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The centre of a Talking Objects project is the object. It is therefore essential that the selection is carefully considered. This section will look at different approaches to the selection process and the impact it can have on the success of a project.
Before you start a Talking Objects project you may have an object or objects in mind that informs the kind of audience you want to work with and vice versa. What drives your project forward in terms of the group you work with and the creative practice that follows is up to you. Your project may start with a theme instead of an object or relate to an upcoming exhibition, event or local/national initiative. Object selection has varied across the Talking Objects projects and each approach has its benefits.
Choosing an object
Talking Objects methodology recommends that the project focuses on one object; however it is also possible to select two objects or a selection of objects to work on. What is important in this approach is that the collection of objects has a clear connection. It may be that the objects highlight different interpretations of an historical event or culture or that the objects exist as a group that must be considered collectively.
“No objects are bad objects. Talking Objects should be about working with as many objects as possible, you just have to work harder with some objects than others.”
Avoid making assumptions
It is often the case that an object or group selection will be based on the assumptions you may have about the outcome of a project. It is important to not limit the opportunities for groups to make exciting new connections and relationships with collections that are outside of their experiences.
Throughout the Talking Objects programme participants have surprised and impressed project leaders with their unexpected interpretations and responses to objects. It is therefore important to not always make ‘obvious’ connections of groups and objects based on culture, faith and interests, and to experiment with new connections.
An example of this can be seen in a project that worked with a group of young carers in Camden, London to explore the history and stories behind a carved jade terrapin from India made in the 17th century. Using contemporary dance the young people created a response drawing on the themes of beauty, protection and power.
Selecting the group first
During the planning stages of their Talking Objects project, Bristol's Museums, Galleries & Archives (BMGA) decided to approach Council departments to find out which community group would most benefit from participating. Subsequently, they liaised with cultural groups, university professionals and the Council’s Community Cohesion team before being directed to the Somali Development group. By working in partnership with the local authority and others, the museum built relationships with a growing community in Bristol and addressed the need to develop projects to help build community cohesion. Working with this group directly informed the choice of object; the Curator of ethnography chose 2 objects from East Africa with controversial histories that would encourage and facilitate debate among the group.
Selecting the object first
The Talking Objects projects at the British Museum selected an object before recruiting community groups. Initially the object selection was taken from the History of the World in 100 objects collection, taking advantage of the extensive research that had been developed around these objects. Factors that informed the selection of objects from this group were based around the potential for alternative interpretations and the availability of the curator or individuals with specialist knowledge of the object.
Collaboratively selecting an object(s)
There are now many examples of Talking Objects projects when the groups have selected an object(s) to focus on. This approach allows the group to take more control of the outcome of the project and hands over more ownership of the project to the participants. This may contribute to a greater commitment to the programme. In these instances it is recommended that a shortlist of objects is presented from the collection for the group to choose from. This may be connected to a pre-decided theme or specialism, but it is still important when making this shortlist of objects that you consider all the recommendations listed above.
Objects with little concrete information or with uncertain histories can be very successful in a Talking Objects project. The opportunity to fill the gaps in history or the gaps in knowledge of the specialist is very appealing for a group. These projects can be hugely creative and imaginative, often exploring ideas that the object specialist has never considered.
The curator or object specialist plays an important role in the first session of a Talking Objects project and this may be a factor when selecting an object. It is important that the curator or specialist who introduces the object is open to the idea of new interpretations being explored by the group. The curator or specialist must relinquish some control to allow the group to develop their own personal responses to the object. This can be helped by working with a curator or specialist who can describe their own experience of interpreting and researching an object, and being open about the unknown facts and histories in museum collections.
Taking advantage of a collection strength
NSMS decided to work with two objects related to the English Civil war that had a strong local connection: a siege plan and a siege coin. For Newark the objects provided the perfect platform to begin conversations around a military and civilian perspective. As part of the project the group visited the Queen’s Sconce, a 17th century Civil War earthwork fortification, depicted on one of the objects and became in effect a third object that they engaged with. Incorporating visits which relate to the focus object can really help to bring the objects to life.
Contributing to a display
Colchester and Ipswich felt strongly that the objects in focus would be those forming part of the new display at the castle so that the young people’s interpretation would be integrated into the exhibition. From the beginning this gave the project real gravitas and the young people a clear picture of the outcome of the project.