Thinking about Object-based Teaching and Learning

By Rachel M. Straughn-Navarro, PhD

藥師佛 Yaoshi fo (Medicine Buddha)
藥師佛 Yaoshi fo (Medicine Buddha)
Late 1500s-early 1600s, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
bronze, gilding, pigment
William Bridges Thayer Memorial, 1928.1791
Image courtesy of the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

The Medicine Buddha is an artwork that makes viewers move around it to look at it from different angles or rub their fingers together as they imagine the texture of the conical curls on his head. With younger viewers, he often makes them sit on the ground, squirming in attempt to cross their legs with the soles of their feet towards the ceiling or craning their necks to see how his eyes are ever so slightly open, looking down as if seeing something beyond the physical world. His size, at three and a half feet tall, sparks awe and amazement while his elongated earlobes, the bump at the top of his head, and other features less well-known in our western culture incite wonder and curiosity. This inanimate object, with very little effort on the part of a facilitator, makes visitors move their bodies in certain ways, to think in new and different ways, and causes them to feel and question in ways they probably would not have if they had been looking at a blank wall. The objects in our collections hold power and influence that are foundational for a pedagogy of teaching with primary sources.

Object-based learning (OBL) is an approach to using objects, like the Medicine Buddha, to deepen students’ or visitors’ learning experiences. In reflecting on my own teaching philosophies, a few facets of OBL have risen to the forefront of my thinking: authenticity, agency, ambiguity, and empathy. In this article, I explore each facet through my own experiences teaching in an art museum and consider the complexities of each idea that reflect and refract student thinking with objects. These are major conceptual anchors that shape an object-based pedagogy, providing depth and grit to learning experiences with primary sources.

Many students and other visitors walk into the galleries of our museum and ask, “Is this all real?” When reproductions are readily accessible on the walls of hotel rooms and doctors’ offices, printed in calendars and on coffee mugs, the realness of objects captures visitors’ imaginations and attention. In contrast, authentic objects are defined as “original objects that once served a real-world purpose and bear historical significance” (Hampp &Schwan 2014, 349).[i] There is something visceral and emotive that connects visitors to an actual bronze Buddha made by artists in the 1400s for display in a temple or an actual canvas which was painted by the same artist who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery (Amy Sherald). Objects connect visitors to the people, cultures, histories, and contexts from which they come. Being in close proximity to these objects brings us closer to humanity.

Objects connect visitors to the people, cultures, histories, and contexts from which they come. Being in close proximity to these objects brings us closer to humanity.

From another perspective, authenticity can be considered in terms of learning rather than in the object. Digitization efforts have given us unprecedented access to collections across the world, from things in storage, to pages that can’t be turned, or objects too fragile to display or handle. 3-D scanning and printing allow visitors to experience objects in a tactile way that would otherwise be impossible to balance with preservation concerns. For example, see a 3D scan of the Medicine Buddha here: . These means of engagement might not be in relation to an authentic object, but they can facilitate deep and authentic understanding of objects and the knowledge associated with them. We can also leverage authenticity in learning by finding projects and connections for students that ground their work in real life applications, and give a weight to their coursework beyond the classroom. I have worked with education students to write object-based lesson plans to share with area teachers on the museum’s website and invited museum studies and art history students to write labels and other interpretive content for exhibitions. Knowing that their work has an authentic purpose and audience beyond a grade and an instructor encourages students to be more invested and thoughtful in their efforts.

The powerful connections associated with objects give them agency to spark learning in visitors. They act as an access point to knowledge. So often we talk about bringing an object to life or how certain objects speak to us, but I think how we consider objects as living, active participants is foundational to teaching with objects. The Medicine Buddha actively engages with viewers in the ways it causes them to look, move, and think, and by acknowledging this active agency of the objects in learning experiences, we can more profoundly engage our students. In the same light, our visitors also have agency, lived experiences, and prior knowledge that they bring to an object.

Many objects we keep in collections and display offer some kind of input for viewers or users to encounter and process. All visitors bring some kind of experience they can put in conversation with the input from the object to create some kind of new understanding. As facilitators, we can guide and shape these understandings, but we should first foster the inherent potential of both the objects and the people we are guiding before we interfere too much.

One activity I often use with college students illustrates this exchange between an object and its viewer. Students are given a sheet of paper with instructions, and are asked to quickly find a work in the museum that they find interesting, or “speaks to them.” They are asked to set a timer on their phones and spend at least five minutes looking at their chosen artwork before they do anything else. They then choose three activities from a list on their instruction sheet to complete with their chosen objects as the subject. The activities include things like:

  • Write a haiku about this work
  • Sketch this work in 60 seconds
  • Take all the time you need to draw this work.
  • Design a detailed diagram documenting this work (for example, you might label all of the colors in this work, or emphasize the direction of each line in a painting.)
  • Try posing like the figures or shapes in your work.

I try to give students as much time as I can to complete these activities, usually at least 45 minutes, then I ask them to share their creative projects if they are willing, and ask what they learned or what surprised them about this experience. Students are always surprised by how quickly that first five minutes of close looking went by, and by how much there was to take in by simply looking. They also note how much they were able to learn on their own, without any guidance or facilitation from an expert. This activity is particularly useful for classes in which the instructor just wants to introduce their students to the museum. While an action-packed highlights tour might give a better overview of the breadth of a museum, this process of slow looking develops a relationship between the student and the object which is more indicative of the depth of meaning and understanding that can be gained in object-based learning.

