In praise of the object-led classroom

About the event

The Ashmolean Museum’s Jim Harris discusses opportunities for interdisciplinary learning.

The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. One afternoon in term time. Around a dozen people are standing in front of a display case, absolutely still and silent, gazing at an object.

Other visitors to the museum are not quite sure what to make of them. They look at them curiously, edge around them, leave the room. But when they come back five minutes later and discover that the silent watchers are still there, they lose their inhibitions and happily stride between and in front of them.

For Dr Jim Harris, teaching curator at the museum and one of the participants in the exercise, this was a powerful opportunity to explore one’s own body: ‘how you interact in space, how you interact with others in the same space … the responses as well as the participatory activity were all remarkable.’

It’s certainly not an exercise – or a set of learning points – that you would normally associate with a museum of art and archaeology. But then, in many ways, the Ashmolean is not a normal art and archaeology museum. The interests and collections of its founders, John Tradescant and Elias Ashmole, were broad, and the presence of Harris – ‘the only teaching curator that there is to be had in a university museum in this country’ – is testament to a distinctive commitment to the notion of interdisciplinarity.

Interdisciplinarity and art history

Universities are ‘keen’ on interdisciplinarity, said Harris, speaking (appropriately enough) at an Engaging with the Humanities event at Oxford Saïd. ‘It is one of the things that we put on application forms for grants; one of the things that we have lunches for; one of the things that we go to other departments and have mysterious conversations about.’ However, he believes that it is usually something more talked about than actually practised.

Harris himself comes from an art history background that is ‘necessarily interdisciplinary’, because art history relies on many other disciplines for its raw material. ‘We speak to theologians and philosophers and literary scholars. We speak to historians of other types – documentary historians. We speak to linguists and out of that we derive some understanding of the things that people make,’ he said.

‘It’s wrong to think, though, that art history is purely a parasitic discipline. Because I think we feed back. Because all those other disciplines are informed by the material world in which they operate: by the things that they look at, by the pictures that people have painted, the sculptures that people have made, by the boxes and houses that people put things in and live in. All the things that art historians study feed back into these other disciplines. There is a symbiotic relationship between them, and that makes it special.’

And the things that people make, and which are therefore saved in the museum, provide a useful ‘anchor’ for discussing other ideas.

Object-led teaching

Making an object the focus for discussion is a good route into interdisciplinary teaching, said Harris, because ‘The single object has no one avenue of approach ... [It] will submit to any number of interpretations – art historians, philosophers, engineers, neurologists will all ask different questions of it.’

By asking people ‘what do you see?’, he said, you are not seeking the essential ‘facts’ about an object, but rather finding out about its history and context, the people who have used it, the materials it is made from, and perhaps the economic networks through which it was traded. The object teases out responses that you may not get in any other teaching context, because it provides ‘security.’

Object-led teaching is a democratic process. He explained: ‘Some students come from a background in which their voices have been valued or privileged. They have been taught to speak up and ask questions. Others come from backgrounds where their voice has not been valued, and where they have been taught to be quiet and to be “fed” information in order to learn. … The object removes some of those privileges.’ If no one knows anything about the object, the exercise becomes a collective one, and the student who would not otherwise speak is enabled to do so.

Krasis – a good mix

Interdisciplinarity and object-led teaching combine in a number of programmes led by Harris at the Ashmolean.

Chief among these is Krasis (a Greek word meaning mixing or blending), which brings together early-career researchers – doctoral candidates and post-docs – undergraduates and taught-postgraduates to have a series of conversations. They come from a variety of disciplines and meet in one room to discuss an idea from a specific research standpoint.

It was during a Krasis meeting that the exercise described at the beginning of the article took place. This exploration of the theme of ‘the body’ also featured pictures of Transylvanian acrobats, circus performers, performers who hang from their hair in order to dance, and body-builders in the film ‘Pumping Iron.’ By the end, participants’ understanding of the body was ‘radically different from anything they had encountered before,’ said Harris.

He has also run classes on ‘Dimensionality’ in collaboration with the Mathematics department; images of the medical profession, with Psychiatry; and the language of description with neurologists. Objects used in teaching have included a magic wand, a drum made of two human skulls, a drainpipe, and ‘a weird sexualized child image of Asia.’ Overall, the museum has hosted more than 500 classes, lectures, and tutorials within the university curriculum each year. There have been 4000 student visits for formal teaching sessions. And teaching has taken place across all four divisions.

There are benefits for the museum, too, in published research – reinforcing Harris’s point about interdisciplinarity that it ‘feeds back.’ Different disciplines are not just invited to speak in the same place, but they inform each other, and everyone ends up thinking differently about their own discipline once they have used it in discussing and understanding an object.