Talking Objects


Developing skills and expertise
in partner museums.

1. Introduction
2. The object
3. The group
4. Practitioners
5. Museum staff
6. The methodology

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Talking Objects is about engaging groups and museum staff with objects and the ideas, knowledge and debate that can arise from looking closely at museum collections.

Through creative exploration of an object, these projects can deepen participant engagment and establish stronger links between audience development and collections interpretation.

The project started in 2007 at the British Museum and has been extended to partner museums nationwide.

London    National     Collective 

Talking Objects Toolkit

Consider the context

Building effective monitoring and evaluation into your project plan will be instrumental in maximising learning, capturing different perspectives, uncovering and reflecting on the questions central to your project.

Ensuring this approach is in place at the very start of the programme is essential in securing enthusiasm and support from new audiences, museum staff and funding bodies.


  • What is the driving force behind your project?
  • What impact will your project have?
  • What are your objectives and how will these be measured?
  • What assumptions do you have about the programme?
  • How will you consider evaluation from the start of your project?
  • How will you design your project for longevity?
  • How will you demonstrate the value of the project at your organisation?


Talking Objects Toolkit

Measure impact

There are a range of evaluative methods to consider and your choice may depend on what you feel comfortable with, the group you are working with and whether you desire more qualitative or quantitative data. While a colleague may be happy to fill in a lengthy questionnaire, a young participant may prefer an informal interview. Whichever method(s) you do decide to carry out; it pays to have a systematic methodology and approach.

It is important to find an approach that matches your culture and resources. This will ensure that the evaluation is a complementary element of the programme suited to each organisation’s approach and capacity. It is easier to collect information as you go along rather than leaving all the paperwork to do at a later stage.


Useful resources

For more information about planning and implementing evaluation in your project download the Social Impact of the Arts Evaluation Toolkit.

 Download information on evaluative methods and a useful question bank

Find opportunities

The intensity of engagement with the collection for both staff and participants has often led to new ways of working in the future. Talking Objects projects have resulted in a number of developments at participating museums, including:

  • new programmes of activities
  • long-term gallery installations
  • new or stronger community partners

For the project lead it is important to take advantage of the opportunities emerging from a Talking Objects project and build on the internal and external relationships developed.

For curatorial staff, the project can often be the catalyst for further community engagement activity. This will differ greatly at every museum, however where curatorial staff have not traditionally engaged with underrepresented audiences, a Talking Objects project has acted as a vehicle to illustrate the value and potential of this work for developing a better understanding of the many interpretations of museum collections.


Talking Objects Toolkit

Challenge perceptions

‘You gain a wider perspective, learning through the eyes and minds of people with whom I normally do not come into contact.’
Curator, British Museum


Talking Objects Toolkit

The richest legacy for Talking Objects has been the sensed shift in the relationship between museum staff and under-represented audiences, provoking new insights into interpretations of objects. Within the framework of your project you can build in mechanisms that help to challenge perceptions that museum staff and your target audience may have had of one another.

The experience for participants and curators at the British Museum was symbiotic; with both leaving the project with vastly different understandings of the selected object.

"Talking Objects was the perfect vehicle for encouraging Tullie House staff to think outside the box when it comes to the collection"
Andrew McKay, Head of Collections and Programming at Tullie House Museum

Building long-term links

At the British Museum, Colchester and Ipswich Museums the young people involved in a Talking Objects project were invited to join the museum’s youth panels. For many young people this was an important opportunity to retain a connection to the organisation and continue a relationship with the individuals involved in the project.

It is important to remember that not only is a Talking Objects project a place for participants to develop their own interpretations of objects, it is also a social experience.

Youth panel

The British Museum’s youth panel, BMuse, developed from Talking Objects participants. They have sustained close contact with the museum, attending regular meetings, going on to contribute to staff events and assisting in delivering public workshops relating to temporary exhibitions. As Talking Objects project can be a stepping stone to deepening engagement with a new or existing group.


Talking Objects Toolkit

Embedding the methodology

In order to ensure that the positive outcomes of your Talking Objects project are embedded into your organisation it’s useful to share the experience with as many members of staff as possible. It is good practice to involve colleagues from different areas of the museum and invite senior members of staff to presentations by participants and the final ‘debate session’.

Find out more about the Methodology 

Focus: making the project work for your organisation

At Bristol’s Museum and Art gallery the project was an opportunity to think more deeply about how local communities perceive the museum's collections. In order to share the learning of the project they are currently looking at how this approach can be adapted for formal education. They have developed one off sessions which compress the 4 day methodology into in-classroom enquiry based learning sessions complimenting schools visits; starting with the explorative questions and then supporting the school groups to develop their own interpretations. These sessions have often complimented the curriculum, but have also explored other more ‘difficult’ subjects such as British Colonialism. In these instances objects have been an effective means of starting a conversation around a complex topic. Other organisations have also condensed the methodology into a community or school visit which only lasts for a day or a few hours. These sessions can be supported by preparation material or continued with off-site resources.

Focus: training new staff

The governing principles of Talking Objects may become integrated into other programmes and activities. At Newark Museum Services they have begun to train volunteers to teach newly recruited volunteers the main components of the methodology. At Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust the key themes of Talking Objects are being disseminated through ‘Collections Conversations’ where Museum Assistants run mini object handling sessions with members of the public as well as developing a 2 hour format for primary school visits.


Talking Objects Toolkit

Creating impact

Each participant of a Talking Objects project has a unique role to play in opening up museum collections to a wider audience. It is up to each organisation to decide how this new knowledge and understanding is then disseminated. At the British Museum the project films play an important part in sharing the project outcomes, for other organisations there have been exhibitions, events and recruitment onto museum youth panels.

For the young people involved in the project, their opinions and interpretations of an object have been appreciated and respected by the organisation often outside their habitual worlds; some seeing their contributions presented somewhere previously never imagined.


The Talking Object films act as powerful advocacy for the programme and a tool that many partners have used to give staff and participants a better understanding of what is involved. Videos are an especially useful outcome as they can be put on an organisation’s website, YouTube channel or DVD so the films are not confined to a particular place or situation.

Gallery interventions

Participants’ interpretation has fed directly into displays at Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service while at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery participants were active in each step of the curatorial process; these approaches extend the project beyond the original 4 day methodology and bring it to staff and visitors in a very tangible way.

These can be seen as gallery interventions and a great way to stretch the programme and establish an on-going relationship with a community group. At Brighton the group’s selected objects and interpretation will be on display for 1 year and will relate to a series of events encouraging sustained contact between the group and Brighton Museum.


Talking Objects Toolkit