Studying objects can tell us a lot about the customs and values of the society that we live in. Learning through objects has also been shown to help us grasp difficult concepts because it involves our feelings and senses as well as our intellectual understanding.
The benefits of objects as a teaching aid were recognised by the early nineteenth-century teacher and educational reformer Elizabeth Mayo, whose book Lessons on Objects (1830) provided guidance on object based teaching using cabinets of commonly used objects such as these in the Yale Center for British Art online collections.
Inspired by Mayo’s work, Humanities students in the Department for Lifelong Learning created their own object boxes to represent their experiences of life in Britain today during the Covid-19 pandemic. You can see three of them here created by Debs, Vic and Char and read about their choice of objects.
- Object Box One - Debs
The objects I chose to represent twenty-first-century living were all objects I had to hand and represent my recent experiences of living through the pandemic. Headphones represent a need for privacy whether listening to music or taking part in a Zoom meeting while other family members share the same space. The small plastic dog is a standard test piece for new 3D printer owners. 3D printer hobbyists like my husband turned their spare time and energy over to printing PPE for key workers and embraced a new community spirit becoming part of a modern volunteer force. The disposable face mask and hand gel pair up to make the necessary kit for travel or shopping. I chose the green card because it is my son’s collectable set of Pokémon cards. Cards and boardgames helped us pass the time during the first lockdown after outdoor games like Pokémon Go, which we normally like to play as a family, were discouraged. The larger blue card is a pump clip that advertises craft ale on beer pumps in local pubs, and because I work in hospitality, I felt this object captured the deep insecurity felt by workers. The brewery Blue Bee is local to Sheffield and I hoped at the time this box was created that small breweries like theirs would survive the closure of the industry. The miniature gin bottle represents the transition from drinking pubs to drinking at home during lockdown. The availability of cheap alcohol online and a new trend for virtual drinking on social media have encouraged social drinking online. Mobile phones have made this possible for many people. For people who are shielding, mobile phones have acted as a much-needed lifeline to the outside world.
- Object Box Two - Vic
This object box contains a selection of items from my living room.
A few years ago my partner and I spent some time in Japan. We stayed for a while in a suburb of Tokyo where, all day, calming music played out into the street from small speakers fixed to the street lights. One day, we took a train to Tokyo Bay where there stands a statue of a robot, called Gundam. He is five stories high, standing watch beside the water. He looks just like the miniature figurine in the object box. I included this as, in 2020, a year where lots of us have been confined to our houses, memories of freedom seem important. Gundam, for me, is attached to calming memories of an unfamiliar place, memorialised in miniature form in my living room.
The bottle of sand is another souvenir. My partner brought it back from a work trip to the Middle East. We have a two year old daughter and she likes to hold it and shake it, look closely at the little grains inside..
Like many people, we have lots of plants around our house. This tiny cactus gives us the joy of outside inside, and doesn’t ask for much in return, not even water!
Other items in the box provide different kinds of comfort to myself and my family. The plastic pacifier is my daughter’s. The sugary sweets perhaps serve a similar purpose to me! We always have some hidden somewhere. The phone, television remote, headphones, batteries seem essential to me in 2020. They provide for my family the same as they do for lots of others, companionship and distraction. It is hard to imagine life without them. The panic button activates our house alarm in case of an emergency. It has felt like there have been lots of reasons to reach for the panic button in 2020.
- Object Box Three - Char
The items used in this object box were chosen to reflect contemporary British society. Themes explored within the box include ritual, culture, tradition, history, and community. Some of these themes hold specific cultural significance in relation to the pandemic and other events that took place in the same time period.
To represent the pandemic and our national response to it, I chose an NHS lanyard and a face mask printed with the well-known William Morris design, The Strawberry Thief. I felt that the mask perfectly merged our preconceived ideas of traditional British culture and design with the almost dystopian reality that we, as a society, have faced over the past year. I also chose to display two books that I felt reflected this same juxtaposition. George Orwell’s 1984 is a modern British classic depicting a fictional dystopian future. In The Gunpowder Plot, historian Alan Haynes details the problematic history behind Bonfire night in the failed conspiracy by Guy Fawkes and his associates to blow up Parliament, and assassinate the Protestant King James I, in the hope of ending the institutional persecution of Catholics in Britain.
Some of the objects used have gained even more relevance within British culture, following recent events. I originally chose the royal commemorative tea canister as it marries two stereotypically British passions – tea-drinking, introduced into Britain through imperial trade, and the royal family. Following the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh on 9th April 2021, the canister has gained additional meaning as it celebrates the long marriage between our monarch and her departed husband. The football ticket was originally chosen to reflect the great British love of what many regard as our national sport. But it has increased in significance in recent weeks, as England has played in the European Championships, gathering widespread support and encouraging celebration as we come out of lockdown.
The final aspect of this object box is the idea of ritual and community. I chose the toothbrush, earphones, television remote, false eyelashes, hairpins and shoe polish to reflect our daily lives as modern Brits as well as the plant and candles which can bring peace to our busy lives. These objects can become second nature to us inspiring traditions and rituals. The Kiwi brand was established in 1906 indicating a practice of shoe polishing that goes back generations. The champagne cork and novelty teapot are community-based objects standing for celebrations and a casual meeting with close friends.
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