Beyond the Display

Meant to re-blog this ages ago: a great way of facilitating learning in a very creative, tactile – and above all fun – way! (The pictures don’t seem to appear, so it is really worth checking out the original blog post)


One of the modules I am teaching for finalists is quite a challenge from the point of view of delivering it. ‘Renaissance luxuries’ takes, in a way, it’s inspiration both from Richard Goldthwaite’s work on Wealth and the Demand for Art in Renaissance Italy, and AD Fraser Jenkins’ musings on magnificence. In the course of a semester, I range quite widely across a range of genres and materials, and look at what constituted a luxury item in the Renaissance and what their possession and consumption meant for their owner. So, you could argue that the Third theoretical plank for this module is Stephen Greenblatt’s concept of self- fashioning; as a concept, it certainly helps with thinking through some of the issues.
A tight theoretical framework is certainly a necessity for this particular module, as the focus on case studies shifts on a weekly basis, so while we might be looking…

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Thursday, 13th June:  (free) workshop at Middlesex University

Within the art and design academy we witness few of the expanded possibilities that lie between writing practices and the object. This workshop will combine theoretical and practical approaches to consider different writing-object relationships, including: writing about objects, writing as an object, writing to generate objects, etc.

This day-workshop will examine different relationships between writing practices and the object in art and design.

We write about objects, we produce writing as objects, we write in order to generate objects and sometimes we write in spite of objects, yet within the academy we rarely witness many of the expanded possibilities that lie within the relationship.

Our workshop will take a theoretical and a practical approach to exploring these possiilities, so we will schedule sessions which theorise on these themes but also sessions which allow for practical, hands-on experience. We will also allow time for reflection on themes raised in the sessions and for discussion.

Papers will investigate topics such as the use of writing as a means of generating design; the role of intuition within object-focused writing practices, and its relationship to formalised writing norms; ways of drawing on art and design practices in writing, such as the use of making in writing instruction with art and design students.

Speakers at the workshop will be both external to Middlesex University and internal, and the day’s activities will involve the University’s Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture and its collection.

You can find abstracts for the various sessions here: Writing & the object – topics. For more information, please get in touch with Peter Thomas (p.thomas[at] and to book, please check the information on the HEA events page.

As I mentioned the intriguing sounding Documentary Drawing Masterclass in a previous post, I thought it was only fair to share some of what I was thinking about on the way home…

Well, firstly, it was a great day facilitated by Julia Midgley, who has documented everything from archaeology projects to hospital processes – and also sometimes draws at/for conferences. (That in itself is, of course, very interesting as it links really closely to the reflective bookmaking I have been known to go on about.)

Julia gave us some great tips as to how we could loosen up as part of a warm-up, and especially things to think about to make people less precious about the outcomes of a drawing, which allows us to focus on the energy of the situation rather than on the artefact ending up on the sheets of paper. So consider drawing with both hands at the same time, for a result full of energy (and in my case lots of cross-hatching), not allowing yourself to look back at the paper once you have started drawing, or doing an ‘etch-a-sketch’ by not allowing yourself to let your drawing implement leave the page until you are done.

warm-up drawing made with charcoal on a stick using both hands to draw at the same time

warm-up drawing made with charcoal on a stick using both hands to draw at the same time

We also talked about considering the paper you are using – and how much more effective a drawing can be if it is backed up by ephemera – a timetable as the background to you documenting a journey, with added tickets, for example.

Another thing that we explored was cutting out pictures of people and collaging those together – but turned over, so that we would concentrate on the shape that the human body creates. I have to admit that I didn’t really have time to do this during the workshop, but I was thinking about my previous post and thinking about how documenting workshops can sometimes be tricky if you don’t have the permissions of people to use their photographs. I also think that sometimes then the picture becomes about the people, rather than about the workshop. but what if you just used the silhouette of your participants…? I think this way we could end up with another really interesting ways of documenting a workshop. Something I will attempt to try out soon.

