In other sections we have talked about Cabinets of Curiosity or the use of objects to tell stories, as in the Tell Us About It Initiative described in Story and Metaphor. Here we touch on ways in which objects are used as starting points for deeper theoretical interpretations, introductions to people or periods in time, or as symbols of significance.
In the first of our examples, in a consultation on developing a new learning, teaching and enhancement strategy for a university, colleagues were invited not simply to interrogate the mission statement to see what they were supposed to be focussing on, nor think uniquely of the pressing priorities that seemed to be at the forefront of their minds. Through adopting a theme for enquiry – in this case academic excellence – they were asked to find objects or stories that embodied what the term academic excellence conjured, where to get more of it, and what might be getting in the way of achieving it. One participant brought a pencil case, t shirt and bag, all emblazoned with archetypal views of London buses, the Houses of Parliament and other symbols of Britishness. The point was not some kind of jingoistic celebration of excellence as nationally-driven, however, but about intellectual property and copyright, and how these are infiltrating our new modes of learning and teaching engagement. Responding to these complex and murky issues could be seen to offer opportunities for excellent delivery, while also causing no end of trouble with regard to the ownership and sharing of material.
At the start of a Material Culture course for year 2 undergraduates, students are encouraged to empty out their pockets and find something that is of significance to them, among their everyday items. Although they have been asked in advance to bring something, inevitably most of them forget and instantly protest that they have nothing with them that will be of any importance. And then gradually, they realise that tucked away somewhere, is an object which may have no monetary value, but which has a hidden meaning. One such item was the paper Buddha image, slipped into the wallet of a student by her mother and which she carries everywhere as a reminder of her parent. They are usually surprised, both by the recognition that something they took for granted has any additional import, and by what they elicit from their associations with that object. Analysis and discussion of these found items on their person has offered quite a profound way of uniting material culture theory to ordinary lived experiences and of enabling students to connect to each other as well as the literature.
Two further examples are included in our Powerful Questions section, due to the importance of the kinds of questions that help reveal the deeper meanings of items of clothing and their origins as well as socio-historical significance. Other related pieces, on decoding the history of a building through photographs, memories and relics of previous habitations, can be found under Places & Spaces.