While conducting research for this blog series, I’ve been amazed at the inventive ways to use handling objects in museums. Each institution I spoke to had its own way of using handling objects; there’s a wealth of ideas across the sector and we can learn so much from each other.
The benefits of using handling collections seem endless to me, but here are some concrete examples so you can make your own mind up.
Museum on the road
When Wellcome Collection started its development project in 2013, the Visitor Experience team was left with few galleries to engage visitors with. The museum was smaller, we had temporarily lost some of our ‘star objects’ and, at times, it was a bit noisy too.
All of this motivated us to think of new ways to engage with visitors: the handling collection became our main public offer. One of the most significant (and fun) projects we worked on with the handling collection was our Curiosity Roadshow. We packed some of our handling objects alongside quirky and thought-provoking pictures of our permanent collections (available on Wellcome Images) onto a double decker bus and parked our improvised museum in Camden Market.
It was a very refreshing experience! We engaged with an average of 1000 visitors each day. Some people we spoke to had never heard of us before and many were tourists on holiday. However, the conversations were buzzing all day and being out of their natural context did not diminish the power of the handling objects at all. Our ‘passengers’ engaged deeply with our objects and helped us develop a new narrative for our objects by sharing their stories with us. This was an incredible opportunity for learning on both sides.
Using the handling collection allowed Wellcome Collection to keep engaging with its audiences (and find new ones) despite being limited physically on its premises. This is an experience shared by the British Postal Museum and Archive.
“A particular benefit for us at the moment is that we currently exist as an archive and a museum store. We are developing The Postal Museum and Mail Rail. Until this opens we can offer schools very limited access to our collections, so the handling collection really helps to interpret our story. It also means we can deliver outreach sessions.” Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer, British Postal Museum and Archive
That is also the case for the Crafts Council, who have made great use of the handling collection in a national outreach programme.
“The HLF-funded First Decade Project looks at digitising and sharing objects and stories from the first decade of the Crafts Council’s collection (1972-1982) – and is an outreach programme to introduce a range of audiences across the UK to the Crafts Council Collection, Handling Collection and Archive, and demonstrate its potential to inspire future making. The Handling Collection in particular provides the opportunity for greater access to our collections; for personal interaction and sensory engagement with objects. Through the First Decade Project learning programme, the Handling Collection has provided a wide range of audiences the chance to connect physically to the objects we will be telling stories about digitally.” Holly Burton, Archive Learning Officer, Crafts Council
Rather than touch objects in museums being redundant, they actually increase the number of stories you can tell about your permanent and handling collections and multiply the links you can make between the two.
“As the collection is from the Thames it creates a direct link to the museum’s permanent displays. Much of what can be handled has an equivalent in the galleries so it connects the visitors to the collection and enhances their visit.” Nicola Fyfe and Edwin Wood, Visitor Hosts, Museum of London
Since Wellcome Collection fully reopened earlier this year, the Visitor Experience team has enjoyed exploring the various links we can make between our galleries and exhibitions. For instance, bringing the contemporary vibrator from our handling collection into the Institute of Sexology exhibition has allowed us to generate different conversations when placed next to an early 20th century ‘massage set’ or a Jugum Penis (anti-masturbation device) on display. The possibilities are limited only by one’s imagination.
Bridging the gap
Handling objects are incredibly flexible communication tools, which you can use in many different ways, depending on which audience you are trying to reach out to.
“The handling collection is used across the learning programmes with a wide variety of audiences which includes both formal and informal learning. Formal learning audiences include: mainstream schools, SEN schools, Hospital schools (outreach), Home Educated groups, Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), Further Education Groups and Higher Education Groups. We also use the collection for informal audiences: Community groups, Families, parental involvement and under 5s, Asian Women’s groups, Older people groups, ESOL, BPS, and Adults with Learning Disability. We are looking to reach out to new audiences and make the handling collection relevant to them.” Janice Welch, Senior Learning and Engagement Officer, Geffrye Museum
“The Handling Collection is our main resource for teaching school groups, running family learning activities, developing volunteering opportunities, collaborating on in-depth community engagement projects, with people recovering from strokes, people with severe and enduring mental health needs, young carers, and others, training community group leaders, programming with our youth panel, and running events for adults. Over 60,000 people of all ages engage with our Handling Collection each year.” Julia Cort, Community Learning Manager, The Horniman Museum and Gardens
Handling objects enable us to establish an immediate connection with our audience, beyond the limitation of language, culture or abilities.
