Sheridan and Dr Vicki Dale from the Learning Enhancement and Academic Development Service, have an object-based focus for their sessions encouraging academic staff to use collections in teaching and learning across disciplines. One way this has shifted over the last year, is through use of online collections and technology in the Virtual Collections Classroom which uses a Wolfvision EYE-14 ceiling camera – as well as less technical sessions in which students find or create something at home that might feel the same or have the same function and so on.

At UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology – a teaching museum – collaboration across departments is key, not least in developing use of 3D prints. Curator Tannis Davidson teaches on Helen Chatterjee’s class on Vertebrate Life and Evolution which includes students having to identify a ‘mystery’ object from the collection. Impossible during lockdown, one solution was to use their prior partnerships to create 3D models of various objects. These were actually posted out to students unable to visit in person. Both a gift and a research object, students had agency to quarantine, wipe down, and even put these objects into the dishwasher. Other examples of parcels being sent out to students include a manuscript making kit from Sonja Drimmer. Does this ‘gift’ somehow replace what is lost by not being able to be present in a space, and to physically interact with a museum collection?

One of the most effective (and affective) material engagements came from the project and/but, an extension of the regular conversations performed through objects by artists Karl Foster, Kimberley Foster and Victoria Mitchell and recorded in Goldsmiths’ ‘Affective Digital Presence’ series for the Centre for Arts and Learning on 3 February 2021, but here transposed into a physical digital presence. Participants are encouraged to play with material at home during the artists’ performative utterances: the computer keyboard is an extension of our physical selves, hanging headphone wires are used as drawing materials and as tethers to the computer screen. We make things happen before us, noticing our own bodies and faces on Zoom as a part of the process. What exactly is it that we are seeing and experiencing here? Does the screen in fact afford something additional? Rather than diminishing the experience, can it add to it if we choose to focus on the ways in which our bodies and senses are working, the ways we are pressing, clicking, seeing home backgrounds, interacting with objects? Do we in fact need to recalibrate what we mean by embodied, material engagements in the light of this new pandemic world?

AND/BUT Project with kind permission from Kimberley Foster, Karl Foster, and Victoria Mitchell

There is not space to draw conclusions here, but what has been clear during this gathering process is that there is huge interest in object-focussed, materially engaged practices, and this short survey piece will perhaps become the basis for future research, practice and networking and some of our crisis learning might be adapted into the everyday, and into further avenues for enquiry.

I would like to offer my huge thanks to everyone who responded to my initial tweet and for the subsequent lovely conversations and shared resources: one serendipitous perk has been this clear demonstration that Twitter, at its best, is in itself a great online tool for research. 

Further reading

Chatterjee, H. & Hannan, L. (eds.) (2015) Engaging the Senses: Object-based learning in higher education. Farnham: Ashgate.

Dudley, S. (2010) Museum Materialities: Objects, engagements, interpretations. Oxford: Routledge.

Foster, K., Foster, K., & Mitchell, V. (2020) ‘Pears, pistachios, pencils and punctuation’ in Journal of Writing in Creative Practice Vol 13, No 2, pp. 169-186.

Gourlay, L. (2021) ‘There is No ‘Virtual Learning’: The Materiality of Digital Education’ in Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research, Vol 10, No. 1. https://naerjournal.ua.es/article/view/649

Sheridan, N. (2020) ‘A two-step model for integrating creative teaching in higher education’ in Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Issue 18, October 2020. https://journal.aldinhe.ac.uk/index.php/jldhe/article/view/574/420

Woodall, A. (2016) Sensory engagements with objects in art galleries: material interpretation and theological metaphor. Unpublished PhD thesis, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. https://leicester.figshare.com/articles/thesis/Sensory_engagements_with_objects_in_art_galleries_material_interpretation_and_theological_metaphor/10152362/1

Woodward, S. (2020) Material Methods: Researching and Thinking with Things. London: Sage.

Biography

Dr Alexandra Woodall is Programme Director for Creative and Cultural Industries Management and Lecturer in Arts Management at the University of Sheffield. An experienced museum professional, she has managed learning, interpretation and exhibition programmes for organisations including Museums Sheffield, Manchester Art Gallery, Royal Armouries in Leeds, and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Her PhD, supervised by Professors Sandra Dudley and Richard Sandell from the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, is largely based on her work using artist-made ‘Object Dialogue Boxes’, and ‘rummaging’, a term she uses to describe open-ended creative explorations of stored collections. She is also involved in object-based research and teaching in India. Alex has a keen interest in museum practitioner wellbeing: she was instrumental in current research on bullying in the UK museums sector with the Museums Association for whom she is a mentor and professional reviewer.

Email alexandra.woodall@sheffield.ac.uk Twitter @alexwoodall

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