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The joy of engaging with objects

The joy of engaging with objects



I’m really happy to be talking to Dr Alex Woodall about her wonderful work with objects. We’re talking about how the joys of working with objects creatively. We’re exploring how you can use objects to spark all sorts of connections, associations and fun in the museum and beyond…

Alex Woodall is a museum professional and academic, inspired by the creative use of objects and rummaging in stores.

She has 20 years’ experience working in learning, interpretation and exhibition management and leadership roles, including at Sheffield Museums, Manchester Art Gallery, the Royal Armouries in Leeds and the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia.

She is currently Programme Director for the Postgraduate Creative and Cultural Industries Management degree at the University of Sheffield, where she teaches a large international cohort about museum management.

In our chat today, we talk about the joys of working with objects creatively.

Alex shares how her love for objects started when she was very small rummaging through her dad’s ‘museum’ full of amazing finds that he’d dug up in the garden – rocks and fossils and clay pipes and so on. And how that developed into a career-long fascination with all kinds of objects.

We talk about what objects do, how we can use them and what we can get out of working with objects.

Alex tells us what an object dialogue box is and how you can use objects to spark all sorts of connections, associations and fun in the museum. She takes us through a wonderful activity that I did with her at the ICOM CECA conference in Denmark recently that helps us to notice more details and find stuff in museums that we would normally overlook.

We also talk about how we can use objects to inspire more creativity and imagination organisations in for example meetings, in teams, programming, brainstorming etc. And she shares two wonderful books to read if you’re as fascinated by objects as we both are.

This is a delightful chat about creating joyful engaging experiences with objects -Enjoy!


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Karl and Kimberley Foster – Object Dialogue Boxes


Books mentioned:

Sandra Dudley (2010) Museum Materialities:

Pablo Neruda (1994) Odes to Common Things:

Written by Alex Woodall: 

  • Woodall A (2020) ‘Storehouses of Unimagined Treasures’: Delightful Rummaging and Artists’ Responses to ‘Unloved’ Collections In Woodham A, Hess A & Smith R (Ed.), Emotion, Care, and Engagement in Museums: Interventions in Unloved Collections Arc Humanities Press View this article in WRRO
  • Woodall A (2015) Rummaging as a Strategy for Creative Thinking and Imaginative Engagement in Higher Education In Chatterjee H & Hannan L (Ed.), Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education (pp. 133-155). Surrey: Ashgate. View this article in WRRO
  • Woodall A (2015) Object Dialogue Boxes and Unknowing In Farnell G (Ed.), Interpreting the Art Museum (pp. 366-377). MuseumsEtc


Claire Bown  04:58

Hi, Alex and welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Alex Woodall  05:02

Thank you. Thank you very much for having me, Claire. It’s very lovely.

Claire Bown  05:06

I’m delighted you’re here. So could you explain to people, our listeners all around the world where you are right now?

Alex Woodall  05:13

Yes, I am currently at home in Sheffield in the UK, which is in the north, on a particularly dull and dingy day.

Claire Bown  05:23

ah, dear, well, we’ve got sunshine today. So we’ve got the full autumn experience. So hopefully we can send it your way. So can you tell us what you do and how you came to be doing what you’re doing?

Alex Woodall  05:34

Yes. So I currently work at the University of Sheffield, where I run a programme called Creative and Cultural Industries Management, which is a postgraduate course, it’s, it’s quite an international course. And on that I teach museum management. My background really is, has been working in museums and galleries for the last 20 ish years running learning, interpretation, and managing exhibition projects. So I sort of I started off as a as an Education Officer. And then I’ve done various different things, including being part of the senior leadership team. And then I kind of had a bit of a sideways move into academia following my PhD.

Claire Bown  06:24

Yeah, so what we’re going to be talking about today is your fascination, shall we say, objects and object-based learning. But before we do that, a question I really like to ask people is what are the values or principles that guide your work?

Alex Woodall  06:43

I love this question. I think for me, absolutely, curiosity is the main guiding principle of everything that I do. And also, collaboration and creative collaboration, I think is really important for me. And then building on some work I’ve done recently. Kindness is also really important. So curiosity, collaboration, creativity, kindness,

Claire Bown  07:13

Love those – very similar to mine as well. I think it’s really interesting questions, just to see where people are coming from.

Alex Woodall  07:20

Yeah, definitely.

Claire Bown  07:21

Let’s let’s talk about the joy of objects. What sort of projects do you work on? Perhaps you could give us a couple of examples of projects you’ve worked on in the past that have had objects as their kind of main focus?

