Yesterday I read Object Lessons: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Learned to Make Sense of the Material World (2018) by Sarah Anne Carter. I planned to read this mainly in preparation for Geismar’s Object Lessons; I thought learning the basics of the technique (as it was used in the physical world) would be foundational to how it can be used in the digital realm. It was even more helpful and inspiring than I expected, however. Carter writes an account of the history of object lessons, as invented by Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and developed by British siblings Elizabeth and Child Mayo.
An object lesson is a pedagogical strategy originally employed in US classrooms in the nineteenth century. It is ‘the examination, the process of learning to perceive, and not simply the material object under examination that matters.’ The hope was that pupils trained in this method would approach the world with curiosity and the confidence to make their own rational and moral judgements. Information was to be drawn out of pupils, rather than ‘crammed into them’. Physical engagement with the world and sense training exercises was a way to achieve this. An important moment that determined the structure of this method took place in the classroom. A teacher shared an etching depicting a ladder with a group of pupils in order for them to analyse and consider the material, structure, uses, symbolic meaning and extended context associated with it as an object. One pupil noted:
“But there is a real ladder in the court-yard, why not talk about it rather than the picture?”Carter, 2018
Carter explains that the teacher dismissed the pupils suggestion, explaining that the engraving was more convenient; it was before their eyes already and prevented them from having to walk into the courtyard to have the discussion out there. The same incident happened with a window, the pupil questioned why they were looking at a depiction of a window rather than the actual windows in the very same room. The teacher described this encounter to Pestalozzi, and after some thought he eventually responded that:
“The boy is right.” He continued, “The reality is better than the counterfeit: put away the engravings and let the class be instructed by means of real objects.”Carter, 2018
The ladder was not simply a thing with an innate quality that could be described, but a tool for accessing other experiences. Travelling up the ladder, for example, was seen as the beginning of a sensory process and opened up the duration of the lesson. Looking closely at material things became part of Pestalozzi’s pedagogical philosophy. He wanted his pupils and teachers to move from concrete to abstract things, from observation to understanding and from the familiar to the unfamiliar. At the core of this philosophy was the principle that sensory engagement with nature is the only true foundation of human knowledge. Elizabeth Mayo designed five stages of the object lesson:
- Use of the senses to identify the physical qualities of an object. Observation of objects was supposed to lead to new vocabularly and understanding of the qualities of the material world.
- Identification of abstract ideas shared amongst objects. An example offered is that pencils and candles share the same shape.
- Drawing non-sensory conclusions from objects. Helping pupils to understand things as artificial natural or mineral.
- How to classify objects.
- How to write and talk about things learned.
Teachers would encourage pupils to creatively use their senses during lessons by asking questions such as ‘how do you know when a thing is red or blue?’ (by sight), and ‘Since deaf persons have no correct ideas of sound nor blind persons of colour how did we acquire our ideas of sound and colour?’ (By the means of the senses of seeing and hearing) and ‘How do we suppose our minds become stored with ideas?’ (By the exercise of our senses) This has led me to consider the sensory engagement I undertook with my ‘epiphany’ object, and what I learned from interacting with it and observing its material qualities. Most conclusions I drew derived from the sensory and were not arrived at consciously. For example, the material form of the scrunched up paper was important. The act of holding it in my hand conjured images of the hand that scrunched it up and hastily placed it into the pocket – of past action. I was able to vividly picture the moment of manipulation of the material, of its structural change. Picturing that small action led me to picture the ‘wider scene’. I may not have been spurred to continue this exercise in my imagination, or to complete the scene, had the ticket been separate from the coat. I remember searching the coat for any other identifying features of the person who placed it there, owned it and wore it. There was nothing else in the other pockets. I also began to picture the printer the ticket may have been printed on, how cheap it would have been to produce and wondered how new or novel the technology was 40 years ago. The paper had one jagged edge, was it pulled out of a ticket machine like a bus ticket, and torn against an edge for the ease of the cashier or box office agent? Did someone have to cut the square of paper by hand or did the paper come purpose-cut? I pondered over whether the coat was worn again after that night, if it had been, why weren’t the tickets thrown away? What had happened to the wearer? Had the coat been put back into a wardrobe that night, after the Spinners concert, and forgotten about? How long did it stay there? I could make a rough estimate of this by comparing the accession number to the date of the ticket. The gallery label attached to the coat listed it as a 1950’s gabardine raincoat, it didn’t seem that well worn, but it was possible or even likely that it had been owned by the same person for 20 years. All of these thoughts were triggered entirely by the physical material in front of me. My mind quickly and organically made connections between the different material characteristics and was propelled into another time. The more conscious stage of the object lesson involved going home and researching the history of Philharmonic Hall, looking at photographs of the building and even listening to the Spinners. I even knew the seat number, if the seat numbers and locations remained the same since 1978, I could feasibly even see where this person sat. The date was another clue, I researched what historic events took place on that day, month and in that year to understand more about the context the wearer lived within.
I am left wondering to what extent an experience such as the one I’ve just described can be taught, or whether they’re dependent upon unique combinations of individuals, place and time. Elizabeth Mayo put together small cabinets or boxes with labelled materials and objects, arranged to correlate with the different stages of the lesson. The images included in this blog post show one such cabinet which is currently part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection. Looking closely at these detailed images online does inspire a similar sense of curiosity in me, as I start to use my imagination and draw on my senses to observe and understand the materials represented.
In the book, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age (2018), Haidy Geismar, considers the object lesson from a museological perspective rather than an educational one. She argues for the digital as material, rather than ephemeral or immaterial, and that object lessons can emerge through the ways that collections are placed together, displayed, narrated and framed. This reading will be foundational for my dissertation – I have been able to identify gaps in research, or rather, I view my research as building upon the work of Geismar and other scholars. Geismar states: I argue here that we need to think about the digital not only as material, rather than immaterial, but also in terms of a trajectory of materiality that links our commonplace understandings of the digital to the analogue, information to material, systems to structures, knowledge to form. Geismar discusses a digital ‘poetics’ that can be used to unpack the politics of museum collections and practices (often within an anthropological context), and how it has the potential to shape encounters with collections and to act as a knowledge system in its own right. After reading this, I believe there is room for analysis with a much more focused and narrow aim and framework – one that asks what emotional and meaningful connections are possible from sensory interactions with digital materiality. How can object lessons occur from interaction on a solely online platform with digital artworks in a way that speaks to an individual? Thereby the context and the politics of museum collecting practices are removed.