Just add words

There are many ways to engage with objects in a museum: looking at them, photographing them, reading all the text, looking up extra information. Claire presents another way of seeing using the written word.

Written by: Claire Yspol

Our Scottish Design Galleries allow you to walk around immersed in five hundred years of design history from a Scottish perspective. Thousands of people have done so since the museum opened in 2018. Every one of these visitors will have had their own unique experience while engaging with the three hundred-plus objects in the galleries.

When we visit any museum collection, we each bring our thoughts, memories, likes, history and unique perspectives to the objects on display. Because of this, the reason an object catches our eye is highly personal. As John Berger says in his influential book Ways of Seeing: “we never look at just one thing, we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves”.

The diverse nature of the objects in our galleries means that virtually everyone will be able to find something that speaks to them in some way. Maybe you’re totally mesmerised by the Valkyrie tiara or Lemmings (just look up!); others make a beeline for the Mackintosh Oak Room. Looking at objects can be a journey of discovery, both outward and inward.

A different way to engage with collections, one that may enrich the experience, is to create your own imaginative responses to them. Museums are excellent places to flex our creative muscles (and don’t worry, most people are creative, so I’m willing to bet that you are too). This is why I suggest a simple and fun way to use your own (written) words to explore an object.

Why writing? For one, you don’t need a lot to get started. Even if you think you might not enjoy a writing exercise, you’ll probably surprise yourself. And you’ll also employ one of the most remarkable technologies humans have developed: writing itself. Walter J. Ong speaks beautifully of writing-as-technology in his seminal work Orality and Literacy. Speaking of literacy, the Book of Hours (also on display in the Scottish Design Galleries) is an exquisite example of an illuminated script, from a time when only a small minority of people could read and write.

So, the next time you’re in our Scottish Design Galleries, take a notebook and pen along. A smartphone can come in handy too (but is by no means necessary).

  • Start by choosing an object in the collection that intrigues you. Have a good, long look. Is it simple or intricate in its appearance? Which features intrigue you the most? Could you imagine yourself using the object? Look closely at its colour. Maybe it’s blue, but which kind: cerulean or the cobalt blue of a favourite lunchbox from years ago? If it’s your first time doing this, give yourself around two or three minutes. This is where your phone can come in handy.
  • Jot down the words and phrases that come to mind as you continue the visual exploration. It doesn’t matter if they’re outlandish, poignant or mundane: into the notebook they go. There’s no need to write an epic that dwarfs Game of Thrones just yet, but it’s most fun to get as much on paper as you can. As for editing at this tender stage? Not necessary.
  • After only a few minutes, you’ll have a snapshot of an object made up of your own words. Repeat the process with another object if you feel so inclined. Later on, say, in the cafe or while comfortably seated in one of the armchairs in the museum, you could start rereading and moving phrases around until you’re happy with the result. These short texts could even be the starting point for a poem or a micro-fiction piece.

Imagine having a notebook full of these personal impressions and vignettes: your own creative interpretation of museum collections. Objects (and even a short reflection on them) are ideal ingredients for stories.

An intriguing example of someone who used objects as writing inspiration was Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832). Born in Edinburgh, Scott got acquainted with ancient Scottish folklore in his early years: stories passed from generation to generation through oral storytelling rather than the written word. He was a passionate collector of these folk tales and made it his mission to ensure they were committed to the page for posterity.

Through literary works such as Rob Roy (1817) and Ivanhoe (1819), Scott painted a picture of Scotland that still resonates in the collective psyche: a place with rugged, melancholic and quietly breathtaking vistas.

What I find interesting about Scott is that this man of letters was also a man of objects. For example, the National Museums Scotland collection contains a sporran clasp featuring concealed pistols, an artifact that wouldn’t be out of place in a vintage Bond movie. This startling item made an appearance in Scott’s novel Rob Roy. Find out more on the NMS website.

Scott collected historical objects ferociously, as Abbotsford, his house in the Scottish Borders, attests. Scott was inspired by them and used this personal collection of objects almost as narrative threads woven through his own storytelling. While few of us can live in a giant Wunderkammer filled with historical artifacts to use as inspiring writing prompts, that’s where museum collections come in.

Looking at objects and discovering which ones resonate the most with us is a rich and complex way of engaging with collections, but there are many more ways to explore. One of them is writing. So, next time you’re off to the Scottish Design Galleries (or any other collection), take a pen and notebook along. By adding your own words to the narrative life of a museum object, it becomes even more exquisitely layered as a result.

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image that represent two pages of V&A dundee website