“Our Hands On desks are open 11.00-16.00 every day, and are open to all visitors. We do find that the programme is particularly popular with families and the tactile nature of object handling makes them ideal for visitors who are visually impaired. Our visitors come from all over the world, and object handling can help to break through language barriers.” Charlotte Milligan, Volunteering Coordinator, British Museum
Touching objects can also make expert knowledge and challenging topics accessible to all.
“The collection has proved valuable with visually impaired visitors, adding a dimension to their visit that wold otherwise be lacking. School groups also enjoy the sessions but primarily the aim was to engage everyone, to make archaeology accessible to all.” Nicola Fyfe, Edwin Wood, Visitor Hosts, Museum of London
One of the earliest motivations behind Wellcome’s handling collection was the possibility to engage further with partially sighted and blind visitors. Visitor Experience Assistants are trained by VocalEyes in the delivery of audio described tours and handling sessions. Adding audio description techniques to the tactile experience means that we are able to offer a more meaningful experience for these members of our audience.
Regardless of the type of the audience (children, adults, tourists, etc.), the same thing is observed by all museums I have spoken to: the audience is extremely engaged and active during a handling session.
“The benefits are endless! It allows visitors to go beyond just looking at an object and reading a label; they are able to interrogate the objects themselves.” Charlotte Milligan, Volunteers Coordinator, British Museum
“For older audiences our handling collection has a real nostalgic potential. Small items like Post Office Saving Banks etc. always trigger the “I remember…” conversation.” Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer, British postal Museum and Archive
“The multi-sensory, hands-on nature of touching and feeling objects means that visitors are not passive learners but take an active, participatory approach to learning. Touching, feeling and sensing objects also mean that a variety of different learning styles and needs can be met. Where handling is used, learning is extended and visitors enjoy the sessions more.” Janice Welch, Senior Learning and Engagement Officer, Geffrye Museum
We observed this enthusiasm for handling objects at Wellcome too. When we started using handling objects regularly, we were surprised by how participative the audience was. It is not rare to conduct gallery tours without having any questions posed by the audience throughout. With handling objects, visitors naturally and instinctively ask questions. If you allow them to look at the objects for a few moments, people will start to interrogate the object (and you) themselves. “What is it?”, “What is it made of?”, “What is it used for?”, “Is it genuine?”
Visitors take ownership for their learning, asking you what they want to hear rather than you telling them what you know. On these occasions, I find that my position slightly shifts from interpreting the collection for visitors to enabling visitors to interpret the collection (almost) by themselves.
As a result, handling sessions (dubbed busking at Wellcome) cannot be scripted. You need to be ready to go where visitors end up taking you and enjoy the ride.
“I found it is important to have enough information to flexibly discuss an object with visitors for 1 minute, 5 minutes and 15-30 minutes.” Clare Curtis, Visitor Experience Assistant, Wellcome Collection
In addition to helping museums reach out to their audiences, handling objects have often generated unexpected and wonderful opportunities.
“We use the collection in all our school sessions. It really helps bringing the postal story to life for the children. We also work a lot with a local theatre group, the Big Wheel Theatre Company. The actors co-facilitate our school sessions so we will lend them uniforms and items to wear. Working with the company has definitely widened my understanding of the possibilities for the handling collection and how it can be used.” Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer, British postal Museum and Archive
“Our hands-On desks have highlighted how important social interaction is to visitors. We are keen to explore ways of embedding tactile experience into the museum and exhibitions in other ways.” Charlotte Milligan, Volunteers Coordinator, British Museum
The handling collection eventually made its way to our temporary exhibition spaces with the Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition exhibition. Curators and Visitor Experience Assistants planned daily busking sessions exploring the themes of the exhibition. The team took this opportunity to develop themed sessions, rather than using the objects as highlights of the collection. We build on our existing handling collection by developing our own resources. For instance, one of my colleagues created a session on trepanation and invited visitors to trepan coconut shell using prehistoric replica tools. Needless to say, that was very successful.
Object-based learning (OBL) is so successful and effective in museums that universities such has University College London are looking at the value of using OBL as part of their programme. Clearly, handling collections are the way to go.
Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.