Communicating knowledge through collections and objects
‘Object Lessons’ is a second year core module on the BASc Arts and Sciences undergraduate degree programme at UCL.
14 August 2015
This case study explores how it currently meets the priorities of the Connected Curriculum initiative and suggests some areas that could be developed to enhance the connectivity offered by the module.
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.
The teaching is comprised of weekly lectures and seminars. The lectures are given by a range of academic staff and introduce the students to a range of disciplinary perspectives on studying material things. The seminars are active, object-based and enquiry-based learning sessions and the teaching is conducted in small groups with a facilitator per six students.
At the start of the module, each student is given a different UCL museum or library object to research. This could be a zoological specimen, an ethnographic or archaeological artefact, an object relating to the history of science, a rare book, a manuscript or an art work.
The students are asked to conduct independent research into their object and to make use of more than one disciplinary framework for the study of material culture in this process. Students arrange visits to the museum collection and are able to delve into existing museum records as primary research material. They might also draw on the knowledge of the given curator and are expected to conduct wider secondary reading to contextualise their object and develop an argument for the resulting object report.
Submitted after reading week, the report is 2,000 words in length and carries 40% of the total mark for the module. The students are offered genuine, individual research projects (many objects are largely undocumented and have had very little research conducted on them to date). As each student is given a different object, they need to consider how to respond to the particularities of their given object and make decisions about how they can use evidence to make an argument in their reports. There is an emphasis placed on students using their own cross-disciplinary knowledge and the varied perspectives introduced by the course lectures to give an interdisciplinary response to the object.
Creating a virtual exhibition
In the second half of term, the students work in groups of six and devise a virtual exhibition featuring their six researched objects.
The first step is to develop a theme that can connect the objects and discuss how to communicate this theme through the exhibition. Students need to decide on a target audience for the exhibition and tailor the content to this audience. Whilst they will draw on the content of their object reports in constructing the exhibition, it is important that they make sure the exhibition achieves an appropriate tone and consistent mode of presentation throughout.
The group project itself is worth 40% of the total module mark and the students give an oral presentation on the process of putting together the exhibition, for which they are awarded a further and final 20% of their marks.
This is used in two ways on the module:
- Group members assess their peers in terms of the quality of their individual contribution to the group project. These assessments are used to adjust the group project mark (the same mark for all students) into an individual mark;
- The students peer assess the quality of another group’s oral presentation and these comments and grades contribute to the assessment and feedback on this exercise.
“Mind-opening; it is a good introduction to the museum curation and it brings us new perspectives to view things around us. I like this very much as we can really touch and learn a real thing and connect them with the culture context.”
“Really interesting, made me think in different ways!”
“I enjoyed it. It felt far more independent and investigative than other forms of research.”
“There was a lot of flexibility in terms of how to ‘interpret’ the object report, which at first seemed very daunting. In the end, it ended up being a good learning process, having to figure out yourself how to best structure the assignment according to your object.”
“It was enlightening to learn about objects through actually interacting with them. It really helps to get knee-deep into the subject matter and not make it just one more example in the textbook.”
“It was the first time I’d ever learned / experienced anything like this and was very interesting and thought-provoking.”
View an interview with one of the students
This interview was produced for the case study: How we designed the assessment for an Arts & Sciences (BASc) core module
Connected Curriculum Dimensions of Connectivity
Core dimension: Learning through research and enquiry
Object Lessons asks students to conduct an entirely novel research project and provides them with the support they need to access the academic resources and staff expertise to delve deeply into their research. Students are initially given access to the subject of their research but must make arrangements with curators and librarians to conduct follow-up research visits, thus developing independent research skills. Student research of a good quality is added to existing documentation on museum objects and forms a part of the research resources made available for future researchers using these collections.
Dimension 1: Students connect with staff and their world-leading research
Through lectures, students are introduced to a range of academics’ research on material culture and through this they are introduced to different theoretical and disciplinary frameworks for thinking about material culture. Through research visits to collections, students are supported in their research by curators and librarians who have expertise in the histories and meanings of historical collections.
Dimension 2: A throughline of research activity is built into each programme
Object Lessons has been designed to build on first-year core modules and to develop students’ research skills in preparation for their third-year modules. The levels of connectivity here are monitored via student course evaluation, but it might also be valuable to review how this is working at intervals as the degree programme develops.
Dimension 3: Students make connections across subjects and out to the world
Throughout Object Lessons, students are explicitly asked to make connections across subjects and this is an important assessment criterion for their object report.
The students’ work on their object reports is often incorporated in museum documentation – becoming a living research resource for future researchers to use.
The virtual exhibition project asks students to develop content aimed at a specified public audience and – in collaboration with colleagues in Digital Education – the Object Lessons teaching team have put in place a system whereby students can choose to publish or open their virtual exhibition and have continued access to it for future uses.
This has converted an assessment that was outward looking but, in reality, closed into an assessment that can become part of each students’ personal portfolio and a product that can be publicly accessible and invite dialogue with audiences outside of UCL.
There is more work to be done on stream-lining the logistics of making a piece of formal assessment into a usable public-facing product of ongoing use to the students. It is hoped that by exploring this subject in terms of this BASc module, lessons can be learned that will be of use to other programmes across the University.
Dimension 4: Students connect academic learning with workplace learning
Through conducting research on collections and working directly with curators and librarians on the project work, students are introduced to the detail of professional life in Museums and Libraries. They are asked to consider the opportunities and constraints offered by the Museum or Library as a custodian of collections when they build their own exhibitions in a virtual environment.
Dimension 5: Students learn to produce outputs – assessments directed at an audience
The students are asked to choose and articulate a particular target audience for their virtual exhibition and they are partially assessed on their ability to generate content appropriate to that audience.
Dimension 6: Students connect with each other, across phases and with alumni
Every weekly seminar is conducted in small groups of 5-6 students and is based around active, object-based or enquiry-led learning activities. There is potential here to make better connections with students across different phases of higher education and alumni and, no doubt, opportunities to do this effectively will grow once the BASc degree has been running for more than three years.