By Celine West, on 21 January 2011
Part of what I’ve always done at UCL Museums is outreach, taking objects from the collections to groups of people for them to touch and talk about. Children and adults love to get their hands on museum things, whether we’re talking about Ancient Egyptian amulets or a viper’s skull. They like to feel the sharp and the smooth bits, feel the weight in their hands, have a sniff to find out if it smells of itself or only a museum cupboard.
At some point most people ask “What is it?”, which is where I try to resist either giving the answer straight away or saying “What do you think it is?” and instead find other ways of encouraging people to explore what’s in their hands. Think about what material it is, is it bone or stone or wood or wool? What was it used for? Who made it? “Why are there more questions than answers, grandad?” was one of my favourite childhood books. We go on as long as we can before I give any answers people haven’t already worked out.
I’m in the process of trying some new work in this area, using a single object to get groups of people talking and see what happens, see if we can talk about big topics not only the objects and their contexts. There’s quite a lot yet to be done on the presentation of the object, we’re aiming for some showmanship with this that will attract passers-by at events or festivals, for example, as well as being pretty cool. And work to be done choosing a couple of objects that we can work with in this way, where the focus is not going to be on handling an object and investigating it. Instead we’ll be working on engaging people’s brains in another way, giving them a thought-provoking experience, making a little space for you to confront something different and sparky and make your brain hum for a while afterwards. Wonder what we’ll end up choosing.