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What if objects could talk with Hannah Cushion

what if objects could talk with hannah cushion


Today I’m talking to Hannah Cushion about her work as an artist and educator. 

Hannah is an artist and museum educator working in London and Oxfordshire in the UK. Her work is interested in themes around archiving and preservation.

Hannah is interested in why we keep the things we keep and who we’re keeping them for. 

Since receiving a creative practice grant from Arts Council England in 2021, Hannah has been looking at ways to directly connect her museum practice with her art practice. 

This has led to the development of the Memory Bank project, a collection of stories and memories connected to everyday objects. 

In our chat, Hannah and I discuss how inclusivity, curiosity, and the opportunity to collaborate with people and to create meaningful connections with objects and between people are really important values in her practice.

Museum labels tell us one story but what if the objects themselves could talk? How do we encourage people to include their own stories and experiences when we talk about objects? 

As this project develops Hannah is exploring how she can adapt her skills as a facilitator to her role as a story collector.

We talk about what the Memory Bank Project is, how it works and how Hannah encourages participants to share their personal connections, stories, experiences and memories around an object. And we tell you how you can take part too!

Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.



Claire: Hi Hannah. Welcome to the Art Engager podcast.

Hannah: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

Claire: Could you tell me where you are right now?

Hannah: I am at home in Oxfordshire, on a particularly grey day. And yeah, busy working at my kitchen table.

Claire: Thanks for locating yourself in a particular location. It’s always nice to know where people are joining us from.

So could you explain to our listeners what it is that you do and how you came to be doing what you’re doing?

Hannah: Ah, so I, um, My background is in fine art and also in museum and gallery education. I started off with a degree in mixed media fine art, and as part of that degree I had to do a work placement module.

And what I really wanted to do was a rehang. And I wanted to go to Tate St Ives, as I’m from Cornwall. I wanted a chance to go back and the modules didn’t align and…or the timings for the rehang didn’t align. And so where I accidentally ended up was in their education department, which turned out to be incredibly fortuitous.

And that opened up a whole world of understanding that museum education existed and was a thing and was something that I could be involved in. So finishing university, I worked at Camden Art Centre and started to kind of National Gallery and started to build my connections with different museums.

And I’ve been really fortunate, but over the last, um, I guess 15 years, my practice in museum education has grown and grown and grown. So I’ve been really lucky to work across lots of different sites with lots of different collections, lots of different groups of people. And that’s become, yeah, my main, my main practice and my main enjoyment and has really informed what I do as an artist as well.

said, informs your practice as an artist.

Hannah: So my, my work …I’d always been really interested in archiving and preservation why you keep the things that you keep, I come from a long line of hoarders.

And so that kind of stuff and objects had always been really fascinating and something that you held onto. And then I found myself in museums with archives full of stuff that people have kept hold of to tell different stories, and had different levels of access. And so I’ve been really interested in the things that you keep and how you keep them, whether it’s in shoe boxes or biscuit tins in the back of wardrobes, like stuff that’s really precious to us, but we kind of disregard in the back of drawers.  And I’d looked at ways of, as an artist preserving it, using traditional methods of preservation like wax and salt, that ultimately destroyed and transformed the object that turned it into something else.

And I think that kind of, they ran really parallel for a really long time that I was really interested in the stuff that we keep and why we keep it. And what it says and who we’re keeping it for. Which I think are similar questions that we have in museums. And then they had this sort of museum practice that ran like side by side where I got to work with lots of collections and explore some of that, some of those questions with both collections, and occasionally get to go into archives, which my hoarding genes, really enjoys the experience.

But I think it’s that kind of domestic collections and cultural collections and how much crossover there is often between them that they all tell stories. And so I, where I’ve ultimately got to is a little bit of a story collector.

Claire: Lots of thoughts coming up for me there as well. There’s a fascination with objects and why objects are in museums and why they’ve been collected and who collected them and why some are on display and why some are not.

