Object stories

September 12, 2014

The idea behind ‘A history of an OBJECT in 100 worlds’ was to turn Neil MacGregor’s landmark project ‘A history of the WORLD in 100 objects’  on its head so that, rather than “telling history through things” – which is what McGregor states museums are for – we would tell the history of things – which we felt would reflect the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ethos and the nature of its collection.

Adapted from the cover design of the book accompanying the British Museum / BBC Radio 4 Series (Publ. Allen Lane, Penguin Group, 2010).
Adapted from the cover design of the book accompanying the British Museum / BBC Radio 4 Series (Publ. Allen Lane, Penguin Group, 2010).

This project asks: what kinds of stories can we tell by looking at one object from a hundred different perspectives / voices / kinds of experience / types of investment / etc.? What types of knowledge (contained in the object or brought to bear on it) can we uncover? What kinds of problems would we have to address?

The first hurdle we have to negotiate is: How do you choose? Where do you start in a museum that houses around 2,241,718 objects? How do you pick from an encyclopaedic and global array of material culture?

To do this, we thought we would begin by organising ‘object pitch’ dates, a series of events that are a cross between Dragon’s Den and Antiques Road Show and at which people who spend a lot of time caring for, working with and thinking about the collection tell us which object they would choose and make a case for it.

Everyone we have asked around the museum seemed to have a perfect idea of which object they would choose and we would like to find out why. What kinds of objects are people’s ‘favourites’? What objects would have different stories to tell? What way should we go in choosing an object? Do we pick a celebrity object? A maximal object for which there would be no struggle to find a hundred voices and angles? Or do we go the other way and select the most minimal object and try to find out the kinds of worlds it can unfold?

The object pitches should help us find out how different people from across the museum would approach these questions. They should also bring out another important question, which is: what is an object? There has been a lot of academic work around this question and the V&A is surely the perfect setting to grapple with it methodologically.

Following a series of ‘object pitch’ events, we plan to draw out a short list of objects and invite an even larger constituency to elect an object of focus for ‘A history of an OBJECT in 100 worlds’. Once the object is identified, we will set about commissioning texts from various worlds concerned with it in order to produce a publication.

This blog will track the various steps in the project’s development and will also include thoughts about the project’s implications and the problems it will put on the table. Whatever object is eventually chosen, this practical exercise will teach us quite a lot both about the collection and about the wide-ranging field of object-related studies (see for example Peter Miller’s recent article ‘How Objects Speak’).

Some of the questions we are hoping this blog will address include:

  • What does it mean to engage with a shared object of study from different perspectives (disciplines, contexts, languages, etc.)? Can such a project reconcile different understandings of what it means to do object-based research?
  • How many different ‘worlds’ can one involve in such a project? How dependent is that on the chosen object? What does it mean to think in terms of ‘worlds’?
  • What criteria does one consider when electing an object for such a study? What is the value of general popularity or emotional response? Who gets to decide what object is ‘worthy’ of the attention? What does it mean in terms of Expertise? Authorship? Canons? Democracy? Public ownership and public interest?
  • What is the value of the exercise for the museum? What are its intellectual, social and practical implications? How do we ensure the discussion is taken forward?

Our next post will report on the first ‘object pitch’ day that took place on Wednesday 3rd September 2014 – watch this space!

1 comment so far, view or add yours


Hi Lina,

I’ve been working on a very similar project. Would you be interested to meet for a cup of tea to talk? I bet we could find some interesting ways to collaborate!

I’ll be in London in October – I’d love to find out more!


Good, Form & Spectacle

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