Asking ‘what do you see?’ allows objects to speak for themselves.
Jim Harris is a big fan of looking. Really looking.
As a teaching curator of the Ashmolean Museum, he says that undergraduates are always keen to show him how much they know. 'In Oxford, that’s almost inevitable, because students … are here because they know things. And they are knowing more things every day and they want to share that,' he says.
But in his teaching – not only with undergraduates but with executives and experts in a variety of fields – he insists on stripping away knowledge and focusing first on what people can see, arguing that it is only through what we see that we can develop an understanding of what an object is, what it does, how it was made and what its function is.
This is particularly important in teaching because 'it levels the playing field for the students. If you ask them "what do you see?" then you are not privileging the more articulate student. You’re not privileging the student who has been educated in a context where their voice has been heard and valued. You’re not privileging the student who expects to answer the question. … The question … requires no prior knowledge or prior expertise in order to be answered. And therefore it enables the group to function on an equal basis. The object-led classroom is a fundamentally democratic teaching space.'
However, it doesn’t always feel like that when you go into a museum, particularly if it is a very large one, or if you are not used to going to museums. Museums, as Harris said, are somewhere we usually go with an 'understanding deficit,' expecting to be taught something. We start from the entrance, walk slowly from case to case, reading the labels carefully (even if they do little actually to enlighten us), and mentally tick off the famous exhibits (the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum), before urgently replenishing our sugar levels in the attached cafe.
But looking effectively at an object, presuming no knowledge, can reveal greater knowledge and make broader connections than you might imagine.