But also objects in our everyday lives as well as in, you know, why we, as you say, keep the stuff we do, hang on to certain things and the way we attach importance to certain objects, more so to some objects than to other objects, and about the stories they tell as well. So yes, aligns very much with my interests.

Would you say there are values and principles that guide your practice? This is a question that we ask quite, quite often on the podcast. It’s always really fascinating, uh, insight into why people do the things they do.

Hannah: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. It was. Great opportunity to have a think about that as well.

Cause I do have values behind my work, and I hadn’t articulated them in a really long time, but I think a lot of what I’m really interested in is inclusivity.

‘It’s about who those spaces are for and who has ownership over them. And I really passionately think that it’s the audiences, people who come in who should have ownership over those collections, and how we make them accessible for a range of people who perhaps don’t always feel like they’re welcome in those spaces or that they can access those spaces or that they know how to think or talk in those spaces. So I think inclusivity is really important to me’.


Curiosity. I love a space where you’ve got to be driven by your curiosity to find out more and you are rewarded for your curiosity as well in that kinda digging around.

I really enjoy artworks that make me curious and encourage me to be curious and I really enjoy conversations. Where I come away and I’m like, oh, I wanna find out more about this, or I want to go and dig. And I feel my role as a facilitator is about igniting curiosity quite often. Um, I think things about participatory practice and working collaboratively, and I think the further and further I’ve got through my career,

I don’t want to work on my own and I don’t want it to be a conversation where I’m sat in my own echo chamber and those conversationS, that collaboration. It’s far more interesting. The journey to the end result is much more interesting to me than necessarily the end result.

So I think that opportunity to collaborate with people and to create connection and meaningful connections, whether that’s with objects, in collections, or whether that’s between people are really important to me.

So, and I feel like my role as a facilitator. Is often about, creating those connections and facilitating those connections and enabling them. So yeah, I think inclusivity, curiosity, sort of collaboration, participatory practice and connection values that underpin.

Claire: Yeah. Wonderful values there resonate with a lot of those.

So how do those, um, how do you integrate those values into some of the projects that you work on? I was looking at your website. You’ve worked on some fascinating projects. Perhaps you’d like to give us a couple of examples of projects where those values have been at the foreground.

Hannah: Um, so since really lucky, I worked with, uh, a colleague Harriet Mena Hill, who’s a another artist who’s worked extensively on the Ayelsbury estate in southeast London.

project that was about building resilience. So a lot of the buildings were built in the seventies and are now being pulled down so residents are being relocated. And it was about building resilience in the face of change and then the pandemic came and changed how we were going to have to deliver this project and we did it as a postcard exchange and our idea had initially been to work intergenerationally so that younger residents could benefit from the experiences of older residents

who’d been through change before. And looking at what home is and how home is something that you take with you regardless of bricks and mortar. And so we started it as as a postcard exchange where we sent out boxes of some art materials, some blank posts, a weekly envelope with a question in it. And we facilitated online sessions.

on a postcard, send it back to me, and then we’d, I’d exchange them and send them back out. So, uh, they would have someone else’s experience.

And we asked questions like about a memorable event or about what your favorite food is. And we were looking for connection and shared experiences, but also the differences in between generations and what that meant and what that experience of Living Aby has been. Across the spectrum of people. It was a really beautiful exchange and there were wonderful moments where you realize how memories are triggered.

So, in memorable events, one of the younger residents had mentioned about being in their tower block, I mean, able to see the fireworks across London on bonfire night. And our older residents have talked a lot about queen Jubilee in the seventies. I’m remembering Jubilee parties, but suddenly, When they thought about fireworks, they had that memory of being like, I can remember seeing fireworks and looking out the window.

enhanced that those, those memories worked both ways and they had these shared experiences across time. And there were things that were really different for the residents moving in in the seventies. It was often the first time they’d had a private bathroom and they’re black, which was mind blowing to our younger residents and recognizing kind of how times had changed.

