Asking About Design: The Innocence of Objects?


I was recently asked, within a MOOC from MoMA, to create an activity that helped learners undertake inquiry learning, especially around art or design artefacts. So I thought I’d share it with the GDP community too. The purpose of inquiry learning is to enable the learners (of any age) to engage with an object or artefact on their own terms. What do they like or recognise about it? In what ways does engaging with this object transform the learner? In what ways (if any) does acquiring knowledge about context expand or bound the experience and the learning? (You can see the activity here – it is the next post).

To carry out this activity it will be helpful if you, the presumed tutor, are aware of three arguments beforehand – the aims of inquiry learning, the concept that learning through objects is helpful and full of possibilities and thirdly the idea that contextual knowledge be drip fed at the appropriate time. On the other hand, just jump in – you and your learner(s) will still learn a lot and enjoy yourself doing so! If you are not a tutor reading this then you’ll still be having experiences with objects as part of daily life.

I guess it is a given that we all want our learners to be able to handle learning processes, to inquire and to explore in order to do their own finding out. We are past the idea that the tutor is the expert who fills the learner up with knowledge. Teaching is out, learning is in. But contemporary inquiry learning is centred not just on the explorations of the learner in trying to “find out”, but more simply on their own experiences and reactions to that investigation and the object that triggered it. It has been suggested that contextual “facts” (which after all are open to interpretation and indeed semantics) are just the imposition of the law of experts, one way only of seeing things. I’ve been involved in contextual tutoring for years and I have never regarded it as the imposing of my opinion on others. I am all for the investigations that lead to fulfilment of, or even provocation of further curiosity and wonder. Fact-finding for inspiration and art-making need not be based in anyone’s idea of “correctness”. But I still think that understanding context, how, why and when something was created, is very important. Historical agendas and social manipulation, for example, mustn’t be ignored. And in visual communication the message and who sent it and why are need-to-know information. But we must be careful of not spoiling the learner’s own reactions to an object and we should give the contextual extras as carefully administered medicine that improves rathers than poisons a learner’s experience of an object.

This was my objective; but at the same time I have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects. This is an account of how he set up the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul to make a counterpart to his Nobel prize-winning lost-love novel, The Museum of Innocence. Novel and museum are not identical, but both serve to give insight into the protagonists and their lives in Istanbul and especially the objects that they used. Pamuk and his team went to extraordinary lengths to obtain “real” objects and the result is that visiting the museum (which I have not done) or reading the account of its making (which I have) leave you with a tangible sense of the importance of objects as markers of time, instigators of memory, sites of nostalgia and even that inanimate objects have some sort of spirit or “soul”. Art and design combine with history and personal narratives to convey a heady mix that seems very convincing, while yet displaying its artifice very overtly.


Moreover, there have been a couple of fascinating exhibitions on in London recently about propaganda or “public relations” or “spin”. My take-away from these was reinforcement of the belief that artefacts have agendas (or at least, their creators do). They are not innocent. Design artefacts, in particular, try to make you think in certain ways and to make assumptions and forge beliefs and ideologies. But if you take an object out of its context, or you don’t know about its context, does this make your experience of it less rich, “wrong” or misguided?

In this mix you mustn’t forget The Intentional Fallacy and semiotics which both clearly state that an artist, designer or writer or any maker of objects cannot guarantee that their intention of meaning will be received by the individual, ideological, personal experience-remembering brain of each reader or viewer. Meaning happens to us, within us and only we can have that specific set of reactions.

I love to be inspired by the melding of different threads, so my opinion of inquiry learning is now not just fuelled by enabling learners per se, but also by my thoughts of what the objects can give up or “speak about”, which may not be context or history or politics, but just (false) memories or (half recognised) reminders or (unfounded) opinions. Either way, I am convinced now, and always have been, that learning through objects is worthy and fun. Moreover, it doesn’t have to be done in a museum or gallery. It can be done at home or anywhere in your own private world, not just in the world of the curators and experts.

Useful links and references:

Asking About Design The Activity (next post)

The Innocence of Objects by Orhan Pamuk on Amazon.

The Musuem of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk on Amazon

The Museum itself

The two GDP blog posts about propaganda at British Library and British Museum

Learning with Objects – Shuh, John Hennigar. Teaching Yourself to Teach With Objects in The Educational Role of the Museum: Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2001, pgs. 80-91. 

Contextual issues – Hubard, Olga. Productive Information: Contextual Knowledge in Art Museum Education in Art Education, 2007, 60(4), pgs. 17-23. © 2007.

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