Tangible Things: exploring history through objects

My first edX, or rather HarvardX, MOOC is on Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook), running from 5 August for five weeks:

Gain an understanding of history, museum studies, and curation by looking at, organizing, and interpreting art, artifacts, scientific curiosities, and the stuff of everyday life.

Have you ever wondered about how museum, library, and other kinds of historical or scientific collections all come together? Or how and why curators, historians, archivists, and preservationists do what they do? In Tangible Things, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people…

In the first section of the course, we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the value of stopping to look at the things around you. In the next section, we will explore some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce, and define culture. Finally, we will consider methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking about nature, time, and ordinary work.

Recommended by someone on #flmuseums, we’ll see how this goes – it looks very American, and that’s not just the Caps Up and added commas.

Week 1: introductions and Look at the Fish 

After a welcome from the tutors there’s a fun video on how to look at a chair, showed how focusing on different aspects of an object (from the perspectives of environmental science, economics, art, anthropology, history, history of medicine) can open up new ways of thinking about its broader historical or cultural significance:

This is not a chair. Well, it’s not only a chair. As you can see, it can be a tree, a symbol of power, a commodity, a document, a treatment, a sculpture, and much, much more.

List at least five different ways you might redefine a common object in your own house. Explain your choices, using the template: “This is not a _________; it is a __________.” Include a photo if possible.

Another exercise asks when you last visited a museum. What kind of museum was it? Did you learn any history? What was it?

The edX platform is fine, looks more up to date than Coursera and more grown up than FutureLearn, as does the whole thing. To get over the gadzillion responses issue the class is divided into four, three by surname and one for museum professionals, but it’s got cluttered very quickly and isn’t easy to navigate – searching may have to be the way. Self assessment (based on an honour code) in order to get a certificate is on offer, via check boxes for whether you watched the vids, did the exercises or joined the discussion. Neat.

Weird pre-course survey question: What is the highest level of education that your mother and father completed?

OK, let’s look at the fish.

In this unit we explore how investigation begins with close looking. Close looking was the foundation of scientific exploration in the nineteenth century. It is still important today. To begin to understand something, start by simply looking at it. Then, look again.

This is a story about science. But it’s also a story about close looking. It’s a story about the 19th century obsession with material things. In the 19th century, it wasn’t just scientists who looked closely to find information. Poets, politicians, teachers, lawyers, doctors, everyday people collected things as a way to understand the world around them.

There was a belief that you could learn a great deal about looking closely at things, arranging those objects, sorting those things, and in many ways, tracing the shape of nature through your observation of those things.

Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws. Go back and look at the fish.

And after eight months, Samuel Scudder not only felt that he knew something about fish, he felt that he had learned something about the methods of natural science.

Scudder didn’t begin with a textbook. Scudder began with a fish. And through close-looking, he was able to learn what he needed to understand about this object and its place in a larger system.

…just looking isn’t enough. Observations should prompt questions, connections from other contexts and further research, not start with close preconceived notions setting out to prove a theory.

From the readings: looking closely can improve writing. See also the case study method developed by Harvard Business School.

Choose an object close at hand for this exercise. Choose something tangible and accessible, a physical object you can put on a table in front of you and touch, see, smell—and perhaps even taste. Choose something common but with enough complexity to engage your interest. If you are lucky you could pick something from your garden. Or find an interesting rock, shell, or other thing that piques your interest.

List ten specific observations. Then list ten more.

A pencil is a great eye.” That is, attempt to describe it without words. Photograph it a dozen times, each time from a different angle or focusing on a different detail.

“Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws”

  • Make a list of questions suggested by your examination.
  • Begin an Internet search for answers to your questions.
  • Search for photographs, art works, or artifacts related to your object.
  • Search for proverbs, poems, or quotations related to your object.

Write a brief paragraph summarizing the most surprising or enlightening thing you discovered. How did your understanding of this object change as you engaged with it? What didn’t you learn through close looking? What are the limits of Louis Agassiz‘s method? What questions emerged from the close looking? What is the difference between physically looking at an object and simply perceiving it on screen?

This approach was outlined in #flmuseums’ final week, and is similar to my idea of curated reading (and writing).

Pretty impressed so far – like #mapmooc, it’s the best of America! I tend to find storytelling a bit tedious, but if it’s well done it does work – I found myself pretty gripped by the fish. From Let’s take another look (in the recommend reading): “I realized I was a presenter of facts, wondering why the students never seemed to understand the concepts…I had been a presenter of learning when I needed to be a facilitator of learning”.

It’s notable that the course doesn’t seem to have any multiple choice quizzes, which I tend to get through via a ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ approach. To move into long term memory a lesson needs to be associated with what a student already knows (curational), or get them emotionally involved (storytelling).

The team are also behind the Tangible things book and website, while a post from the Chipstone Foundation hints at how the approach is relevant to #flmuseum’s activist museum, without ramming one message down your throat:

Any material thing is best understood from multiple perspectives, using the tools of diverse disciplines and lessons learned in many different kinds of museums. For now, our challenge is to help our visitors find a way to open these drawers to investigate the contents of these glass vials, to transport them to a lost world far more complex than any one museum can adequately capture.

The rest of the course is released in two units per week, which may result in some dipping in and out. Hopefully we’ll hear from the team more directly in due course – neither #some account has posted since last year’s outing.


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