Why is working with museum objects so appealing to researchers? asks Kristin D. Hussey, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen.
This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to write a short text exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection.
Why is working with museum objects so appealing to researchers? There can be little doubt that object-centred research has been coveted by academics and curators alike since at least the nineteenth century. The Victorian curators of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford were so sure that objects carried within them their own endogenous knowledge sources that they dissected them, working like anatomists, intent on revealing the hidden internal secrets of the human body. Using ‘discrete lumps’ of physical material as a way of holding, sharing and memorializing cultural ideas and values had probably been practiced for long as there have been people (Pearce 1994). Museums as institutions were born out of this fetishization of the ‘thing’ – originally in the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities – and developing into the mighty encyclopaedic institutions which sought to know (and control) the world at large by displaying and ordering their cultural productions (Arnold 2006). Today it would be fair to say that we are well past the original ‘material turn’ in the humanities originally ushered in by work like Arjun Appadurai’s 1986 The Social Life of Things. A wealth of scholarly work has interrogated the museum object from philosophical, historical and sociological perspectives. You might justifiably think already we know everything there is to know about how to engage with objects. So why are researchers (including myself) still obsessed with something as simplistic as touching them?
I will always remember my first time really touching a museum object. It was in a job interview – I was given an object as a part of a practical test. It was a Victorian Magneto-Electric Machine, a fairly common item in history of medicine collections. This is basically a wooden box, which contains a large magnet and some moving machinery, the idea being that you would create an electric charge from the box which could be applied to a body part in need of restoring ‘nerve tone’. Presented with the box, I was asked what it was, how I would handle it (the technical term for holding/touching/moving) and whether there were any hazards I should be worried about. I was being tested for a very museum-centric way of touching, which prioritizes safety (of the object and the handler) above all else. I identified fragile moving parts, slightly rusted hinges, pealing paper, and loose internal components, all of which have an influence on the way an item should be touched and moved. I thought about whether it might contain asbestos or whether it had ever been treated with pesticides. This sustained (and high pressured) engagement with an object is one I will never forget (and fortunately for me, I got the job).
As someone who has spent the larger part of my career working in museums in various collections-based capacities, I have touched a lot of different things. I’ve touched famous works of art, I’ve touched human remains, I’ve touched animal skulls, I’ve touched tools owned and used by famous surgeons, I’ve touched ceremonial objects from other cultures, and for a while I got very good at touching medicine chests. It is probably not surprising then that most of my academic research ideas have come from this kind of wandering and touching in the stores. My PhD focused on medicine and empire in Victorian London – an idea I got from a skull on display at the Hunterian. I next did a research project on pandas and the London Zoo because of a panda skull I was cataloguing at the time. When I think of my current research topic on circadian rhythms and their disruption, I see it in shades of wiry beds on storage racking, of long dusty telegraph exchanges, of slightly smelly bottles of patent medicine.
Coming from this privileged tactile position, it didn’t occur to me until I moved into the more academic side of object research that touching was such a desired but carefully guarded practice. Most researchers will never have the kind of free form, unmediated, unwatched, and unguided object encounters which is the everyday stuff of museum work. Touching is the realm of the museum curator and conservator – a position of privilege and (arguably) one of the best parts of the job.
At a recent workshop organized by the Thinking Through Things project at Wellcome Collection, I found myself surrounded by other early career researchers who were also obsessed with touching things. However, during the day we found ourselves unable to touch anything at all. This was for a number of (good) reasons. Despite what many people think, Wellcome Collection actually doesn’t look after the science and medicine objects most people associate with it (these live at the Science Museum and are currently inaccessible to researchers and curators alike). Many of the items we were shown from the library and archive collections were so fragile they had to be handled only by conservators. With so many of us in the workshop, it would have been impracticable to supervise handling of fragile materials amongst a group of people with varying object handling skills.
Now, one could (and indeed many people do) argue that there is no reason why researchers should need to actually touch museum objects. In order to do a piece of narrative historical analysis – one need only look at an object (in an image, in a catalogue, in a display, or maybe if you are lucky, in person). Most objects and artworks find themselves in books and articles in the form of images anyway. Even curators rely on the object database, with its images and text-based representations of an object, as a first port of call. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say there are three central reasons why we are still fascinated with touching objects: because to touch activates a different form of learning, because touch is something of a shortcut to what Adam Bencard (2014) and others have called object ‘presence’, and because touch has the distinct caché of being generally prohibited.
