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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Objects are magic - some musings

What's the point of objects? Objects are magic.

That is the topic a group of Swansea MA students will be discussing tomorrow. As part of an MA module in which they will learn about how to prepare and deliver an object handling session (thinking about preventative conservation, museum aims and ethics, evaluation, as well as researching the objects). Tomorrow the students and I will be considering why objects are important and particularly, object-centred learning.

Object-centred learning is something that museum curators inevitably think is both vital and neglected. Of course, it is vital if you want a job in museums. The 2010 CIPEG resolution stated: "Whereas CIPEG has recognised that many students no longer receive object- and materials-based training in Egyptology and consequently do not have an appropriate professional knowledge to enable them to work in Museums with ancient Egyptian Collections and that this tendency has been identified in many other museum-relevant disciplines from the sciences to art-history; Accordingly CIPEG resolves to urge ICOM members and supporters to appeal to their colleagues and those in other appropriate institutes and organisations to intensify art-historical and object focused teaching as an essential part of the curriculum for the relevant sciences, social sciences and humanities disciplines". [For those interested in CIPEG, this is the link: http://cipeg.icom.museum/]

Additionally, object-centred learning is something which can bring the past to life, in a different way from traditional learning. So, what can you learn from objects that you can't learn from text? Of course you can't simply divide up objects and test quite so simply - texts are often written on objects. Also, the traditional way of teaching, using text and non-text, may obscure the real differences between objects and texts. So, texts are traditionally studied separate from context but the importance of context in studying artefacts is known to all first year undergraduate students. But this difference is one of tradition, it doesn't have to be this way, so it isn't a real difference. To me the differences between text and non-text are that:

  • Text is biased towards the elite; non-text is generally more democratic 
  • Artefacts are more multivocal than text, less precise and more messy in meaning
  • Artefacts appear more real than text
  • Objects are subject to ‘magical contagion’
And, these differences lead to others. So, for example, the very real appearance of artefacts, and their ‘magical contagion’ properties, mean that being in close proximity to ancient objects makes people feel some direct emotional involvement with the past. It's a bit like touching a holy relic. This ‘magical contagion’ (a term used by Nemeroff and Rozin 2000*), can be seen in the way that people will avoid drinking out of a cup if they are told it once contained poison ­– even if that poison has since been thoroughly cleaned out. The contact an object once had with another world enables the otherworld to be ‘magically’ brought into the present world. This leads on to the almost spiritual nature of artefacts. They are almost inexplicably special, but I suppose I would say that wouldn't I? Sometimes museums are criticised for being too like churches. Perhaps they should celebrate their similarity?

What do you think?

*Nemeroff, C. and Rozin, P. 2000 The makings of the magical mind: the nature and function of sympathetic magical thinking. In K. Rosengren, C. Johnson and P Harris (eds.) Imagining the Impossible: the development of magical, scientific and religious thinking in children (1-34). Cambridge University Press.

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