Published! An object handling paper.

It’s been ages since I posted in my poor, neglected blog. In large part, this is because I’ve been doing lots of reading for research at work that is really interesting but nothing to do with objects. (It’s one of the joys and perils of being a researcher for hire.) Anyway, there has been progress on the object-related front which was a good reason for catching up with this blog.

A couple of years ago, I did a Psychology Masters and my dissertation was all about object handling. I didn’t write much about it at the time as I was hoping to get some of the work from the dissertation published. Happily, I have now had one paper published from that dissertation.

The dissertation work was based around giving pairs of people a sequence of contemporary craft objects to handle and then observing what happened. I used contemporary craft objects because there is something ambiguous/unfamiliar about them which stifles the sort of autobiographical response that you get when you give someone a social history object (e.g., “Oh! My mum had one of those!”). Instead people stay focused on the object and explore it in more depth, which is what I was interested in. (You can see pictures of the objects in the paper.) I had also learnt, from previous projects, that I tend to talk too much; so, for this project, I endeavoured to shut up as much as possible. That didn’t entirely work as the participants oriented towards me as the expert on the objects and asked questions of me. Nonetheless, I tried to be as quiet as possible.

Inevitably, I needed some sort of theoretical framework to work from and this is where all these years spent reading and blogging about object handling came to fruition. Here in the blog, I’ve tried to read/write widely about object handling and I had worked my way towards a position that recognises the object handling conversations as the outcome of cognitive, embodied and social processes. That puts me at odds with all sorts of people whose work I admire and have drawn on, so I spend some space in the paper marking out and justifying my approach. (My co-author on the paper was my dissertation supervisor and he really pushed me to reflect on and articulate my position, which I am very grateful for.)

I’d like to think that the paper is useful and provides some insights into object handling that are of value both academically and practically. I guess that judgement is up to the reader. Anyway, the journal is open access so people outside of academia can read it should they wish. (The editorial team at The Qualitative Review are great – really thorough and supportive.)

This, I hope is not the end of the line for this strand of work. In the paper, I hardly discuss the conversations based around ‘Metropolis’ pieces by Lubna Chowdhary.

‘Metropolis’ pieces by Lubna Chowdhary

These objects were the focus on intense scrutiny. They are like small, 3D collages of urban forms and they resisted easy interpretation. They also seemed to disrupt the normal processes of interaction so I would like to write another paper just about these from a conversation analysis / workplace studies perspective. But first I have to get more deeply into conversation analysis. My RA post has been move to an open-ended but 4 days per week contract, which (happily) gives me some free-time to develop this.

Meanwhile, a conversation has restarted about writing a funding bid with the Great North Museum for a research project looking at their work with young children. This will be focused on the objects and spaces in the museum and takes me closer to the work that got me started on this track many years ago at the Shipley. Hopefully, there will be more object-related posts in the near future.

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Parts & wholes – cities & objects

At Easter, my family & I went on holiday to Venice. It’s one of those cities I’d seen many times (in Canaletto paintings and James Bond movies) and long wanted to visit. Once upon a time, I worked at the university in Delft, which is similarly famous for its canals, so I imagined Venice to be a bit like Delft only more Italian and with gondolas. I was quite wrong. In Delft, most of the canals within the town are lined on either side with one-way streets and you can navigate through the town quite easily. In Venice, hardly any of the canals have a footpath alongside them, though some do. Instead, the canals slice up the island into blocks and the footpaths (pedestrians only) cut through those blocks. The streets themselves are narrow, winding and bound by high-walls and buildings. (The Venetians, like the Defltenaars built upwards to compensate for the lack of ground-space.) So, as a tourist, walking through Venice was a difficult affair – there were no long site-lines or easy reference points to orient myself by. I found myself progressing by scuttling from church to church (landmarks on my map) and anxiously checking to see if we were heading in the right direction.

At the time, I was also preparing a lecture on Visitor Studies, so all these short site-lines and wiggly streets reminded me of the work on space syntax (Hillier & Tzorti, 2006) with its notions of the depth and intelligibility of spaces. Venice was a deep, and deeply unintelligible, space compared to the straight lines of Delft or the wide spaces of Newcastle. In Venice, it felt like I could perceive the parts but was unable to perceive their relationships so struggled to integrate them into a spatial whole.