Alex Woodall  07:39

Yeah, well, I absolutely love, love, love objects. And I think it a lot of it goes back to some of my really early formative years. So when I was little, my dad in the garage had this chest of drawers, which he called his museum and he would collect all sorts of bits of rocks and fossils and clay pipes he’d dug up from the garden. And I used to spend hours sneaking into the garage and rummaging through this drawer, this this chest of drawers of his little museum. And I think somewhere in the back of my head that must have kind of stayed with me for my, my entire life. And then while I was studying, I had the opportunity to work as a as a volunteer really in the education team at a place called Kettle’s Yard, which is an amazing house and Art Gallery in Cambridge. And the owner of Kettles Yard wall were the owners were called Jim and Helen Ede. And Jim was a curator at Tate and a collector of modern art, but also a collector of beautiful natural objects, pebbles, feathers, all sorts of things. And the house is an absolutely beautiful, calming, restful place. With books, you can sit on the chairs and leaf through the books. And there are.. there’s art kind of juxtaposed with with lovely things. And I loved it and seeing those objects there has kind of inspired my whole career really, and just this capacity of being able to link objects with art, and use the objects to make your imagination fly are things that I’ve been playing with for many years.

Alex Woodall  09:34

So one particular project that has really inspired me was when I worked at Manchester Art Gallery, I was involved in a project called ‘Mary, Mary Quite Contrary’, which was about a female collector called Mary Greg. And her collection had come into Manchester art gallery, even though it wasn’t really art. It was bygone, bygone curiosities should we say, so things like rusty old spoons, lots of Victorian children’s toys, candles, all sorts of things that were kind of battered, but left a bit forlorn and had never really been on display. This is… this was when I worked there in about 2008, I think. And so I was part of the what was then the new interpretation team. So it was a kind of a group of colleagues who were a bridge between the learning team and the curatorial team. And we basically set up this amazing open-ended rummaging project where we invited artists to come and look at Mary Gregg’s collections in the stores, they were able to open the drawers, pull things out, rummage around, take photos, do drawings in their sketchbooks, and then we just left it totally open, let go of any sort of curatorial authority for them to just create and do whatever they wanted to. So there’s a lovely blog, which still exists all these years later about this process. But I think it was that just seeing the joy and the spark that objects kind of enable. Yeah, that was a really wonderful project. And I’ve tried to sort of emulate similar things in, in most of my work subsequently.

Claire Bown  11:33

I love the sound of that… I love the word rummage as well. It’s just, it just brings to mind so many images of just, you know, sorting through, the joy of looking at all different types of objects and all shapes and sizes as well. I think we can put a link to that blog can’t we in the show notes.

Alex Woodall  11:51

Yeah, you can. And I’ve also, I’ve written about the idea of rummaging as well, which I think it is, I love that term, because it’s so unruly, and, you know, museums have all these systems and processes and things, but actually to do something slightly under the radar. And, you know, play is really exciting.

Claire Bown  12:15

Yeah, it sounds like it. And also, you said that you threw caution to the wind with any kind of curatorial practices, so how did that work in practice?

Alex Woodall  12:24

I wouldn’t say we, I mean, we… there were curatorial practices. So people did have to kind of wear gloves, and all of those sorts of things. But actually, it’s very rare to just be able to invite a group of creative people into the stores and be able to open the drawers that they want to. So I’ve been on lots of tours of stores, in other museums and things. And usually it is very heavily curated as an experience. So you, you know, the curator will actually open a particular drawer, get out a thing, and then pass it around the group or whatever. But this was very much led by, you know, what piqued people’s interest when they had opened the drawer for themselves? Yeah,

Claire Bown  13:09

Love it. Absolutely love it. So your fascination with objects tell us some of the ways some of the things that objects do, I’m fascinated by how we can use them and what we can get out of working with objects.

Alex Woodall  13:25

Um, gosh, ‘what do objects do’ that was actually the title of a of a big project that I was lucky enough to be involved in, in India, which was a lot more focused on the agency of objects themselves, and whether there’s a sort of innate power in objects, rather than in the person who’s handling the object or looking at the object. But I think there are.. there are very particular things that objects do to us. And that enable to I mean, obvious sounding things for a museum context are around enabling storytelling. So anyone can pick an object or select something that is special to them, or has has some kind of meaning, and tell a story about that object. And I think objects are great levellers because, you know, anyone, if you have a selection of objects and allow people to choose a thing, everyone can talk about that thing without needing to know any background context or any kind of official information and facts about the thing. So I think definitely, objects are about storytelling. They also provoke memories. So a lot of the time when we’re visiting museums or even in a junk shop or an antique shop, the discussions will pop up about ‘oh, my granny had something just like that’. And it’s so lovely that you can be wandering around a space and and suddenly be immersed in a different time and different context altogether. And one of the other things that is really amazing about objects is that I’ve got some objects in front of me, I know you can’t, you won’t be able to see them.

