Yesterday I sat in on a conversation facilitated by Nina Simon which focused, in part on the idea of object-mediated interactions with strangers. The cited chapter is from her book, The Participatory Museum, which I really am looking forward to reading. She is a ball of fire and full of creative ideas backed up by solid research.
At any rate, our conversation led me to reflect on the ways, past, present and possibly future, that I have used objects that way. Once upon a time, I was an art therapist, and I used looking at art and making art as a way to help people talk about their situations and the ways they’d like to change. I particularly remember a kid who built and smashed ceramic cars as a way to deal with his brother’s death in a car accident. He didn’t talk about it, he just did it. Eventually, he started talking about the accident to others, and he got better.
Around that same time, I ran an adult art play group in a coffee house called Downtown Grounds. It was the early 90s and coffee houses were dark, warehouse-y places, and I provided the supplies for people to contribute art to a group theme or for their own private art-making off in a candle-lit corner. As a shy person, it was great to be able to have a reason to be there, to be the facilitator. One of our group members yesterday talked about liking that role of attracting others by doing rather than by approaching them, and that lead to a conversation about the different ways people engage in unfamiliar territories, as voyeur, as participant, as facilitator.
I realized that I am in the position to engage strangers around objects in several different ways in my work today. In my private conservation work, strangers bring their valued objects to me to fix, and we generally have some sort of conversation about why they are valuable and interesting. That is a very rewarding part of my job, and it gives me some joy to know the reason behind the work I am doing.
In my work as preservation librarian, I get to talk to people about the objects they love when they donate them to the archive, and I get to talk to people about their responses to objects in the collection when they see them for the first time, or even when they come back to visit them again, or to show them to someone else. There is so much pleasure in that kind of connection, because these strangers have a passion about things that allows them to interact with me in a deeper level than in most casual encounters, and it allows me to learn about the items and the culture of the collection/collectors, which in turns deepens my passion for preserving them and for providing access.
The future? Well, in moving the museum and library closer together, there will be more opportunities to engage visitors with physical objects and their on-line representations. I’m at the Museums and the Web 2010 conference, which is all about finding ways to tell the stories of objects. I am full of ideas, inspired by strangers from all over the world attending this conference. I am really looking forward to getting started!