The relationship between parts and wholes is problematic (de Landa, 2006). Does the experience of parts over time shape the idea of the whole? Long site lines allow for the experience of the relationship of parts in a single moment which contributes (I think) to an emerging sense of a whole place. Or, was my experience of the parts refracted (to borrow a phrase from Schegloff (2007)) through the idea of the whole? Certainly, I already understood Venice to be a whole, of which every street and blessed open plaza were parts. Or is it an on-going reciprocal relationship? In which case, palimpsests and the phenomenological idea of sedimentation (Sokolowski, 2000) are helpful metaphors.

I have long held on to the idea that the way we perceive space (including buildings and cities) is analogous to the way that we perceive objects. Alas, on the neurocognitive level, the research appears not to support that: different regions within the medial temporal lobes are involved in aiding “the construction of complex conjunctive object (perirhinal cortex) and spatial (hippocampus) representations” (Maguire & Mullally, 2013). But I am reluctant to give up on the idea just yet as I find it a helpful analogy, working either from spaces to objects or vice versa.

One of the interesting ambiguities in the data from the work that I did for my Psychology dissertation was the way that participants moved between responding to the objects as wholes or as parts. (I gave pairs of women a series of contemporary craft objects to hold and video-recorded their conversation as the engaged with the objects and tried to make sense of them.) There were times when participants seemed to respond to objects as wholes – the initial, ‘Ooh! I like that!’ and the times when the discussion of an object’s qualities were refracted through its alleged membership to a class of objects. The first instance is ambiguous, the second more clearly relies on thinking about the object as a whole in order to judge whether it (the object) belongs within a class of objects. (That said, it is feasible for someone to focus on a quality of the object and relate to the qualities of the class. However, even if this is the case, then it is reasonable to assume that they have made a prior judgement about the object and the class.) At other times, participants attended to parts of an object: there was a fascinating moment where, after closely inspecting an object for 3 minutes, a participant suddenly pointed to a line of iridescent colour on the surface that had been in front of them the whole time.

The major difference between objects and spaces is that there are no issues with the depth or intelligibility of the object. Though the example above suggests that the visual and tactile experiences of parts of the object unfold over time. (This is somewhat in tension with descriptions of vision as a sense which is instantaneous but in line with descriptions of perception as being enacted.) But there is still this problematic issue of the reciprocal(?) or unfolding(?) relationship between parts and whole. Taylor & Zwaan’s (2013) model of fault tolerant comprehension (my favourite) implicitly allows for this but it would still be really interesting to somehow track that process.


Hillier, B. & Tzorti, K. (2006) ‘Space Syntax: The Language of Museum Space’ in S. Macdonald (ed) A Companion to Museum Studies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 282-301

de Landa, M. (2006) A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage theory and social complexity, London: Continuum

Maguire, E.A., & Mullally, S.L. (2013) ‘The Hippocampus: A manifesto for change’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Advanced online publication. doi:10.1047/a0033650

Schegloff, E. A. (2007) ‘A tutorial on membership categorization’, Journal of Pragmatics, 39(3): 462-482.

Sokolowski, R. (2000) Introduction to Phenomenology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Taylor, L. J., & Zwaan, R. A. (2013). Fault-tolerant comprehension. In Y. Coello & A. Bartolo (Eds.), Language and action in cognitive neuroscience (pp. 145-158). Hove, E. Sussex, UK & New York, NY, USA: Psychology Press.

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AHA! The report!

Almost 2 years ago I wrote a post about projects that I was (then) working on, in collaboration with staff from Beamish Museum. Both projects are now complete.

The smaller, ‘Mens’ Group’ project was really interesting and we learnt a lot through it but it has been difficult to find a way to publish/disseminate what we learnt because we worked with such a small group of men. The same cannot be said for the AHA project (Active Ageing and Heritage in Adult Learning).

We set out to recruit enough participants that we could do some meaningful statistical analysis with the data. We also set out to explore the possibilities for museum staff to provide training in object-based reminiscence for family members and carers of people with dementia. Happily, the project met all it’s goals, though not always in the ways originally envisaged.