However, what I am probably most excited by is the way I used documentary drawing as a research method in the afternoon. Julia had given us a brief, parts of it was “By closely observing visitors to the Gallery what can the reportage artist discern about the activity of looking at art?” So I found myself sitting in the Tracing the Century exhibition and in the beginning I was randomly sketching people.

some typical poses observed

some typical poses observed

I found some typical poses, for example there is almost a standard way that men hold their arms behind their backs when looking at art. I and my fellow documentary drawers complained to each other that people never stand still long enough. I decided to ‘follow’ a group around, sketching them whenever they paused in front of art, to see how they interacted – and found that there was an opinion maker, who tried to move the group by moving herself and almost dragging the others with her, while another one seemed to be really interested in the art and tried to linger in front of certain pieces.

And then I started tracking visitors’ journeys along one specific wall. Comparing these drawings I realised that people tended to either stop at artworks or at the labels. So I am now wondering whether this form of observation is something I could use to get my students a bit more excited about primary data collection for their research. I think I spent less than an hour in the gallery, but can’t help thinking that this could be turned into more rigorous data gathering, I could develop rules, such as really try to sketch where the visitors stop and pause; the longer they pause, the more detailed/black/intensive the sketch of them should get; trace the ‘motion lines’ on the floor to capture where they come closer or step-away from the work (later put in corresponding motion lines following the whole bodies); prepare a standard background on which to sketch, so that the data can be more easily standardised (possibly superimposed). From this (and a suitable sample), it could be determined whether there really is a distinction between pictureviewers and labelreaders; it could be found out which group is bigger; and possibly whether one spends more time interacting with the art.

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I made a little book transferring my sketches onto transparent paper to illustrate my mini-findings, which I might show students to get them to consider documentary drawing within their research. As you can see I was very inspired by the workshop and will be doing more documentary drawing for sure!

While checking out the Tate Liverpool website to find out more about the ‘Tracing the Century’ exhibition, I came across a workshop they offer on documentary drawing on 19th January 2013. While it might be a bit too focused on the connection of documentary drawing to war artists for my taste, I am intrigued, especially because I know that there is a lot of drawing going on when it comes to documenting and reflecting within academic research.

I’ll be there…

Students 'rummaging' through the Betty Smithers Design Collection at Staffordshire University

‘Beyond the Display – an exploration of collections in art, media and design teaching and learning‘ has just been published in Networks 15. In this article I try to give an overview of some museum and collection resources that may be available to engage students that use objects in a more direct way than ‘just’ looking.

‘How we experience material objects through our senses’ was the tag line of a two day workshop that I attended recently. The Sensuous Object, as it was called, turned out to be two days full of thought-provoking presentations (all centred around actual objects) with interesting people. So many issues were covered that it would be too much for just one blog post, so I may go into detail in future posts; suffice it to say that we discussed objects and the use of collections through focusing on their tactile nature, through sound, taste and smell, as well as movement. In the process we were treated not only to interesting visuals, like one presenter talking about hysteria while wearing a leather belt with which diagnosed hysterics were restrained to be kept safe in the nineteenth century, but we were also able to handle some of the objects that took centre stage.

One of the reasons that I really wanted to attend was that I was interested to see what is thought about object learning outside of my own field (of art and design), and I was not disappointed, coming home with a whole list of thoughts to follow up (once I have the time). I was particularly intrigued by the term ‘artifactualists’, the view of gloves as keeping an object of memory intact by not adding more memories, ‘imaginative imagination’, an ingenious way of visualising quantitative data, that sometimes we are talking about intuition but it may just be listening to sound without being aware of it (the sound being overlooked as it were), the question of how we listen and are we thinking about sound through metaphors, Gernot Boehme’s notion of athmosphere and the materiality of photography as well as drawing.

A big component was probably the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, which, as host, allowed the presenters access to its collection and also provided an athmospheric (and slightly unusual, for example they have a recreated Victorian pharmacy tucked away in one room) setting for the two days.

