This blog post is the second in a series that explores the Things Unbound project, a partnership funded by UKIERI and the British Academy (2014-2017), between the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK (led by Professor Sandra Dudley) and the National Museum Institute in New Delhi, India (led by Professor Manvi Seth). The research took place in sites including: in India at Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, or City Palace Museum in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and Thiksay Monastery in Ladakh; and in the UK at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, and Harborough Museum at Market Harborough in Leicestershire.
The aim of the project was to ask what it is that objects do at the moment of encounter between person and thing – and indeed whether it is even possible to research this question. What is it that makes us say ‘wow’ in awe, surprise, or amazement, when we are confronted with a thing of beauty, or intrigue, of immensity, or intimacy? Is it possible to say what it is, and how might we explore this from the object’s point of view?
In the previous post, I talked about a creative object-based workshop for the academic and professional participants who were involved in gathering data and undertaking the research in Jaipur. This post, however, discusses one particular technique that we used not with the researchers, but with visitors and staff – that of object handling. This was both used a research method in itself – a way to explore what it is that objects do, but it also describes an experiment in museum practice and object-centred and sensory visitor experiences. This was new within the context of the City Palace Museum, not least because of the involvement of gallery attendants in the process, and thus it embeds the research firmly in practice: object handling was a useful development tool for shaping museum practice, exploring practical audience engagement techniques and staff roles.
Key objects at the City Palace Museum?
Initially the team decided to try and discover whether there were particular ‘favourite’ objects for visitors in different spaces within the City Palace. We split up into different areas across the palace: the armoury, the textiles gallery, the throne room, and one of the courtyards. Using a variety of methods, including observation, interview, taking photographs and also using illustration as field notes, we wandered through the galleries, often honing in on particular objects.
We noticed that visitors were indeed often drawn to the same objects. These included such items as the large silver water jars in the courtyard, a portrait in the throne room, and a large pair of pyjamas in the textile gallery. Visitors would often talk, laugh, and gesture in highly animated ways in front of these items, often gathering the rest of their group together to have a look and articulating their enjoyment visibly through bodily demonstrations. What was it about these particular objects that was so appealing to visitors? Was it even possible to make any generalisations about this? Can we ever really know?
Handling replica objects
Having spent some days observing visitor responses to similar objects, the team then decided to go one step further than observing the effect of an object in a display on a visitor. What would happen if visitors were allowed to actually handle objects during their visit? Would that touching make a difference? Would it allow us to understand the encounter between person and thing in a different light? We had noticed that the shop sold various replica items, including items similar to those in the textiles gallery and armoury.
We purchased a replica jacket and a katar (scissor dagger) and set up a table within each of the relevant galleries, and near to the original artefacts, so that visitors could encounter them – or as near as possible to them – through touch. We also devised a feedback questionnaire and had colouring pencils for anyone who wished to leave a picture or piece of writing to reflect on their experience. While this type of handling activity is common in the UK, we learnt that in India, object handling in museums is a much less common phenomenon. The experiment turned out to be a huge success, and the majority of visitors both enjoyed the opportunity to feel, try on, and test out, but also it enabled them to experience something of the object not possible when it was behind glass. It also often ensured that visitors spent a while looking in the case at the real thing, thus increasing dwell time in the space and deepening engagement with the original objects.
Involvement of gallery attendants
Of course, the replica objects could not be left unattended, and particularly in the case of the katar and the health and safety concerns of leaving a sharp and potentially dangerous object out, we decided that this should be demonstrated by staff. One gallery attendant, in particular, Yogesh Maharaj, had shown a particular interest in the research project. He was particularly eloquent about describing his own favourite objects and things he had noticed within ‘his’ armoury. When I asked him about this, he took me to an exquisite dagger handle topped with a delicate ivory bird that I had hitherto not noticed. His attention to detail was inspiring: he also showed me a floor tile with a face-like marking that he had noticed through years spent in that space.
What would happen if he and his colleagues were able to have a more active role in the research? Perhaps one thing the research also allowed was for a disruption of traditional hierarchies within the museum and its staffing structures. It was fantastic that Pankaj Sharma gave this activity the go-ahead: soon the gallery attendants had a new ‘teaching’ role. Gallery attendants as both researchers and facilitators enabled new voices and expertise to be heard: they now interacted with visitors, not just about the rules and regulations in the space, but actually about visitors’ encounters with the objects in their care. This was something new at the City Palace Museum: to involve the gallery attendants as ‘enablers’ of the visitor experience. At a conference held towards the end of our research period, it was wonderful to be able to invite Yogesh to share his experiences of encounters between people and things with the delegates.
So perhaps a project about people’s encounters with things, and what it is that objects do, also enabled the practice to change, exploring what it is that people do, and what it is that people can do. I still wonder whether it was the objects themselves that facilitated this…
Dr Alexandra Woodall (Norwich, UK) is an experienced museum and gallery interpretation practitioner, researcher, teacher and consultant. She is particularly interested in how people encounter objects. Until recently she was Head of Learning at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (University of East Anglia, UK), and has previously worked for institutions including Royal Armouries, Manchester Art Gallery, Museums Sheffield and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. www.alexwoodall.co.uk @alexwoodall
All pictures are taken by the author.
ReReeti works with museums, galleries and heritage sites across India to plan strategies, design systems and implement programmes to increase audience engagement and institutional/ company visibility. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free consultation or to collaborate on an upcoming exhibition.