The project has now finished and a report has been produced documenting all the strands of project activity (not just the evaluation that the university partners were involved in). The results of the evaluation are presented in Part 2. If you’re interested please read on…


The project is complete but, as is often the way with these projects, the writing of academic papers has extended beyond the formal end of the project. I’ve been working with my colleague at Newcastle and Aarhus University on a paper presenting the quantitative data. Our colleague in Linnaeus University is leading on the qualitative paper. More news about these papers as it is made.


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Objects and memories – evoked or invoked?

When I’ve been thinking about objects and memory, I have often used the verb ‘to evoke’ as in “The object evokes memories that might otherwise not have been recalled.” The word seemed to capture the feeling that this happened without our conscious volition or guidance and that memories are ‘evoked’ which might otherwise not have been. Miles et al. (2013) write about ‘involuntary recall’ to convey this contrast with situations where someone might ask you to deliberately recall something and, indeed, their work indicated that the content of memories evoked in an open-air museum setting are different to those evoked in a reminiscence session in a contemporary setting.

Merleau-Ponty though had other ideas. In his Introduction, he takes issue with the idea of ‘associative force’ – the idea that one impression (sensory experience) has the power to awaken other impressions. Instead, he argues, the present impression is “understood from the perspective of the past experience where it co-existed with the impressions to be awakened” (p. 18). From this point, he argues that there is no projection of memories and that the phrase ‘to perceive is to remember’ is mistaken. Instead, he argues that “the memories need to be made possible by the physiognomy of the givens in order for them to come to complete the perception. Prior to any contribution of memory, that which is seen must currently be organised in such a way as to offer me a scene in which I can recognise my previous experience (p. 20).” Rather, Merleau-Ponty appears to be arguing that “memories do not project themselves over the sensations, but rather that consciousness compares them with the present given only to retain those that fit with it” (p.22). Later, he adds, that to “perceive is not to experience a multitude of impressions that bring along with them some memories capable of completing them, it is to see an immanent sense bursting forth from a constellation of givens without which no call to memory is possible. To remember is not to bring back before the gaze of consciousness a self-subsistent picture of the past, it is to plung into the horizon of the past and gradually unfold tightly packed perspectives until the experiences that it summarizes are as if lived anew in their own temporal space. To perceive is not to remember (p. 23).”

This, I think, messes with the use of ‘evoke’. If I understand it correctly, then (for Merleau Ponty) the object does not evoke a memory rather the object is understood via an appeal to memory. The memories are invoked not evoked.

First the problems:

I find it problematic just to assume that Merleau-Ponty is right just because he’s Merleau-Ponty. It is obvious that he was  frighteningly intelligent and knew both his philosophical and scientific literature very well. Nonetheless, that doesn’t make him right. But, perhaps it make what he wrote the starting point for a set of questions..?

I also find this account problematic because it doesn’t account for the observation that memories that are evoked by objects/perceptual stimuli are sometimes memories that are not evoked purely through conversation. Why, in Merleau-Ponty’s argument, would we resort to a different set of memories to handle a different perceptual ‘horizon’?

Then the advantage:

My dissertation was based on the way that people interacted around contemporary craft objects and the hypothesis that they couldn’t make an associative move from those objects to autobiographical memories. Merleau-Ponty would, I think argue, that there is no associative move. Instead, the participants, having failed to understand the objects in the light of their memories, were obliged to invoke other frameworks to understand the objects. This makes a kind of sense.

What Merleau-Ponty also does is to question the structure of our experience. We experience our memories as being evoked but, as with other aspects of perceptual experience, it ain’t necessarily so and I need to not take experience for granted.


Merleau Ponty, M. (1945, 2014) The Phenomenology of Perception [Trans. D.A. Landes], London: Routledge

Miles, A.N., Fischer-Mogensen, L., Nielsen, N.H., Hermansen, S. &  Berntsen, D. (2013) ‘Turning back the hands of time: Autobiographical memories in dementia cued by a museum setting’, Consciousness and Cognition, 22 (3), 1074-1081

Posted in Cognition, memory, Objects, Perception | Leave a comment

Identity & assemblage

I’ve stumbled on three clusters of ideas over the last couple of years that all seem to point in similar directions but which belong in different domains of study. On the one hand, I find these ideas really useful when thinking about the evocation of self in reminiscence and visual art activities. On the other hand, I could be mixing up ideas that shouldn’t be. (It’s my blog and I’ll write epistemologically unsound things if I want to.)

