“Any object, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods.”
James Joyce, Ulysses
Teaching with objects is powerful. It focuses attention, deepens inquiry and opens up unexpected avenues of exploration. It connects the student with the material world surrounding their studies and enables the sideways glance that can illuminate a whole academic discipline.
And since the essential key to the process is the object itself, it’s worth thinking about these myriad tools for a moment. Without wishing to sound absurd (or perhaps, rather, willingly sounding absurd) what are they? What is an object? And do some possess magical qualities invested in them by their presence in museums that other, more prosaic things do not?
Objects are the stuff of our world and our lives. We expend seemingly endless effort acquiring, tending to and disposing of them. We know objects like we know ourselves and, like each of us they all have a story to tell.
There are objects which we treasure, hold as intimate and cherish in our memories for decades such as a wedding ring or an old photograph. The value of exploring these is clear: intrinsic, sentimental and historic value enlivens and enriches their stories. In contrast, many objects in our everyday lives are disposable and of little worth – a pencil, for example, or a tissue. Common to both the tissue and the wedding ring, however, is the fact that each is imbued with layers of meaning and significance, both material and symbolic.
Take, for instance, the tissue paper. At once delicate and durable, sterile and clean smelling, it is folded with mathematical precision in a box or plastic parcel.
Although a paper tissue might be nearly worthless it speaks to wealth: it is emblematic of Western luxury and the possibilities of cheap mass production in a throwaway society. A tissue signals symptoms of illness or lament and its use is vaguely feminizing. Its invention, located in the early 20th century, is part of the growing consumer market of self-care. Its materials and life cycle raise questions of economic structures and environmental degradation. Ephemeral though it is, as an object for examination and reflection, an artifact of cultural practice and technological sophistication. A tissue offers us a lot.
Humans are unique in their complex regard of objects, even of the most common variety, evidenced since the beginning of our species. For instance scores of common Mediterranean sea shells were found in the Middle Palaeolithic levels of the Qafzeh Cave in Israel, together with Neanderthal habitation and burial remains.
80,000 years ago the inhabitants of Qafzeh cave trekked 35km to the sea to collect these familiar objects, bivalve shells, cream coloured, no larger than 4cm, several fitting into an open hand. Recent scientific analysis has shown that some of the shells were painted with ochre, some carefully strung, some deposited in burial. Understood together with other evidence for early hominid behaviour, these shells contribute to a complex picture emerging about early human symbolic systems.
Qafzeh Cave was excavated in the 1930s by René Neuville, the French Consul General in Jerusalem, and at a time when the chronology and topography of early man was just being roughed out and the field of archaeology was in its infancy. The stories the shells have to tell are certainly about Neanderthal lives, their travels, craft, painting, adornment, economy and potentially their faith. But these same objects also tell other stories, about the early 20th century history of anthropology and archaeology and the intellectual development of the modern state of Israel. Humble though they are, they offer a direct route into a wide range of topics, disciplines, inquiry and knowledge.
The bivalve shells might be considered unconventional objects with which to teach, at least in any discipline other than archaeology or anthropology. Similarly, the tissue might seem an unpromising starting point for any sort of serious class, and it’s true we that tend to teach with objects found in museums. After all, they are where the particularly beautiful and interesting stuff is be found.
But the objects we put at the center of our practice are there not because they are necessarily immediately and obviously fascinating or because they have the museum’s seal of approval, but because of the hidden networks of meaning and association they embody. Objects are the complex output of complex humans, so no matter how mundane, exalted, old, new, rough, elegant, valuable or worthless, we use them all the same, as sources of inspiration for teaching and thinking about history, ideas, technology, economics, philosophy, theology, anthropology…
All of it.