Claire Bown  15:21

And could you describe them perhaps?

Alex Woodall  15:24

Yeah, so I’m holding the moment, I sort of round, hand sized marble, kind of spherical ball. And it’s just a very beautiful, lovely tactile thing, it would fit in your pocket. So often, when I’m going for a walk or something, I pick up stuff in my pockets, I always have to have a dress or trousers or whatever with pockets, because they’re always stuffed full of you know, that the shells and pebbles and seeds and things like that, that I find. And I think it’s that capacity of the object to engage our senses. So we can touch them, we can feel them, we can smell them, if you want to, you know, all of the senses are completely engaged. And I think museums and galleries often kind of give priority to the sense of the visual. But actually, there’s so much more if we look at all of the senses that we can explore. And I think that that kind of leads on to the imaginative use of objects as well. So being able to, to just let our imaginations wander off and make creative links and things like that, between objects and ourselves and ideas. Yeah,

Claire Bown  16:49

yeah, so many ways that objects work, you know, as you talk about enabling the storytelling, the memories, engaging our senses, but also the imaginative aspects as well. You reminded me when you were talking, we were lucky enough to meet in person again. We met in Denmark a few weeks ago, and you did a wonderful workshop about objects and you brought in an object dialogue box. So I wonder if you could describe what one is and how we might use one.

Alex Woodall  17:19

Definitely. Well, there’s there’s a sort of a bit of a history to this. So the object dialogue box is…well the original one is an amazing artist-made box of surprises. And the object dialogue boxes are created by two artists called Carl and Kimberly Foster. And the original box, which I commissioned quite a while ago was for the museums in Sheffield, there was an exhibition of Islamic art that was on tour around the world from the V&A while the V&A was being refurbished. And I was very keen not to just replicate a handling collection like a school might have in their religious education department. But wanted to do something that would allow people’s imaginations to fly into, to not have to worry too much about the cultural context on initial handling and seeing an object. So I commissioned Carl and Kimberly Foster, in a very open ended way to make a box that would… full of objects, which are quite the things… that they make us surreal formations of familiar things put together to make something very unfamiliar. And the idea is that these strange objects you carry around a museum or gallery space, and use them to make imaginative links between the thing in your hand and what you can find around you. And I used Carl and Kimberly’s object dialogue box a lot when I worked in Sheffield. And then when I left that organisation, I didn’t have the box anymore because it belongs to the museums in Sheffield. But because I’ve been working with it for for such a long time, and had really seen joy and the playfulness and the ideas that emerged. I decided to have my own object dialogue box which is slightly different. So it is.. my box is a 1970s octagonal shaped plastic box, which almost looks like a large piece of Lego or something. And it.. the box is very.. well the way that the box opens is very performative. And it undoes in a certain way. And there are various steps that I go through before I actually unveil what’s in it and things. So it’s a kind of almost like a theatrical process, I guess, of undoing the box and seeing what’s in there. The objects that are inside the box are all in little segmented sections. And they’re all things that I’ve collected, or that have been given to me, or things that I think, will just be quite interesting, but they’re pretty random. I mean, there are household objects, as well as natural things and more artistic things. But the way in which I get people to use them is to just select.. initially just select a thing that they’re interested in, it might be something that inspires memories, or engages the senses, or all of these sorts of things. It might be something that the person doesn’t really like or is puzzled over. And initially, I’ll just get little small groups of people to have conversations about their objects, and find out what they are, what they remind them of, all of those sorts of things. But then the really exciting bit happens after that, where people choose an object, it might be the one that they’ve already become familiar with, and has become a little friend, or it might be a totally different object. And then they go off and explore.

