I have just spent an excellent morning considering the connections between objects, culture, identity, ownership and meaning with a lively and stimulating group of students from the Masters course in Museum Studies at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. I was a student there on the equivalent course just over thirty years ago and it was a surprisingly strong ‘blast from the past’ to be back.
I was delighted to be invited to be a guest lecturer and it was an interesting challenge to work out how I could contribute to a course on ‘Museum Ethnography and World Art’. I had been asked to talk about interpretation (obviously) and, after a little encouragement from Dr. Viv Golding (many thanks, Viv), realised this was only a small skip from my talk in Perth last November. (That talk will appear on the web soon – just as soon as I have edited it for publication). So, once again, I talked about the telling of stories in interpretation (interpretelling), particularly in a multi- and/or cross-cultural context.
The small group of students included people from seven countries so we were able to experience and experiment with cross-cultural communication. I had asked everyone to bring an object from their ‘home culture, whatever that means to you’. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised but as people talked about these objects, I experienced again the fast, strong and deep connections between objects and not only personal histories but also social, cultural and political contexts. These simple everyday objects: stamps, a passport, cooking utensils, a jar of (admittedly rather exotic) perfume, postcards, a box of convenience food; all had layers of stories. We moved rapidly and naturally from the personal and particular to the wider context. The objects shed light on who we are on many levels. And as we talked about our own objects and about other people’s we explored those things we can easily understand, the things we don’t understand and the things we don’t realize we don’t understand. (Very Rumsfeldt – she says, in another of those very culturally-specific moments). I am becoming increasingly interested in spaces and silences – the gaps in our storytelling.
We also looked at case studies from the British Museum and the Cannings Stock Route exhibition that I managed to miss (but Peter saw) in Perth. That provoked lots of excellent discussion. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of these, mainly young, trainee curators. It was a fascinating and energising session for me. I hope it was for them too.