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Learning to Love ‘Boring’ Objects

Learning to Love Boring Objects

As museum and tour guides, we want participants on our tours to look closely at objects. However, research has shown that the average time spent viewing artworks or objects is generally short. We also know that every museum has its superstar objects and that some objects get far more attention than others.

So, how can we get visitors interested in these less popular but still fascinating objects? How can we engage them with ones that may seem a little ‘boring’ or ‘mundane’ at first glance?

We use objects on guided tours with people of all ages to create connections to the past and to develop important skills. We know that teaching with objects can foster the development of many skills – observation, description, questioning and interpretation to name a few. We also know that working in-depth with objects stimulates curiosity and wonder and can lead to uplifting tour experiences that are memorable and long-lasting.

Below are examples of two objects that only came to life for me and the groups I was guiding once we spent time with them. I hope the examples will provide some inspiration for you to search out the ‘boring’ and ‘mundane’ objects around you and to bring them to life!

#1 Snijbonenmolen – Stimulating Curiosity & Developing Skills

In 2015 I took one of these in my suitcase to the MuseumNext conference in Geneva. I was leading a workshop there on using Visible Thinking for creating dialogue with objects. I had already selected a painting for discussion, but wanted an object I could use to demonstrate how you can use thinking routines to generate lively discussions about ANY type of object.

This wonderful object was chosen from a special room, a real cabinet of curiosities, from the museum studies department at the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam. All the objects in the room were collected by the late Nico Halbertsma for students to use to create museum tours and learn about object-based learning. I chose this object, not just because I was fascinated by it, but because I believed it told stories on multiple levels.


At the same time, I was intrigued as to how long we could spend discussing such an ordinary looking everyday object using the thinking routine See-Think-Wonder.

We started by looking at it from all angles. From above, from below, from the front and from the back. After looking at it for a while, participants could then handle the object and examine its moveable parts. I invited members of the group to start describing the object. They noticed it was brown, made of a cast metal, with a handle that turned, and sharp blades on the other side.

What might it be?

After we had finished describing it, we started talking about what we thought it could be. Due to the handle and the sharp cutting blades, the first thoughts were to do with cutting and sharpening implements, possibly pencils, and grating or cutting vegetables.

The group worked collaboratively building on each other’s ideas until they had almost unilaterally agreed that it was a device for cutting some kind of fruit and vegetable.

When would you use it?

We then moved on to think about why anyone might need such a device and when they would use it. One of the group members suggested that it could be from the mid-twentieth century and therefore it might have been a labour saving device. Someone else (who was Dutch-born) said it reminded her of something her grandma had in her kitchen to chop green beans (‘snijbonen’ in Dutch).

‘But why would anyone want all their vegetables the same size and shape?’ someone else asked. ‘What exactly is wrong with irregularly chopped vegetables?’

From time to time, I added small amounts of contextual information to pursue different lines of inquiry and to keep the discussion fluid. I frequently asked the group to provide evidence for their interpretations (‘What do you see that makes you say that?‘) and pushed the group to explore all possibilities and look for any connections they could find.

In the end I had to wrap up the conversation, although most of the group still had more to say. I reflected with the group about the different levels of meaning that we had uncovered about the object – functional, symbolic, personal and historical – through the simple thinking routine See-Think-Wonder.

25 minutes!

We had easily talked for 25 minutes about a Dutch bean slicer (a ‘snijbonenmolen’). Some members of the group had been sceptical at the beginning about the ability of such an object to hold our attention for more than 5 minutes, but all participants were enthusiastic and keen to contribute throughout. Their curiosity to find out more drove the discussion. 

But here’s what was fantastic: the group wanted to carry on discussing this object, they didn’t want the discussion to end. They wanted to return and learn more with other objects. They left the workshop still curious and uplifted.

#2 The Great Pustaha – the more you look, the more you see!

One of my favourite objects at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is the Great Pustaha. However, I genuinely used to walk past this object without a second glance, until a colleague suggested I take a closer look.

Learning Through Observation

I decided to take some time looking at it really carefully. Every lunchtime, I went to see it. I looked at the shapes, colours, patterns, the detail. I looked at parts that I hadn’t really looked at before. I made notes. I thought about what questions I had when I looked at the object. I thought about what interested me and what I wanted to find out more about. I looked and I looked again.

I did some research, I talked to the curator, I went back and looked again. I discovered that the pustaha is an ancient book that was used by Batak priests in North Sumatra. These books were used by the priests as notebooks for recipes and healing remedies, for songs and notes on magic.

Although the Tropenmuseum has 150 of these pustaha in its collection, most of them have plain wooden covers. The rest are in the museum storage. Only this one is on display – why? There are many other elements of mystery surrounding this object too – for example, why is there a handle on the top? How did the priest use the book? Did he read it or sing it aloud? If so, who was listening? And where did this take place? I’ve also never personally seen the book open which piques my curiosity further (although you can now view the beautiful pages inside on Google Arts and Culture).

The More You Look, The More You See…

This particular pustaha is unique because of its size, age and rich decoration. The text is written on tree bark that folds in a zigzag fashion, like an accordion. When the 56 pages of this pustaha are unfolded, it reaches almost 17 metres in length.

I’ve now spent hours and hours with this one object and shared its magic and intrigue with hundreds of visitors on guided tours and educational programmes – adults and school groups amongst them. I always tell them that I used to pass by this object without much of a second glance….but the more time I have spent with it, the more I have seen. I know there are many, many stories hidden here in this one object.

Spending time looking at this object allowed me to really focus on the questions and discussions I would like to have with my groups and to share with them my curiosity and enthusiasm too. So, next time you are unsure whether to include an object on your tour, spend some time with it, looking and thinking before you dismiss it out of hand.

‘The more you look, the more you see, the more you see, the more interesting the object becomes’ (Tishman 2008).

Is curiosity more important than information?

In a 2006 article for ‘Curator’ Daniel Spock argued that nurturing curiosity is more important than imparting information. He said we should be:

  • emphasising questions instead of answers,
  • regularly surprising our audiences
  • and providing tools for exploration and discovery.

I think these are good mantras for museum and tour guides to live and work by. Object experiences such as the two described above stimulate curiosity, arouse memories and encourage participants to share personal stories. Both of these objects could be considered dull at first glance, but by observing carefully and having discussions using thinking routines, we were able to turn the ‘boring’ into surprising and uplifting experiences.