But what was really special. That, that moment, that moving house, the, the change that, that, that brought to them. And we created an exhibition of their postcards and we made a publication, a booklet of their, their memories in response to these questions. And it went over six feet, over six different questions.

already really passionate about the diversity and experience and the richness of living as part of a community that are really community based.

But I think that for me, that power of memory and experience and where you have shared experiences. Was, yeah, really powerful. And another project we worked on again with Harriet, was windows into the collection with the Prince Philip Maritime Collection Centre which is the store. For, Royal Museum’s Greenwich, I’m really lucky to go and get to rummage through the store.

It’s often open to the public and I really recommend if you ever get a chance to go, to go and have a look. Um, but it was about, the building is quite a strange building and lot of people dunno what it is. It doesn’t tell you from the outside what it is. And some of the older buildings are where, um, the bloom bear ships were stored in the second world.

outside of the building. Images for the outside of the building that helped describe what was inside, what you might expect inside. Mm-hmm. . So we worked with, um, students from, uh, pupil referral unit and to explore objects in the collection and to, um, in a, like a variety of, Artistic ways they stitched into images.

They used photosensitive, um, paint to create images. They did beautiful drawings. Um, and also came up with a set of words to kind describe the actions or the, the behaviors that you might undertake inside that building. But I think that bit of working really closely with groups of people. To explore what something is and to, um, to share their experiences is, is really powerful.

eyes and to help them explore spaces and feel a sense of ownership and belonging in them. I love that, and just feel your enthusiasm coming through as you talk about those, two projects as well, and the importance of collecting those memories as well.

Claire: You know, just the, the idea of the, the postcards a really simple idea, but just a really, you know, simple but effective way of capturing different memories, different prompts, getting people to make connections between generations. All of that. Oh, just heartwarming and lovely, you know, just such a positive programmer to work on.

away by it.

Totally fascinated, wanted to know more. So could you perhaps spend a little bit of time telling us about what it is and why you started it?

Hannah: Yeah. Thank you for that. I, I realized that my work as a museum educator was for work. Paid me was the work that I was focusing a lot of my energy on. And I did a lot of it as an artist educator, but I spent a lot less time on my art practice than I did on my museum practice.

how I could.

Connect the two sort of more directly and how they become, become a bit more, um, the same practice rather than these two kind of independent practices. Um, and how I was gonna do that and how I did that turned out to be totally different. But what came up in the middle was the memory bank project, and it kind of came out of a, um, frustration sometimes.

But in museums, the interpretation labels are really. And they have a very limited amount of information that’s often quite factual. It’s where things have come from, it’s what they’re made outta. It’s, you know, a really small part of their story. And for me there was always that fascination of what if objects could talk?

art, so, but they don’t have something to say about it. And then what really struck me in working at places like London Transport Museum is how accessible that collection is.

But regardless of. Who you are, who you’ve traveled to the museum that day. You’ve got an on transport somewhere, whether you’ve walked, whether you’ve gone on a bus, whether you’ve come on a train. And so there’s something really tangible and people feel empowered by that and are much more comfortable with that collection.

And. What I see in the National Gallery is paintings about love and loss and death and passion and friendship. There’s objects and all of those paintings that are familiar everyday objects. They’re things that we can talk about. There’s fruits and vegetables, there’s baskets and clothes, there’s everything that’s, there’s really tangible things that are ways in that somehow we have this kind of like barrier to like, can I talk about it?

I was interested in creating a kind of like vehicle’s, not quite the right word, but, an an interaction in the middle that was about asking different viewpoints, like if these objects could talk, what stories would they have? And, and capturing multiple perspectives that it’s not just about what the museum label says, this object has a resonance for you, and that story is part.

The bigger story as well, and understanding where we have shared experiences and where we have differing experiences and how that in understanding what that object means to multiple different people and how your story affects and impacts the way that you view something and experience something. And that, that’s really valid.

of using objects as a stimulus to ask people for their memories, for their stories, and to bring them together into what I hope will eventually be a searchable database, of associated memories with everyday objects.

