10 objects, 10 researchers, 100 hours of looking and learning

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Graham Burnett, Liz Haines and Kate Smith discuss objects!

At University College London in 2013-14 an optimistic group of researchers got together with some incredible museum objects and spent some time thinking about things. Here, I want to explain what we had in mind when we embarked on this collaborative project and what the process revealed about the power of museum collections to reveal not only new knowledge, but also new ways of working.

100 Hours was a collaborative and cross-disciplinary research project focused on what we can learn from the close study of material things and it brought ten researchers together with ten museum objects and gave them 100 hours in each other’s company. The idea developed out of discussions between myself and researcher Kate Smith. We are both historians by training but have always been interested in what material culture can tell us about the past. Although, researchers in the humanities are becoming increasingly interested in what material (as opposed to textual) sources could tell them, we still perceived barriers to this kind of object-based study and wanted to experiment with different ways of looking and learning. Inspired by T.J. Clark’s study on art writing, The Sight of Death, we set about devising a project that would lead its researchers through a ritual of repetition and sustained attention. It was our suspicion that many of us who claimed to work on historical artefacts, in fact spent very little time in their company. Perhaps we were scared that these objects could not ‘speak’ to us in the way that manuscripts, books or images might. We thought it time we confronted the prejudices of our training and identified methods of working that could help us answer our questions about the material world.

However, Kate and I were not keen to tread this difficult path alone and so we recruited a team of early career researchers – all of whom confessed a deep interest in material culture, but who approached their interest from a variety of angles. We wanted the team to leave behind the rigours of their scholarly training, the particularity of defined research questions and embrace some open-ended engagement with objects and others. The rules of engagement were as follows:

  1. Each researcher chose an object from UCL’s museum collections and returned to that object again and again.
  2. We met as a group regularly and heard from a series of experts, each providing a different framework for thinking about material things.
  3. We returned once again to our object and applied this framework to our study of it, writing a short response on each occasion.
  4. All of our responses and conversations were documented live on the project website.

The team’s responses throughout the project highlighted the struggles and rewards of researching museum objects. As literary scholar James Paz put it: ‘I am used to reading with my eyes. Yet I was lucky enough to be able to touch the wooden ancestor busts [from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology].’ Museum professional and historian, Sarah Longair, chose the dodo bones in the Grant Museum of Zoology’s collection. After meeting the bones for the first time, she wrote:

The remains of the dodo carry weighty cultural baggage – the bird has become the icon of the extinct and the exotic.  However, my first task is to examine closely the bones themselves – their shape, weight, patina, colour, density, anatomical function as well as markings or damage.

Some of our researchers became attached to their objects, historian of science Mat Paskins wrote evocatively about his initial response to a meteorite in the Geology Collections:

My meteorite came into my custody along with half its paperwork. It is a handsome meteorite, the shape of a foot or an island, or a body in a shroud, cross-hatched with a wicker-work texture, and on the right-hand side of its photograph, a darker core like the stone of a fruit. … As I get to know my meteorite, and obtain the rest of its documents, I will learn its patterns’ origins and the different metals of which it is composed.

Artist, Florian Rothmayr, felt personally encouraged by his group of zoological models:

When I first visited my group of foraminifera models, placed on a table in the Grant Museum of Zoology, they were nodding their approval. Carefully mounted on wires and secured to wooden blocks, they responded to my movements of the pen across the pages of my notebook by moving their plaster tops in unison, left to right, front to back. Yes, yes, yes! they seemed to signal, just keep on writing, it’s all true.

The process of repeated looking and handling of the objects prompted reflections on research practice. Historical geographer and artist Liz Haines noted:

Contrary to the hyperrealism of the archival gaze, it seems to me that we often want to use material evidence from the past in a looser more impressionistic way. We want them to pursue an ethnographic impulse. We want them to serve as props, as scenery for imaginative reconstructions of human activity.

Design historian, Emily Orr, dwelt on the role language plays in our interpretation of material things and felt that she lacked the vocabulary to engage with the origins of her object, an African ten-legged stool. Similarly, historian Elin Jones found that in trying to make sense of her nineteenth-century photograph album in the UCL Art Museum she encountered a ‘chaos of badly fitting categories’ which made it difficult for her to clear a path for her own narrative about the object. Curator and art historian Katy Barrett felt similarly, noting that it is ‘easy to frame your first interaction around an expectation and then continue to look along those lines.’ Whilst the 100 Hours method did not always prompt easy, tangible answers, it did make our team think carefully about their assumptions inherent in our investigations of material heritage.

With the project a few months behind us, the team are variously engaged with writing up or visualising aspects of their 100 Hours experience. Ongoing collaborations exist between members of the team and also between the researchers and curators of UCL collections, and we hope these will be long-lasting and fruitful for museums and research alike. We also hope that the project has been revealing of the untapped potential within collections to spark new ways of working. In an era when cross-disciplinary activities are encouraged, museums and their collections can position themselves as dynamic spaces for innovative research. I hope that we can use the 100 Hours experiment to attract researchers in much greater numbers to these fantastic collections. Not every researcher will be ready to spend 100 hours in the company of museum objects, but we can surely promote the intellectual benefits of spending some proper, quality time with a museum object or two.

 

Leonie Hannan is a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. She was a lead researcher on the 100 Hours project.

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