A while back I interviewed my colleague Ruth Waterhouse about her use of the Betty Smithers Design Collection. Ruth (newly retired) taught Sociology and felt that integrating objects in her teaching brought another dimension to her discipline.
Here are my written up notes:

Ruth W first used the Design Collection to support teaching at adult education level outside of the university, particularly for a course where the changing nature of women’s fashion was discussed and put into context with the culture of the time. She first used garments for illustration purposes only to show the changes in fashion in a chronological way.
As the garments came from a handling collection, she also encouraged handling and this turned out particularly successful in a session with older women groups when discussing World War II and connected fashions. The tactile experience of the handling seemed to trigger memories of the participants’ own experience, in the first instance particularly through materials. As the group was made up of women who could remember similar garments, they were very knowledgeable about using these materials. Ruth states that she got a better response in this handling session than she got from lecture-style talks, because the garments triggered an emotional response and stimulated reminiscence. The participants were delighted in being reminded of these objects, not just visually, but through a tactile exploration, and this in turn stimulated discussion which contained a lot of oral history. It created a unique atmosphere and engagement.
The success of this session gave Ruth W the idea to use the Design Collection resources more at the university level and she included it in the ‘Dedicated Followers of Fashion’ module which is an option on the Sociology degree at Level 5 (she has used it in this context for the last five years). To begin with there was one session done by Ruth Brown, at the time keeper of the Design Collection, which publicised it and told students about how they could use it themselves. However, in following years they began tying it into the subject matter more, with Ruth W doing a lecture that was immediately followed by a session with Ruth B with a rack of fashion that gave a spread from the earliest items in the collection through to the 1990s.
At one occasion Ruth B dressed up in Edwardian garb, turning the clothes from the hanger into a worn dimension, and the students were asked to reflect on the role of clothing and what it reflected in life.
Ruth W states that sociology is often a very abstract subject. Examples make it more concrete. Touching items and feeling the weight of them make it easier to ask yourself what it would have been like to wear them. It makes it easier to explore whether they might have been constraining or constricting. Examining their construction close-up allow a judgement of their quality, their price and the effort it takes to maintain a wardrobe at the time, for example making it easier to understand how Edwardian clothing sustained a servicing class through the laundry, mending and pressing that was necessary to keep them wearable.
While it is very successful to use the objects from the Design Collection for that particular module, Ruth W thinks that it is the only one of the ones she teaches and knows of, that it would be appropriate. Her colleagues in sociology don’t use it as far as she knows, although she says there might be material that could be found in the archive’s collection of magazines that could relate to the ‘Deviant Bodies’ module which is concerned with sociology of the body. She states that it would have worked much more in the context of sociology of culture, which doesn’t run at Staffordshire University anymore. She also says that a collection of this nature would be useful to sociologists of popular culture; of the body  and of subcultures, especially youth cultures. The use of the collection is somewhat restricted at Staffordshire University because of the options that are currently offered, but she strongly feels that aspects of the collection could be linked into theories of consumption and identity and would resonate with many other aspects of sociology.
She says that only a minority of students take the opportunity to check out objects (she remembers a student researching shoe fashion for example). She thinks this little take-up might be due to finding the time. However, she says that even if students don’t use the collection itself, using it in class encourages them to use what they have themselves. It inspires them to ask more questions and to use objects as well as secondary sources for their research. It has freed students up from thinking they have to deal with textual material, the abstract. This is reflected in the work they put in, the subjects and also adds another dimension to their work. For example, they present their work in a more innovative way. The assessment criteria stipulate a portfolio that Ruth W interprets widely and she encourages students to utilise their visual sense, etc, alongside the written text. Almost half take this up, it gives them permission to go broader than just writing things up. This feeds their imagination, it is outside of the straightjacket of theoretical sociology, makes theory meaningful, they make sense of society through exploring its objects.
She attempts to stress that sociology is also about imagination and should be within the arts to build those bridges (at Staffordshire University sociology is located in the Faculty of Arts, Media and Design rather than linked to psychology or the sciences, which means it is located in a different academic culture) – is it narrowing its focus by being too concerned about its image? Using the Design Collection, which has mostly everyday objects in it, encourages them to use material objects from their cultural world as a starting point.