We all want what we can’t have. And despite the many attempts of museums to ‘open themselves up’ to the public through more events, tours, late openings, open stores and online catalogues, to be physically with the collections is still a privilege for the few. Is it perhaps just because it is so hard to get a hold of objects that they maintain their mysterious hold over us? Museum educators who have worked with object-based learning in the museum stores have often spoke of the reverence experienced by the students being in spaces they aren’t ‘supposed to be.’ The performance of gloving up, of implementing specialist training, all serves to differentiate the museum object and the touching of it from the way we touch objects all the time in our everyday lives. The very specialness of the museum object serves to heighten almost to a fever pitch the importance of materiality and the risky fragility of material things. Would it be half so exciting if the stakes were lower?
Furthermore, scholars and educators have argued that working with objects facilitates a unique multi-sensory, somatic form of learning (Matthews 1998; Chatterjee 2008; Pye 2016). Helen Chatterjee and Leonie Hannan (2015) observe that ‘touch is the most neglected dimension in learning when compared to seeing, reading and listening.’ Touching objects initiates an experimental learning pathway which psychologists argue facilitates critical thinking and the construction of new knowledge. And while such ideas are far from new in the classroom at primary and secondary levels, where teachers attempt to incorporate many different forms of learning and knowing for their students, incorporating object-based learning into environments like universities is still a relatively new practice.
Philosopher and curator Adam Bencard (2014) argues that the power of objects is the pull they have on us as individuals – that being with objects (in many ways) helps facilitate a dialogue between the self and the past. The ‘presence effect’ of objects is the ability for them to evoke, or make conscious within ourselves, the embodied history we all carry with us. Objects facilitate access to a non-representational, non-interpretive knowledge that ‘just happens’. That is to say, when we are with objects we ‘feel it in our bones’ – their presences bridge a conscious and unconscious state allowing us to make new and unique connections.
If we are following Bencard, touching is a useful way to activate an internal, personal engagement with the self and the world (and/or self and the past), but it isn’t the only way. You could evoke just as profound an affective experience with an object by looking at it through a case (as we often do), or online in a database, or even just in your mind – as a memory. (Arguably my Magneto-Electric machine is operating by just such a principal, this vivid encounter having occurred over 8 years ago now). And yet, I remain convinced of the value for researchers in touching objects.
There are a few main reasons why I do not believe it is possible to have a profound engagement with an object without touching it (and being at your leisure while you do so). Firstly, museum databases are often not very good. I say this as someone who has spent a lot of time trying to make them better. The likelihood that the object you want to research has been examined and documented with the same amount of expertise as you have, and that expertise has been accurately captured in the database, and that you (a public user) can access that level of documentation detail, is slim to none. For the most part, object records have been done very quickly (because of limited time and resource) and represent a conglomeration of different people’s thoughts and opinions over time. Many of them are wrong. And they often don’t capture very specific features of the item which might be hugely significant for a researcher – especially if there are any markings or inscriptions (often so small you can’t see them in the pictures). I would hazard most museum ‘discoveries’ come from someone looking closely at an object and reading a faded piece of handwriting no one has noticed before.
Secondly, to be physically present with an object is to create a relationship between the researcher and the artefact which is temporally and somatically specific. To touch is to create a moment in which multiple modes of knowing are at play and the connections built from this multifaceted engagement are completely subjective on the person who is experiencing it. The embodied knowledge which museum collections can uniquely facilitate is necessarily specific to the one in which it is embodied – meaning it is impossible to mediate this engagement by, say, a member of collections staff viewing an object on behalf of a researcher, or providing a picture. It is one of the great benefits of the research-museum interface to allow the often quite niche expertise areas of research to open up new ways of understanding object collections.