All three (sets of) ideas talk about assemblages. The first comes from ethnography. There’s a lovely paper by Bailey & Biggs (2012) looking at community identity amongst older adults in North Cornwall. I came across the paper whilst trying to get my head around the ideas of community and belonging. In the paper, Bailey and Biggs (citing an earlier paper by Crang & Cook, 2007) state that “a person’s identity can be understood as an assemblage of thoughts, feelings, memories, ways of doing things, possessions and so forth which does not fit together in a dedicated pattern but is always a compromise, always pragmatic, always in flux and never pure.” In a sense this is not anything new but the clarity and succinctness of the statement is great. In this case, Bailey and Biggs are talking both about a person’s understanding of their own identity, the ways that they perform their identity in public and the ways that they sustain that identity through material culture.

{They also go on, “conversations [are] active, creative exchanges: ‘Just like memory, the narrative itself is not a fixed text and depository of information, but rather a process and a performance… in orality, we are not dealing with finished discourse but with [dialogic discourse in the making].’” This speaks to my current bug-bear of unifying reminiscence and creativity but that’s a digression.}

The next set of ideas I’ve mentioned in previous posts is about the way that identity is represented mentally. It emerges out of the field of cognitive semantics and the work of Struiksma, Noordzij & Postma (2009). Their work indicates that the idea of an object (technically the spatial relationships between two objects but we can extend this to objects and people) can be made up of multiple elements drawing on different perceptual modalities, affective states and propositional information. The idea that the idea of a thing contains draws on different modalities is fairly uncontentious but there is little consensus over whether the representation is actually amodal, modal or supramodal (see also Harley, 2013; Shallice & Cooper, 2011). The fine detail is fascinating but not essential, our representation of another person’s identity can be thought of as an assemblage of elements which is open to, and enriched by, our experiences with that person (Taylor & Zwaan, 2013). If this is correct then there should be some correlation between the content of our identity-assemblage of another person and that person’s performative assemblage of identity, though they exist in completely different registers.

Just recently, I’ve been trying to get my head into phenomenology. It’s already become clear that there are multiple schools of phenomenology (Pernecky, 2016) and this next bit is typed with trepidation. Thus far, I’ve spent most time with an introductory text by Sokolowski (1999), who identifies himself with an ‘East Coast’ (American) interpretation of phenomenology and what follows is my reading of Sokolowski. For Sokolowski, phenomenology undertakes to overcome the cognitive turn in psychology by positing that consciousness is always consciousness of a thing which is beyond ourselves. The world and the things in it are given to us and we are “the datives of manifestation” (I love this phrase!). What comes across clearly is that the idea of an object is not singular but, rather, the identity is a rich (potentially, ever-unfolding) manifold. Sokolowski takes a strong position that the identity does not exist as an idea in our head but is outside of us and, in some register, is a property of the object. Other approaches are, I suspect, available (Pernecky, 2016). What appeals to me about Sokolowski’s phenomenology is that it (a) identity in manifold expresses in a more nuanced way something of the identity-assemblage I was trying to get at earlier and (b) seems to offer a bridge between performative and cognitive identity assemblages.

This is a bit of work-in-progress but I find that it offers a way to talk about the richness of human (& object) encounters that museums staff and researchers are variously facilitating and studying. It allows me to think about how, for example, carers read so much from the behaviour of the person they are caring for whilst they are engaged in art activities. I’ve definitely not got the phenomenological angle pinned down yet but there is mileage in it.


Bailey, J. and Biggs, I. (2012) ‘“Either Side of Delphy Bridge”: A deep mapping project evoking and engaging the lives of older adults in rural North Cornwall’, Journal of Rural Studies, 28(4), pp. 318-328.