Ambiguity is a tool to unlock intrigue, imagination, and wonder around objects in our collections.

While many objects provide a wealth of information through texts, visual information, or extant research, most also have some facets that remain mysteriously obscured. Ambiguity can be an unsettling space, without a solid confirmation of one idea or another. As an educator, I model embracing ambiguity in my enthusiasm for questions to which I don’t know the answer. A space where opposing ideas might have equal value is an opportunity for curiosity and exploration. An unknown maker can lead visitors to wonder about the person who created a work, imagining multiple possibilities and scenarios around an object’s creation. An artwork with ambiguous imagery might lend itself to multiple interpretations as viewers try to discern their own understanding of the work or the artist’s intentions. The Medicine Buddha was made by unknown artists in China 600 years ago, and often causes students to wonder how he came to our museum in Kansas, or what his original context was like.

Ambiguity is a tool to unlock intrigue, imagination, and wonder around objects in our collections. It can also spark discussion and creative problem-solving among visitors with differing opinions. Many educators comment on the current trend among students to always want to know the right answer rather than consider that there may be more than one way to solve a problem. By considering the ambiguous and often unanswerable questions around objects in collections, students can learn to be comfortable with not always knowing all of the answers and appreciating the creativity that comes with exploring the unknown.

Considering multiple possibilities and taking various perspectives also offers students, visitors, facilitators, and all those who engage around an object also a means of building empathy. Visitors with different life experiences might settle on differing understandings and interpretations of an object, but ambiguity gives validity to each of their interpretations. Thus, visitors must find a way to resolve or at least accept their differing understandings by both allowing for the possibility of other understandings and recognizing the legitimacy of other visitors’ experiences and understandings.

Objects can also allow visitors to step into lives and experiences that are different than their own. For example, one project I am currently working on focuses on bringing art from China, Japan, and Korea to schools in rural parts of Kansas where many students have little experience with Asian art and culture. By simply exploring the process of writing with a brush instead of a pen or pencil, and observing the distinctions between calligraphy from China, Japan, and Korea, students I have worked with have gained new understanding of how writing can shape communication, art, and culture, and also have begun to question some of their assumptions about languages that differ from their own. Many objects can serve as an excellent focal point for discussions around controversial topics as they can serve as a kind of sounding board for ideas and deflect viewpoints which might be too emotionally charged to share in direct conversations between students. Object-based learning opportunities can allow students to practice civil discussion in a controlled and low-stakes setting. At the same time, some objects can also be touchstones for traumatic events or present offensive and/or oppressive imagery. It is important that these objects for these discussions are carefully selected to spark conversation, however heated, without inciting trauma or confrontation, and guided by a trained and thoughtful facilitator who can support and maintain the balance of ambiguity and empathy in the discussion.

Objects can also allow visitors to step into lives and experiences that are different than their own.

Objects as primary sources possess a wealth of opportunities for student engagement and learning. OBL scholars, Helen Chatterjee, Leonie Hannan, and Linda Thomson define OBL as:

“a mode of education which involves the active integration of objects into the learning environment [and refers] to the role of objects in the acquisition and dissemination of subject-specific and cross-disciplinary knowledge, observational, practical, and other transferable skills…It is clear that museum objects can inspire, inform, engage and motivate learners at all stages of their education” (Chatterjee et. al, 2015, 1)

Beyond the capacity of OBL to inspire, inform, engage, and motivate learners, this pedagogy is a way of unlocking the potential of objects to deepen students’ understanding of the past, its relation to the present, and their role in shaping the future. Authenticity, agency, ambiguity, and empathy are conceptual anchors that probe these depths and serve as cornerstones for an object-based teaching practice that activates student learning. Each interaction between a student and object is unique as the combination and applicability of these factors (among others) changes. Some visitor-object encounters seem transformative, while others are simply informative, but all hold potential to build students’ capacities for creative and critical thinking and connect to their learning in tangible and meaningful ways.

[i][i] For a much more in-depth discussion of the complexities of discussions around authentic objects, and visitors perceptions of authenticity, please see this article in full.

Chatterjee, H., L. Hanna, L. Thomson. (2015). “An Introduction to Object-Based Learning and Multisensory Engagement” in Engaging the Senses: Object-based learning in Higher Education, Chatterjee, H. and L. Hannan, eds. Ashgate: Burlington, VT.

Hampp, C., S. Schwan. (2014). “Perception and evaluation of authentic objects: findings from a visitor study,” Museum Management and Curatorship, 29:4, 349-367, DOI: 10.1080/09647775.2014.938416

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Rachel M. Straughn-Navarro
Rachel M. Straughn-Navarro

Rachel M. Straughn-Navarro received her PhD in Art Education with a research focus in Museum Studies from the University of Missouri. She is currently the K-12 State Outreach Coordinator at the Spencer Museum of Art and affiliate faculty in the Museum Studies department at the University of Kansas.

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