Thirdly, I do not think that one is really able to do the first two things if someone is watching you. Even in organisations who do facilitate direct researcher engagement with their collections this is almost always done with a member of staff acting as supervisor (and they are often the only person who can touch the object itself). It is very difficult to take the time and space to develop these kinds of encounters if you feel the other person has somewhere to be, let alone the fact that you are unable to guide yourself through further object encounters (interesting objects tending to be stored near to other similar and possibly relevant ones). As Alexandra Woodall (2015) has explored, ‘rummaging’ as a creative practice opens up new potentials for creative thinking.
Lastly, to touch an object is quite simply joyful. In much the same way as we walk through a department store touching all the clothes, touch is a satisfying way to get to know the world. For someone who has a fascination with material culture (as all museum people do), to touch an object isn’t just know it but to satisfy a deeply held personal passion. It is exhilarating and a bit forbidden. The distance between the kind of objects we touch everyday (like a coffee cup) and this thing in your hands, this piece of history as deemed so by the museum, becomes very clear. And you for a moment, are someone special, in touch with history. And to be honest, whether in academia or in museums, moments of joy are something to be valued.
So – if touching can be important (to certain forms of knowing and researching), how can we facilitate this? As a museum person myself, I am always interested in the practical. To handle objects safely is a skill. Museums have an ethical and often legal responsibility to safeguard collections for the future – so doing anything that risks their long-term survival is out of the question (fair enough). Museum staff are very busy and probably don’t have as much time for research access as you (or they) might like. Museums don’t know you (the researcher), you haven’t been background checked (like their staff), and there is always a risk you are going to walk out with things in your pockets.
I would like to suggest that a way forward would be the wider establishment of research programmes like the one run at the Science Museum as a part of their recent Wellcome Research Fellowships, tied to their Medical Galleries project. This involved the recruitment of researchers to be a part of their dedicated research department, and then providing them with the necessary skills to actually do this kind of object research. Any researcher working in the collections would necessarily need training on safe object handling, on searching in a database, on safe access to stored areas, on possible risk and hazards, on what to do when things go wrong. It is undoubtedly a time and resource intensive endeavour to provide this kind of training. However, to facilitate a deep level of engagement between researcher and collection it seems to have worked very successfully, based on the exciting outputs from their recent seminar series.
I hope one day we might see a national or even international network of Fellowships which train researchers to work with museum collections in this way. I have no doubt such a suggestion would be costly to run and it would take more than a little convincing for organizations to accept. The reticence to allow anyone but highly trained specialists to touch objects runs very deep for collections professionals. However, with proper training and structures in place, I believe opening up the privilege of touching will be of great benefit to both researchers and museums. And I can guarantee that the insights will be delightfully unexpected.
Kristin Hussey is a curator and historian of medicine. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, where her project ‘Body Time’ explores circadian rhythms in their cultural, philosophical and historical contexts.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Arnold, Ken. 2006. Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Bencard, Adam. 2014. ‘Presence in the Museum: On metonymies, discontinuity and history without stories,’ Museum and Society 12 (1), 29–43.
Chatterjee, Helen (ed.). 2008. Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. Oxford and New York: Berg.
Chatterjee, Helen, and Hannan, Leonie (eds.). 2015. Engaging the senses: Object-based learning in higher education. Farnham: Ashgate.
Gosden, Chris, Frances Larson, and Alison Petch. 2007. Knowing Things: Exploring the Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, 1884–1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Matthews, J.C. 1998. ‘Somatic Knowing and Education,’ Educational Forum, 62 (3), 236242.
Pearce, Susan (ed.). 1994. Interpreting Objects and Collections. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Pye, Elizabeth (ed.). 2016. The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.
Woodall, Alexandra. 2015. ‘Rummaging as a strategy for creative thinking and imaginative engagement in higher education,’ in Chatterjee and Hannan (eds.), Engaging the senses: object-based learning in high education. Farnham: Ashgate, 133–155.
 Of course, even in museums not all staff get to touch objects with wild abandon. Front of house staff and other essential museum workers are often excluded, and even curators can sometimes find it difficult to find the time to physically be with objects. Ironically, it is often the most junior members of staff – the (shockingly poorly paid) collections, conservation and documentation assistants, who do the most touching. It is fun, but probably not enough fun to make up for the low salaries.
 I think the emergence of schools which specifically focus on collections as a form of guiding their curriculum and approach to learning is particularly exciting. See for example, the Langley Academy outside London.