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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Listening to what objects say

By Rachael Sparks, on 31 October 2011

The university term is now in full swing and lecturers are starting to prowl around the Institute of Archaeology Collections looking for a few nice objects to keep their students awake once winter sets in. So it’s been a busy couple of weeks down in the artefact store, getting material ready for handling classes.

Cuneiform tabletsI like to teach with objects. No, let me correct that – I absolutely love it. Even the most hardened student shows a spark of interest when faced with some small but significant piece of the past. That’s ancient dirt, right there. The ghost of another era. You know you want to touch it, go on, have a go …

So here’s some of the object handling classes that have been going on behind closed doors of late:

– A session all about the sorts of objects that carry texts in the ancient world, as part of an undergraduate course on using written sources in archaeology.
– A series of practical exercises designed to teach future museum curators how to catalogue the unfamiliar and seemingly uncataloguable.
– Discussions built around broken pots that open the door onto a whole world of ancient technologies.
– Projects designed to teach students basic conservation skills and techniques

Objects may be silent, but they are not mute; the trick is to bring the collective experience of a class to the handling table and use it to get the objects to tell us their stories.Pot cleaning training

Here’s one you can try at home. Pick any object around the house, and text a description of it to a friend. Get them to draw what they think the object looks like and return their image. Did they get anywhere close? If they didn’t, you’re in good company – using words to paint a visual picture is harder than it sounds. But if they did … well maybe you should be thinking of a career in museums …

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