THE DUTCH BEAN SLICER
A few years ago, I took a Dutch bean slicer (or snijbonenmolen) 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. You can see from the photo that it’s not the most beautiful of objects.
It’s well-designed, yes, but not a thing of immediate beauty. Or was it….?
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 cast metal, with a handle that turned, and sharp blades on the other side.
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.
We had easily talked for 25 minutes about a Dutch bean slicer. Some members of the group had been skeptical 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.
So that’s example #1. Here’s another story about an object that I wasn’t captivated by…
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. I’ll share a photo in the shownotes so you can have a look.