Alex Woodall  21:30

So when we were in Denmark, we were in the amazing Moesgaard Museum, which for people who are unfamiliar, is really an anthropology and archaeology Museum, which has some pretty controversial exhibits, I would say. So it’s got some bog bodies and and, you know, there are interesting debates around human remains. So I was really keen that we didn’t go into any of those particular spaces. And I didn’t know the museum at all, really, I’d only been there for a couple of days to have a look. So I, I kind of did a bit of a recce to see where I thought these objects..where would be a contained enough space, but also somewhere that we could take the objects. And we ended up in the mediaeval section with our objects. So all the participants at the workshop had chosen a thing. And I asked them to use their their object as though it were like a compass to lead them to something else in the displays, where they could make an imaginative connection between one of my objects or the thing that they’ve now made their own connection within their hand, and something in the displays around them. And it’s so joyful, and and absolutely wonderful. And all of the people at the session were museum educators or you know, of similar persuasion. So the conversation really flowed and people had amazing ideas. And, and some of the joys that people look in a completely different way, and find things that you that they’d probably never spot. Otherwise, if they didn’t have the thing in their hand. So after, you know, a few 10 minutes, so I can’t remember 10 minutes or so of having a wander round, we then gathered back together, and I got people to lead us on a tour to the objects that they’d found in the collection. And that’s always so lovely, because you get the whole group to walk around in a very different way to the often kind of formulaic way that you would walk in clockwise around a gallery space. But actually, it’s very haphazard. And we just went to see all sorts of different things, including tiny, tiny things that, you know, you’d never have noticed, or things that even people who worked there had never spotted or were seeing in a totally different way. So it’s yeah, really, really joyful.

Alex Woodall  24:08

And that it’s a way of, of breaking down barriers entirely. Because none of us needed to know anything about the contexts of those objects. Some people of course, did. And that’s brilliant. And that adds a whole other layer but actually you can respond in a very visceral, immediate way with whatever you.. whatever you want to.

Claire Bown  24:30

Yeah, I absolutely loved this activity from the moment you brought in the object dialogue box from when you opened it out you unravelled it on the table, there were lots of oohs and ahhs and you know, smiles and surprises to the moment we got to choose our objects or objects I chose two. That was very.. lots of thinking chatting, what should I choose? What shall I take? And then when we went into the museum as well, and I can I can still feel the object that I had in my hand isn’t that strange that I still have a connection and a memory…

Alex Woodall  25:06

Can you remind me which object…?

Claire Bown  25:09

I had two. So I had one, which was a ceramic, that I thought looked a bit like a rabbit. And it was a kind of bluey-green colour. And then I had another object, which is less clear in my mind, but I know it was yellow, white and red. It was a kind of almost like Lego, but not Lego, it was a shape. And both of those, although it was a really dark gallery, I mean, it was it was very low lighting, I was thinking ‘well, what am I going to find here that’s got any connection with these are objects?’, I found connections for both of them and more than one as well. So I think once I got the first connection, then they just kept coming. And as you say, you do start to bend down and peer into display cases and really look in a different way that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t holding that object. And I ended up taking photos of my my thing, my rabbit and the objects and you know, very, very proud that I found these things and why they were connected and all those sorts of reasons. So yeah, I absolutely loved this activity. And I loved the little mini tours afterwards that we all did around our own choices and explaining why we made connections and how we made connections. That was fascinating.

Alex Woodall 26:23

It’s, it is so lovely. And I’ve, I’ve done it in, in all sorts, everywhere I’ve worked, I think I’ve done something very, very similar. And it just it works everywhere, anywhere. But it’s always it’s one of those really joyful things that never gets boring, because everyone always sort of shares totally different stories. It’s, it’s wonderful.

Claire Bown  26:45

It is and totally memorable as well, I will never forget it. So moving on, I’d like to talk because you mentioned this in your workshop as well. And I found this really interesting, but you were beginning to talk and discuss about how we might use objects in organisations to inspire perhaps more creativity, more use of the imagination. So could you talk a little bit about how we might use objects in different environments?

