Community Curation

By Betsy Lewis-Homes, on 18 July 2013

Post by Chloe Chandler. Chloe has been volunteering for the project since January 2013 and is interested in the social meanings of objects.

TH_Ruscoe Road Community Curated Project_270613 (6)

One of the most striking and interesting aspects of Touching Heritage sessions is how museum objects stimulate personal memories. This personal impact encouraged Betsy and I  put our heads together to think of a way of developing these ideas in order to explore the object/person relationship further. The idea of the ‘Community Curated Project’ was born. The idea was to seek out participants from various healthcare settings and encourage them to select and bring along an object of their own to share with a facilitator.

During our first community curated session, we were blown away by the amazing objects that participants had brought with them. The seven senior men and women who took part in this first session brought objects with them which ranged from family photos, medals from the Second World War, a selection of prints of photos sourced from local council archives, a nineteenth century seaman’s diary, and a painted walking cane a participant fashioned from the wood of a Ghanaian mangrove.

We encouraged participants to share their stories through asking questions, such as:

  • Why have you brought this object in to show?
  • How long have you owned it?
  • Do you often share this object with others?
  • What do you find interesting about this object?
  • What does this object symbolise for you?
  • Does this object bring back memories?
  • Are there relationships associated with the object? (I.e. was the object a gift?)

 Objects that initially seemed to be connected to generic public history were given a personal significance. Participants Paul and Lee both brought in prints of photos from their local archives. When I first saw these late nineteenth century/ early twentieth century photos of South-East London streets, I assumed that our session had been misunderstood. We didn’t want to hear about general London histories, we wanted to hear about personal memories.

 However, as Paul and Lee began to talk about the images it became obvious that I was one who was mistaken. Generic black and white photos of street scenes with unknown individuals were transformed into a complex personal mental geography. Each photo of a ‘generic’ street scene had been specifically selected to remember, sustain, and re-create a sense of familial place in the City. Memories were mapped onto these photos. Once they realised their families had come from a similar area of the East End, Paul and Lee, who had never before met, were almost frantic in their exchange of stories via the matching up of archival photos of roads and local landmarks pictured in the images.

Speaking about these personal memories had transformed these public access archival prints into powerful artefacts of deep personal significance. In short they became the artefacts of a ‘personal museum.’

Shark teeth and Star Fossils: my first few weeks as a volunteer

By Betsy Lewis-Homes, on 3 June 2013

Blog entry by Maraiachiara Leto – Touching Heritage Volunteer.

 

At a day centre in Battersea

At a day centre in Battersea

Mariachiara has been volunteering on the Touching Heritage project since May 2013. Originally from Italy, she is about to embark on her Masters degree at UCL in Comparative Literature. She is interested in the cultural meanings of objects and how objects can help us connect to forgotten memories and meanings.

 

 

When I first signed up to volunteer as an Object Handling Facilitator, the idea I had about the project was very different from the real thing. I thought we had to work as guides, giving people living in healthcare centres some information about museum objects. During training I soon found out that I was completely wrong: the objects were a chance to start an informal conversation, rather than educational tools. We were made aware of how important is for the participants to touch the objects and to connect their shape with their own memories.

Before I had time to wonder how this kind of activity could be beneficial or even interesting for participants, I found in my hands a marble thumb belonging to a statue of Alexander the Great. As I was supposed to keep my eyes closed and to guess what I was handling, at first I thought it was merely an everyday object used for the training session. Then, as soon as I realised that it belonged to such a remote past, I got a strange feeling, halfway between surprise and delight. Previously, I had always seen museum objects behind glass: this made me think how rare this opportunity was. Moreover, the conversation I had with my fellow volunteer was really amusing: since she was very hungry, every object reminded her of something to eat!

Later on, when I started the actual project, I found it amazing how inspiring and evocative these objects proved to be. Most of the participants have actively taken part in the session, showing interest, asking questions and setting their imagination free. For instance, the kind older man I talked to on my first day started the conversation on the topic of starfishes, as he was handling a star fossil, but ended up talking about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact! I missed some of the logic in his speech, but it was a very pleasant and lively conversation: at the end, just before going out for a cigarette – since, as he said, “smoked meat lasts longer” – he told me he enjoyed talking with me about history.

This was not the only occasion when a participant wanted to share their passion. When handling a shark tooth fossil, one lady declared to be fond of documentaries on dangerous animals (apparently, the most dangerous one in the world is a spider). Another lady sitting with us, claimed she was not at all afraid of sharks. I asked whether this was true and how she would feel if she happened to meet a shark during a swim. She answered: “Well, that’s a different matter…” We thus kept talking about sea animals, wondering why we tend to find them more intriguing than land animals: is it because they are concealed from us and we still wonder at discovering there is a whole colourful world under water?

Conversations like these show that museum objects can really work as sources of pleasant distraction for many people. I was glad to notice that participants generally tend to share nice memories rather than unpleasant ones, as an older lady did when, touching a small Egyptian pot, remembered the little polished marble heart her father gave her as a present when she was a young girl. This kind of mental associations, which I believe to be the true benefit of the project, would not be possible if participants were enforced to listen passively to a large amount of information. Unexpectedly, I am now involved in a cultural activity that I find unconventional and, for this very reason, incredibly interesting.