Storytelling through Objects

Midland Actors Theatre has been exploring the use of objects in teaching history. This is their report.

 The key thing, in using objects, is to invoke their storytelling power.

 

Objects can tell many tales - and are subject to different interpretations.

In addition, they have the power to connect students to the history of other times – and to other people’s lives.

The Massachusetts Studies Project: Teaching Tools for Local History has suggested a number of questions which students should consider when they are examining objects, such as: “What does this object tell you about the social rank, status or class of the individual that used it?” (See the project website here.)  

We believe, however, that it is important to encourage students to look for the personal stories and lived experiences that may be invoked by objects.

Take, for example, a pair of clogs. Children from poor families in the UK would have worn clogs, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. If we examine this object and consider what it says about the social rank of the owner, then the answer will clearly be: “They belonged to someone from the lower classes, who suffered poverty / need / hardship.”

But an assessment on these lines itself objectifies people – i.e., it treats them as objects. (The "objects" of historical study.)

In our work, we always seek to link such objects to personal (hi)stories: to personalise them, as having been owned and worn at one time, by a real person; and telling us something about their lives, not simply their economic “class.”

 

In the case of the clogs, we drew on memoirs written by Kathleen Dayus, who grew up in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter in the early 1900s. She left a vivid account in her book, Her People, of wearing clogs as a child, and scuffing her feet on the cobblestones, so that the metal rims on the soles and heels would make a clattering sound as she walked.

We are also interested in the personal meaning and value which people invest in objects.

With one group, we looked at the story of a Jewish family, moving from Poland to Birmingham in the 19th Century. We based this on a real family.

We asked the class to consider: how would they have made the journey? They could only manage to bring a few belongings with them. What would they have chosen to take with them – in terms of: personal things, that they could not bear to leave behind…  or things that would remind them of home…? (Letters … photos …  religious objects … etc.)

We also asked the class to consider: how might they decorate the front room in their house in Birmingham, to make it feel more like “home” for them? (We used paintings and photos as reference.)

 

We looked at some of the social rituals that would have been important to them – symbolised by objects such as the traditional salt cellar on the table.

This work was based in exploring the personal, affective, imaginative dimensions of objects. These dimensions are missing, when you only focus on the materialism of objects (through questions such as “What does this object tell you about the social rank of the individual that used it?”)

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