Alex Woodall  27:13

Yes, this is something that I.. it’s a sort of early experimental idea in my head in some ways, because I’m now.. in the job I’m in, in Sheffield at the moment, I work in the management school. So I’ve got I’ve got lots of colleagues who are interested in how organisations operate. And it’s something that I’ve been very interested in for a number of years, both in how organisations function, but also in dysfunctional organisations as well, and ways that we can make things better and ways that we can make work more joyful. And I think sometimes there’s a bit of a disconnect in museums around objects themselves, because, you know, objects. And and people, of course, are at their at the heart of museums and galleries. But how often? Have you ever been to a meeting at work, where you talk about an object, or where there are objects on the table, or where you go to the stores as part of a senior leadership meeting, things like that. And I just think it’s such a missing potential. It’s so easy to see how joyful engaging with objects is and why don’t we do it? And I think there are lots of ways in which we can begin to think about using objects. So for example, we might be able to categorise objects in different ways, in a sort of, to mirror the hierarchy of an organisation or something. And I know that a lot of people have involved Lego curious play or I’ve forgotten the actual term, serious play. Serious play, sorry, yes, serious play, but in a sort of in a way that enables people to reimagine organisations and all of those sorts of things, actually, why not use collection objects? In a very similar way, we all have these kinds of ways of thinking about our objects and having knowledge about objects, but we don’t, we just don’t use them enough. There are lots of smaller strategies as well. So for example, when I worked at the Sainsbury Centre, which is a gallery of both art and anthropology at the University of East Anglia. I used to run my team meetings in the gallery spaces and just get members of the team to take me to their favourite objects once in a while and just we just use to talk about it, and instead of going down the checklist for a one to one, we would we would have a lovely inspirational objects session. Going to, I’ve already mentioned this, but going to the stores, many, many staff members might not go to the stores as part of their, their jobs, often sometimes even education stuff, actually, which is very sad. But I just think it’s really important to have that joy and to think, to think what it is that objects can do in terms of an organisation as well. So I’m sort of formulating these things. And at the conference in Denmark, I suggested some of these ideas. And at the end, I got people to fill in a little.. on a little luggage label some of the things that they would take away from the session. And they said, I was looking at them this morning, and there are some really lovely thoughts that people have, have come up with around sparking imagination in their team meetings and in going for wanders or even going for a nature walk and, and collecting objects on the way. So I just think that there’s there’s something really exciting to be done in organisations, using objects and bringing them back to the absolute heart of what it is that we do.

Claire Bown  31:26

I completely agree, I think you’re definitely onto something there. I think.. I’ve been I’ve been doing a coaching certification, if I can get the words out, this year, and I’ve been using in my coaching sessions using objects as a metaphor as a way of creating conversation around certain subjects. And I’ve always used them in my training sessions as well. And even online, particularly online, especially during 2020 people bringing objects that were dear to them, or that were everyday objects just to create connection and spark conversation. So it can, yeah, it can really make team meetings much more creative and imaginative and open up those conversations as well.

Alex Woodall 32:10

Absolutely. And it’s such an easy, it’s, it’s one of those things that is obvious, in a way. But yet it just doesn’t really happen very often.

Claire Bown  32:21

Yes. So here’s to doing more of that definitely, definitely, I think it’s a fantastic idea. So are we reaching the sort of final stages of our chat. But I’d like to ask people, perhaps sometimes to share a book or books that they would recommend to our listeners. So do you have anything that you can recommend something that’s been inspirational?

Alex Woodall  32:43

Yes, I’m going to recommend two things. The first one is by Professor Sandra Dudley, who was my PhD supervisor. And I highly.. if you’re interested in objects and materiality and thinking about rummaging, and object agency and all of those sorts of academic questions, as well as practical ones, then her book, Museum Materialities is absolutely phenomenal. And I highly recommend that, plus her other work as well. She’s a really interesting thinker. So, Museum Materialities by Sandra Dudley. And then my second book is actually, I had to go and quickly fetch it off the shelves before we started this conversation, is a poetry book Ode to Common Things by Pablo Neruda. And it’s absolutely stunning. I came across it fairly in the last 10 years or so. And in this book, Pablo Neruda writes, it’s a series of odes to things like a chair, or a table, or a spoon or a plate. And the first one is just called Ode to things. And it’s such a wonderful, the opening lines are ‘I have a crazy crazy love of things…’. And then it goes on and on. But it’s beautiful. So yes, I reccommend that.

Claire Bown  34:22

Oh fabulous recommendations. I’m going to go and look them up straightaway after our chat. Yes, thank you for recommending those. So how can people find you, how can they reach out to you, perhaps you could share a couple of ways people can get in touch.

Alex Woodall  34:36

Yes, very happy. I’m pretty active on Twitter. And my my Twitter handle is @AlexWoodall. And you can also find me I have a website which is not necessarily the most up to date of websites, but it’s But you can also find me via the University of Sheffield my, my sort of official work, email address is on there.

Claire Bown  35:00

Ah brilliant. I’ll put all the links in the show notes as usual, with the books and everything else we’ve talked about. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. Thanks for a lovely chat.

Alex Woodall  35:10

Thank you so much for inviting me, Claire. It’s been lovely.

Claire Bown  35:14


Alex Woodall  35:15