“For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without a either dissection into science or digression into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”
— James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
This flying shuttle could trigger stories and information about the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites, John Kay, slavery, the rise of Blackpool, or Tuberculosis, or Jerusalem/And did those feet in ancient time, by William Blake, or even a different kind of flying shuttle. It could be seen as a great success or the harbinger of Dark Satanic Mills. Almost any object is a terrorist or a freedom fighter.
It would seem unnecessary to repeat that object are meaningless (beyond their function) except for the stories that they hold or memories that they trigger, except it perhaps bears remembering that they do not hold any stories; we use objects as totems, as screens onto which we project our stories. All stories are real, all stories are not true.
But I do not mean this.
Alvar Aalto is responsible for the X-Games, Volcanoes created bikes, Frankenstein’s monster, maybe religions, and movies on Netflix. It is almost too easy. And of course it is, because we are in control of the stories and connections, we make these stories up and we always have. Stories are how we pass on information and make sense of the world.
Having said that, is it always that easy? With over 7 million artefacts in the archive, is it really that easy, how long would it take to connect or link a Microscope substage condenser with aperture discs with something else?
Former teacher Donovan Hohn used James Agee’s recommendation of studying an object, any object, ‘almost illimitably long’ to get his students to research an object and follow it down a rabbit hole to find a story, until one day, he did exactly that and ended up with a book about, science, globalisation, environmentalism, mental illness, fatherhood; all because of some lost cargo.
Donna Tartt uses a real painting within a fictional place and story, and while The Goldfinch is mostly a McGuffin or metaphor, I am guessing more people know about Carel Fabritius and the painting because of her (and the recently released movie), and a few might show up at the Met looking for it too.
Bill Bryson is not a historian, but using a dig-where-you-stand approach he writes a history of the world without leaving home ‘…whatever happens in the world—whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over—eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house…So the history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that ever happened.‘ From the Introduction of At Home
News interviews with Aberfan families more recently show that many still recall the Queen’s public show of sympathy with gratitude. Contradictions like this highlight how hard it is to agree on the facts, Morgan finds.
‘It shows the way our idealised, emotional memory shapes all history,’ he said. “When I did the research for the film Frost/Nixon, most of those involved were still alive, but their versions of what happened were wildly different. It is a bargain I have had to make with myself as a writer. I need to make sense of it all in some way.’
Next Morgan and the producers had to decide how to tell it. The plan was to justify each decision to bend a fact. There had been a terrible fog that day, they knew well, but there was no good way to show the disaster through fake fog on the Elstree set. Later, too, Prince Philip is shown at a funeral he did not really attend because it was judged necessary to have a central character in each key scene. From the guardian.
The Crown is not a documentary, but it is still educational, many viewers will never have heard of Aberfan, or shale, or spoil tips; does it then matter that a character shows up in a scene he shouldn’t be in? I think not.
All of which is to say this, The Science Museum should partner with schools have students write the stories of the objects. These should be schools of all kinds in all locations. These could be journalistic/historical research projects, or creative-writing and short stories that feature objects. Instructors/teachers could pick themes, assign specific objects, specific time periods, or it could be arbitrary, it could an exercise in connecting seemingly unrelated objects through narrative
It could be a pure writing assignment, it could be a history class, a journalism class, it could be a summer camp.
This could work outside of educational institutions, the reason for using students is that they can be ‘motivated’ to do this, but using a collection of schools would also lead to more diversity in the stories of eh reding, whereas a voluntary open-source system might attract a concentration of a certain type of person (those with time to spare).
This also seems to be a fairly common assignment in education and at almost every level.
The stories are then captured in an oscillating virtual wunderkammer, available in person at the science museum, or online showing the connections that the objects create between stories which would be constantly moving as stories and research is added.
This is a slight departure from what I had been thinking about, but it struck me that I was neglecting the target audience and the raison d’etre. I, me, I liked the idea, but as vague as the target audience definition is, there is no way I am in it. Finding connections (rather than creating them) between objects will be incredibly tedious, it also switches the power of narrative back to a central entity, any attempt at gamification in that arena will be bogged down/made futile by the sheer amount of images and lack of information. So while I like it, it doesn’t matter, it would be hated by most users and it would invariably have to make use of a search box or something that is a search box in hiding.
This approach with schools is more appropriate for the following reasons.
This engages the correct target audiences.
It actually provides The Science Museum with information they were clear about not being able to provide.
It provides The Science Museum with teachers or could act as filters for information, collaborators, or moderators
It might, might encourage and inspire a new generation of storytellers similar to this
It should lead to diverse readings of objects and a more holistic approach to the understanding of the archive.
It should engage the target audience as a creator of exhibits rather than a passive viewer thereof.
The designed parts would or could or should be the following
Delivery of images and challenge to students
How do students receive the images/artefacts? How can this be done for students and teachers of varying ages, places, languages, and cultures?
Oscillating digital murmuration
What does the display look like and what are its features, can it be filtered, can it be sorted?
Display of the individual stories
How does a viewer best access the individual stories, and do all stories have to be in English? (No)