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Object Lessons: Communicating Knowledge Through Collections
Objects can be viewed from many different perspectives to reveal multiple, and sometimes contested, meanings. While we may start with object-focused questions such as: What is it made of? How was it made? Where is it from? When was it made? How was it used? Answers to these questions open up further research areas about how objects connect people and express knowledge and cultural values.
Using UCL’s unique collections, which include the Grant Museum of Zoology, the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, and Art Collections, students will build their own virtual exhibition. Starting with an object each, students will work independently and in small groups to research their objects’ ‘original’ cultural, social, historical, ethnographic and scientific contexts.
Through this process of interrogation, research, documentation and presentation, a range of research and practical skills will be developed. By using objects as the primary focus, the course will draw on interdisciplinary approaches to their study from fields as diverse as zoology and art history; anthropology and medical science. Students will develop an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of different sources of information, for example, the textual, material, visual and auditory, and be able to combine these sources in the analysis of a particular theme or research focus.
At the end of the course, students will be able to:
- Undertake independent research
- Work successfully in a team
- Compile, edit and present information in a variety of formats, including reports, illustrations and on web pages
- Critically evaluate how other people present data
- Demonstrate direct experience of working with museum curators and other specialists in the field of object research
The course will consist of weekly small group practical sessions (2 hours), followed by whole group lectures (2 hours). Lectures are designed to acquaint students with key examples of academic research on objects taken from a range of disciplines which will inform and inspire the students’ own approaches to object analysis. Weekly independent study will also be necessary in order to undertake the assessed project work successfully.
Themes explored in lectures and practical sessions are to include: the role of materiality in culture and human cognition, scientific approaches to the analysis of materials, the social and economic contexts of manufacturing and trade, approaches to studying the aesthetic qualities of artefacts, how to design an exhibition, developing virtual media and web content, researching collections, principles of curation, and ethics and digital communication.
The course runs for three hours per week in Term 2 of Year 2 as follows:
Dr Helen Chatterjee (Biosciences and UCL Museums) and Dr Leonie Hannan (UCL Museums)
TBC (1 hour per week)
1-3pm on Fridays
On top of this, there is also a final presentation day on the last day of term 2.
The course is assessed through two pieces of interrelated coursework:
- An individual assessment submitted as a research report on one object (40%)
- A group exhibition prepared as a website (40%) and explained in an oral presentation (20%)
Individual object reports are due to be submitted after Reading Week. The illustrated report will provide a brief description of one object. This will be based on inspecting and describing the physical appearance and materials of the object; creating a photographic record and drawing of the object; assembling any available information (e.g. from labels, accession registers, archives, etc.); as far as possible explaining the social, cultural, historical, scientific context of the object by researching its natural origins, manufacture, use, and iconography; documenting the object’s biography as a museum artefact (how it was acquired, what previous exhibition or research uses it has been put to); to be concluded by summarising why the object is of interest, identifying some of the research themes that it could be used to address and suggesting what further research could be undertaken.
In developing the virtual exhibition you must work with the other members of your group to identify an exhibition theme that explores some of the connections between the series of objects that you have all been studying. The group, if you wish, can add a few more objects to their collection in order to help develop your chosen theme or fill gaps in the narrative. These ‘object loans’ need not be from UCL’s own collections (they could come from online museum catalogues, existing museum displays, objects in publications, or new acquisitions from industry, nature, or artists). The source of these loan objects and images should be identified and care taken not to infringe copyright.
The group exhibition is to be produced as a website based in myportfolio, including text and images. Week 8’s lecture will explore the development of content for virtual media and some technical support will also be available. An introductory page should explain the overall theme and help to orientate the viewer as to how they can use the site to explore this theme. The salient aspects of each object should be summarised, using information and images that highlight how they relate to the exhibition theme. The object name, accession number, material(s), dimensions and source must be stated within the site, as should a list of the references and sources used as well as acknowledgements for any individual or institution that has supported the production of the exhibition, although this information can be ‘backgrounded’. In order to make the web site user friendly, images will need to be reduced to an appropriate file size.
In early May there will be a presentation day where each group will present a short talk describing their exhibition with each individual contributing to show how they researched and developed their chosen theme. The web site should include a page explaining how individual contributions supported the overall presentation. The group will be given a shared mark for the web site and presentation, with the potential to vary individual final marks up or down by a further 15% from this group mark depending on both the course tutor and peer assessment of individual contributions to the overall outcome.
Virtual Exhibition 60%
- Website 40% [tutor: 30%; peers: 10%]
- Oral presentation 20% [tutor: 15%; peers: 5%]