Harley, T.A. (2013) The psychology of language: From data to theory. Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Pernecky, T. (2016) Epistemology and metaphysics for qualitative research, London: Sage Publications Ltd

Shallice, T. and Cooper, R. (2011) The organisation of mind. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sokolowski, R. (1999) Introduction to phenomenology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Struiksma, M.E., Noordzij, M.L. and Postma, A. (2009) ‘What is the link between language and spatial images? Behavioral and neural findings in blind and sighted individuals’, Acta Psychologica, 132(2), pp. 145-156.

Taylor, L.J. and Zwaan, R.A. (2013) ‘Fault-tolerant comprehension’, in Coello, Y. and Bartolo, A. (eds) Language and action in cognitive neuroscience. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, pp. 145-158.

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Magical Poppies

Ages ago, I wrote a blog post about ‘Magical Touching‘. It was based on Carolyn Korsmeyer’s excellent paper exploring people’s affective experience of genuine objects and how this is shaped by their beliefs of them. Just recently, I attended a seminar at Media, Culture, Heritage by Dr Joanne Sayner and Dr Jenny Kidd about their work on the Field of Blood poppy installation at the Tower of London and the subsequent touring exhibitions ‘Wave’ and ‘Weeping Window’. Amongst other things, Joanne touched on the use of the poppy as a brand by the Royal British Legion as part of their endeavour to raise more funds for their charitable work.

These two threads came together when a letter from the Royal British Legion came through my post containing this little snippet…

Advert for ‘Passchendaele 100’ Poppy Pin

This is fascinating!

All the things that Korsmeyer wrote about are put to work in this product: a pin hammered out of brass fuses from shells used during the battle at Passchendaele, soil from battlefield worked into the enamel. All of this presumably designed to evoke those affective reactions from people who get emotionally engaged in the touch of the genuine and encounters with things from the past. And, again presumably, someone must have identified a potential market for whom this experience of the genuine will be appealing. Otherwise, why make them to raise money?

Of course, the sense of the genuine is being manufactured. This irony, which is inherent in so much heritage, is palpable here.



Korsmeyer, C. (2012) ‘Touch and the Experience of the Genuine’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 52(4): 365-377

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Wanted! A Grand Unifying Theory

I want a grand unifiying theory. Not one for physics (that would be too easy!) but one for the sorts of work that museums do with older people. I want a theoretical grounding that can underpin (and give value to): reminiscence work, creative activities, holistic (cognitive) stimulation, tours of stores with tea & cake. All of it.

When a colleague from Jamtli & I gave a talk at a conference in London, we got some well-mannered grief from a few people for focusing on reminiscence. There is, I think, a turn away from reminiscence in some quarters and towards creative activities. Part of this is motivated by a desire to forget memory and focus on who people are now. ‘Forget Memory’ is a book by Ann Basting. Basting’s work is fantastic – humane, compassionate, insightful and inspiring. Her work has changed people’s lives for the better as well as exploring the potential for creativity as therapeutic tool. I feel churlish arguing with all of this – but I’m going to.

I want to argue with the notion that we can be entirely in the moment and I want to argue that there is no disconnect between reminiscence and creativity.

A recent article in The Psychologist magazine (April 2017) drew on the hypothesis that the human capacity for autobiographical memory emerges out of our capacity to imagine future possibilities. The authors used this to draw memory and creativity much more closely together. Thus, thinking about the future and thinking about the past are both imaginative acts. I also want to argue, along with others, that if recalling autobiographical memories is actually an act of reconstruction, which is responsive to the audience, then it should be seen as a form of storytelling. However, I also want to draw on work that sees narrative as something that incorporates more than just words but remains open to the embodied nature of human being and doing.

From the other side, as I read through data about creative activities with older people, I see people drawing on their past in order to be in the present. Participants recall their past working lives or holidays they went on as a way of understanding and giving meaning to the activity in hand. More fundamentally, and more speculatively, I would argue that most people already have an understanding of what it means to do art and that shapes what they understand of what they are being invited to do in a session. (Gadamer’s notion of ‘games’, at least in the way that Risatti described it, may be helpful here.)

So… that’s the argument I’m going to make. Now all I have to do is write/edit the book!

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