The Artemis Collection

Teaching through touch

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.02.2013
Object-based learning
Manchester Art Gallery started experimenting with object handling in 2008 as a way for visitors to access objects. It commissioned Hedsor, an artist partnership run by Kimberly and Karl Foster, to create one of its Object Dialogue Boxes to use for school sessions.  

More information and images of other Object Dialogue Boxes created by Hedsor can be found on its website. Many contain surreal and tactile objects designed specifically for museums and galleries – the approach, as Kimberly and Karl explain, is different to other object making because the “experience of the dialogue around the object is as important as the object itself”.

The beehive-shaped box developed for Manchester Art Gallery contains everyday and easily recognisable objects that have been distorted in some way. The frame of an umbrella, for example, that is missing any fabric and has pingpong balls on the end of each spoke, or a hand mirror with a toy chest of drawers glued onto the glass.

Joanne Davies, schools and colleges manager at Manchester City Galleries, says the box and its “curious objects” are used as a tool to allow young people to connect with the art displays.  

“Sessions [with secondary school pupils] usually start with a general discussion about artworks,” Davies says. “The Object Dialogue Box is then introduced, and participants handle the objects and shout out key words.”

Once specific objects have been selected by the young people, they are encouraged to go off in groups to make connections between these and artworks on display in the galleries.

“It’s very free and student-led engagement,” says Davies. “They are encouraged to make their own interpretations – it really raises their confidence in approaching art, especially contemporary work, and enables them to engage in critical thought.”

Elsewhere, the gallery has developed a handling box for formal learning and outreach work made up of accessioned objects from the Mary Greg collection.

Greg, a collector of 19th-century pre-industrial handmade objects, left a large number of objects to Manchester Art Gallery in 1922. After decades in storage, the gallery has created a special handling box (designed to resemble a doll’s house) that it takes to schools, care homes and community groups for free.

Davies says the box and its collection is used in different ways with groups, from having open discussions to asking participants to investigate objects in pairs and report their findings back to the group.

By enabling them to touch and handle these objects, participants take on the role of curators and “experts”, able to offer their own interpretations and understanding.

Objects in schools

In Leeds, the Artemis Collection – formerly known as the Schools Museum and Art Loan Service – provides a wide range of objects and artworks to schools to help them deliver the national curriculum for England and provide engaging learning opportunities.

The service sits within the local authority’s education offer, but its collection of about 10,000 objects originates from the city’s museums and galleries.

By going directly into schools, Artemis aims to reach children across Leeds – including those that do not have immediate access to any cultural provision.

The main question schools ask Artemis is “how would a teacher use this object in a classroom?”  

Jane Zanzottera, the manager of Artemis, offers teachers free training sessions on generic object-based learning, as well as offering advice on more specific ways to use objects to support learning.

“I try to de-mystery objects and take away any pressure they might feel about having to know everything about an object,” she says. “I encourage them to work with children to explore and investigate objects, and embark on a questioning process.”

As part of the training, Zanzottera asks teachers to pick objects and explain why: “People normally pick things that have meaning for them. [This technique] shows that people hone in on different things and develop different meanings. It’s about making them feel comfortable with that.”

Exploring objects as a group using questions such as “what was it used for” or “who might have owned this?” is a good way to help children engage and relate.

“Anecdotes seem to work, as children find real-life examples very powerful,” says Zanzottera. “It’s all about building confidence and encouraging teachers to take ownership. We do group-based discussion to bounce ideas off each other, and that starts the thinking process.”

Artemis works closely with museums and galleries in Leeds, and has recently started offering its services to community groups. But it’s core focus remains with schools.

“We want to break down barriers and challenge any pre-conceptions children or their parents might have about museums,” says Zanzottera. “And object-based learning is also about trying to build children’s experience.

"The ancient Egyptians, for example, are just a concept, but handling an actual object puts meat on the bones. Children remember the experiences that fully engage them.”