Things Unbound: Engagements with Objects in India and the UK will conduct pilot research into museum visitors’ engagements with objects in India and the UK, and develop long-term collaboration between the two main partners (School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester; Department of Museology, National Museum, New Delhi) and other collaborators in India and the UK.
Primary research question
What do and could objects do in museums; how can research utilising a diversity of expertise across a range of cultural and museum contexts inform this question, and what might the answer(s) add to development of both museum practice and object theory?
Secondary research questions
- How and why do people look at and respond to physical objects on display, even if they know or formerly knew nothing about the identity, function or context of those objects?
- What effects do object qualities (eg colour, patina) have on responses to objects?
- In what ways, if at all, does this differ according to object, and museum and cultural setting?
- How can comparative studies advance knowledge of responses to objects, and facilitate developments in academic theory?
- How does all of this help us understand how better to utilise objects in museums?
Networking, exchange, dissemination, outputs
- Exchange and training of museum studies and local researchers, in the process widening the scope of tomorrow’s leading museum studies academics trained in both India and the UK
- Dissemination to the museums profession in both countries
- High quality international publications
- Establish a durable structure for ongoing, long-term Indo-UK collaboration and future funding applications in this area
The project is timely because of a unique contemporary intersection of:
- a growing emphasis in both academia and museum practice on objects, their agency and sensory and emotional engagement with them
- a need to develop greater understanding of how people engage with objects, and
- a requirement to grow new models of curatorship in order to respond to these intellectual shifts.
Recently, interest has increased in sensory experience of the material world (Howes 2006; Edwards, Gosden & Phillips 2006; Classen 2007; Dudley 2010) and phenomenological approaches to it (eg Ingold 2000; Tilley 2004). In museum studies, much work variously addresses how people perceive and interpret museum objects, particularly – though not solely – in the context of learning (eg Falk & Dierking 2000; Hein 1998; Hooper-Greenhill 1999; vom Lehn 2001; Pye 2008; Chatterjee 2008).
Other approaches include development of museum experience through interactive technologies (eg Zimmer & Jeffries 2007) and work by artists (e.g. Putnam 2001; Dorsett 2009). Meanwhile, recent research at the British Museum and London’s Natural History Museum has been exploring the potential of ‘gateway’ objects to draw visitors into particular spaces (c.f. earlier use of ‘stumpers’ in discovery centres in the USA). Concurrently, recent work has emphasised imaginary, emotional and physical responses to objects qua objects, even when contextual information is absent, confused or unknown (Greenblatt 1991; de Bolla 2005; Dudley 2012).
Such approaches, however, have yet to be applied to systematic field studies of object-person engagements in contemporary museum contexts. Moreover, no empirical in-situ research has yet been conducted within a framework constructed from material cultural understandings of objects, phenomenological theories of embodied experience and museum studies’ insights into object-centred visitor experience, as we propose to do, within a cross-cultural research collaboration and comparison.
We are particularly concerned with the dynamics of the moments, however brief, in which museum visitors stop to look closely at things.
There is a need for empirical research to help us understand what is distinctive about those moments, with a view to reconsidering the ontological and methodological position, and social and economic potential, of museums and their objects in the 21st century.
The project is not concerned with the technology, power and role of the museum itself – not because the institution’s part is insubstantial (clearly it is not), but because the project seeks to shift attention to what happens between persons and things on a more micro-scale.
Most radically, at the theoretical level we will seek also to explore ways in which those encounters might by imagined from the object’s point of view, and to consider what might be some of the implications of doing so. As thought experiment at least, this approach might have potential in demonstrating the flexibility and challenging possibilities of things in the museum.
Many scholars have commented on the decontextualizing or ‘deadening’ effect of museums on objects (especially culturally significant objects), and on one level perhaps this is an inevitable result of the processes that museumise something, removing it from its original setting and isolating it as evidence and/or representation, separating it from its entanglement with quotidian life.
Yet on another level, precisely because encounters between persons and things are – or can be – so different once something enters a museum, objects and engagements with them can be unpredictable and potentive, disordered and enlivening, full of a wholly new and distinct set of potentials to those they had in everyday life. At the most dramatic, objects that might on the one hand seem lost or even dead in their separation from prior contexts, may nonetheless on the other have new impacts and effects – sensory, emotional, imaginary, either layered on top of their old meanings or even, such as when they are encountered unlabelled, as apparently new beginnings.
Most interactions are less spectacular than this perhaps, but still heavy with an affective potential that centres upon the peculiar kind of engagement with the material object that happens, or could happen, in the museal space. Indeed, there is an inherent paradox in this engagement: while it is common to identify the artificial distancing that the museum’s vitrines, ropes and signage enforce between person and object and that seem to render the museum a very unmaterial world by comparison to the quotidian realm, at the same time there is an oft-unexploited opportunity to focus in on the thing itself. Display, in other words, simultaneously may place things at one remove and bring them into closer focus.
It is these issues, and the opportunities to enhance visitor-object encounters (and thereby optimise visitor experience in museums and heritage sites) which we wish to explore empirically and cross-culturally, utilising the combined expertise of the UK and Indian teams.
Museum research methods
We will conduct short-term research in museums in India and the UK. The final list of research sites is to be confirmed. During the Jan-Feb 2015 UK team visit to India, we will conduct research in the Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur (a replacement for the originally envisaged Udaipur Palace Museum). At this site, researchers available will include: UK team (3pp); NMI team (3-4pp); local (Jaipur-based) researchers (up to 5pp for 6days). We are likely to use a combination of:
- Ethnographic participant observation, probably with a phenomenological stance that assumes the subjectivity of the experience of objects and museum spaces and seeks to gain an understanding of it from the perspective of each research participant. Observations likely to be made of how people move in the museum space, how they interact with each other, how they approach the object and utilise their senses and bodily positions in seeking to experience it, and any responses subsequently demonstrated (verbally or physically). Observations will be recorded in note and visual form.
- Semi-structured exit interviews, conducted with research participants after they leave the particular museum space in question. Those interviewees who have access to email and are willing to be contacted at a later date, may then also be sent a questionnaire 6-12 months after their museum visit. Questions at this point would seek to gather information on any lasting effects of the experience of the object and museum space.
- Historical research into any relevant visitor surveys, comment books etc.
- Other qualitative methods as appropriate.
We will be conducting a series of India- and UK-based workshops, involving various museum studies and other academics and museum professionals at different stages of the project. During the Jan-Feb 2015 UK team visit to India, there will be a workshop held at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur, courtesy of the postgraduate Centre for Museology and Conservation within the Department for Art History at that university. This will be the project’s first workshop including external delegates, and we would like it to address the project’s themes and research questions, and methodological questions.