Asking whether she could recommend strategies of using the BSDC, her top tips are:
• Think more explicitly – she wonders whether her approach is a bit hit and miss, and thinks that it needs to be articulated carefully what you want, possibly in the learning outcomes.
• Use more widely – maybe she uses it in a fairly narrow way, so there needs to be a closer investigation of what is on offer (for example political magazines) and investigate its potential and content more thoroughly
• Don’t be worried about incorporating tactile stuff, the smell, move beyond just the cognitive, rather employ a full range of senses, not just thinking about stuff.
• Collaborating across disciplines is important, against pigeon holing
Ruth W states that the handling collection is vital, as it is different to a museum and the interaction that is in its centre is very important.
A big part of its importance and usefulness is a matter of personality, Ruth B is very approachable, accessible, willing to engage, helpful – can this be replaced by a data base? NO! the ad hoc nature, not preselected apart from showing the Everyday-ness of everyday life.
Items are not precious, this makes them more valuable in an educational context as it has the capacity to stimulate, trigger stories, the mind, recollections – encourages students to become experts of their own lives by interrogating them rather than just living them.

A good starting point for using objects in art and design education, in particular, is to use them to draw from. This allows a different engagement and investigation of the object than other forms of note-taking, such as writing down label information or taking photographs.
When using objects in such a way a number of things need to be considered:

If you are working from a formal display, such as in a museum exhibition, a still life has already been set up for you by a curator. Try to encourage students to find their own perspective and not necessarily go for the ‘obvious’ frontal view. Encourage students to use sketches not to necessarily replicate what they see (this they could do much more effectively with a photograph, if photography is allowed), but rather to try to capture other aspects of the objects, like their context, details they particularly like, etc.

If you are working in a collection where the objects can be handled, you and the students can play with the setting up yourself. How would it differ if this was a museum display set up or a shop display? What would be an authentic context? Being able to handle objects often also means that you will have access to views of the objects that might not be on show in a museum, for example the back, bottom or inside – take advantage of that in your exploration.

Also take into account the different contexts of the sketching, students often lack the confidence to explore something in a museum, where other visitors might come up and look over their shoulders, possibly even comment on their work, so sketches here could be used as starting points for future, more elaborate drawings. If on the other hand, it is possible to have a drawing session that is private, this can lead to an informal discussed amongst the students, which starts the investigative process.

I asked Stephanie Boydell, curator at Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections, what she thought the usefulness of object-based learning was, and here is what she said:

Object-based learning can engage students that may find formal teaching situations difficult. It offers a different way of teaching, and of learning, and uses different kinds of intelligence. Students can draw their own conclusions, can ‘discover’ answers, rather than just receive ideas from academics.
It can enrich course/lecture content, which is particularly useful if you are trying to attract new students!
The physicality of an object, seeing something in the flesh, so to speak, can be the only way to appreciate or understand form, texture and difference: for instance, how do you know the difference between a woodblock print and an etching if you haven’t seen these up close? This is particularly true for contextual and historical studies in Art & Design.
In our setting at MMU, it allows access to other professions, ie curators and archivists and different knowledge systems, and can offer students an insight and experience of how we work with artefacts. It is also outside the “classroom”, so can be more relaxed, and even privileged, as students can actually handle museum objects.
Students can develop key skills and learn new ones: such as how to observe, record, assess and analyse and question an object; it encourages critical thinking, and allows students to use prior knowledge and build confidence. When working in groups it builds on team working skills, communication, presenting, listening, learning from peers and confidence building, particularly as students can implement and pass on prior knowledge and be in a situation where all ideas are acceptable.
OBL can encourage discussion and debate: would a Chinese artefact be documented or interpreted differently in China? Why have a light fitting from Habitat in the collections when it is so readily available on the high street and has little monetary worth?
It can also inspire creativity: writing, new artworks, etc. This is hugely important for practical arts students, as the stages between encountering an object and developing your interaction and response into a design/application and how you justify and record them that are extremely important for makers, (and for assessors!).