And since the start, I started with objects like a shell, which was always quite pertinent in my work when I come from Cornwall. I feel a great affinity with the sea. So shells were a good starting point for me personally, but then I loved the, the stories that happened in the conversations that happened.

And I, like, I had a moment where I asked, I started by harassing people I knew, including my parents to get memories. And I’d written some out as like my own kind of like trying out myself, like what would I write down? And I’d added my own. And I had a, I remember vividly like as a child, making a matchbox, putting plaster on the top, quite a big matchbox, putting plaster on the top and embedding like shells we’d collected and a bit of seaweed.

this sort of matchbox with this quite chunky top, but all of these shells that you could keep something precious in. And I’d written a memory about that and I asked my mum, I hadn’t shown her mine, I asked her and she came up with the.

Story, but from her point of view, as a parent with a child making this, um, making this box, we hadn’t talked about this box for 30 years. I don’t, I think it’s long gone. And it’s been turfed out in a clear outside, it didn’t make the dizzy heights of, you know, the permanent collection. So it’s long gone and it, it’s funny about power of like sharing an experience and how like your different viewpoints on it, but also the power of like having a conversation with someone.

a facilitator and I knew as an artist, and I think what my art practice has become, my role as, as artists has become much more as facilitator, but I’ve almost become a story collect.

And the bit I’m interested in is how I can create moments of interaction, of connection and how I can yeah, facilitate those conversations and help people make those connections. And it’s made me ask questions about how present I need to be for all of those conversations. When I first started, I really just wanted everybody’s memories.

on and that conversation carries on.

D does it matter if I don’t collect it? And it, it’s not mine, but there’s something. Being the conversation start, I guess, the catalyst for other people to go off and start having those conversations. I think I’ve waffled. Does that make sense? No, that was so interesting. I was thinking there’s so many points I could pick up on there.

I loved what you were talking about, about, museum labels right at the start when you were talking about museum labels sometimes not containing that much information, sometimes containing only certain amounts of information and not, certainly not all the stories that we might want to tell. And then when you went on and you talked about, personal connections as well, I can see so many parallels with the work I do and encouraging people to share their personal connections to an object, be it an artwork or, or an object.

it’s, it’s fascinating. That’s the, the little bit of magic that I love.

That’s the thing that brings those conversations alive. Do you find similar thing happens when people are, you know, suddenly making connections to an object?

Hannah: Yeah, it’s really kinda, I think it’s really exciting. There’s always a bit, sometimes I found it’s been an interesting journey for me working out how to make the memory bank work and how to encourage people to want to share

their memories. And I think where it’s strongest is when it’s, when I’m part of a conversation and where I can, there, there’s like an interaction, there’s a, not a performance is the wrong word, but that I’m facilitating that conversation and I’m asking people, and I find it fascinating how if I ask people for memory, they’ll often feel like what you’re asking for is something that’s, um, really profound or is

some perceived value that you wanna share. But I love everyday memories and in collecting memories about tea was really fascinating from how people take their tea every day, at what time of day they drink it, like the routine and the ritual, but came into it that differs.

and how you kind of empower people to feel like their story is a story worth sharing, have become a really kind of interesting balance as a facilitator like what, how do I use the questioning I would use as a facilitator? An object in a museum or gallery to ask people about their own experiences. And I loved like some of the stories again, around tea that were from people who’d served in the services here and overseas, and about how tea had been part of their experience there.

Like you could remember. One person telling me about how you could be dug down in the trenches. It could be really grim. You could be wet all the way through, but you’d always have extra teabags in your, in your ration pack. And as long as you could get some hot water and you could have your cup of tea, like everything was gonna be okay, um, or unloading the beer.

you were talking there, I mean, we could literally have a whole podcast talking about tea. Because every single instance that you were mentioning there brought up memories for me, memories of my grandmother, memories of my mom, memories of how they made tea differently, and how the importance of making the tea that it was made in a certain way.

This is how we make the tea. They may make it like this. We make it like this. The ritual of when you drink the tea, , all those things will bring up all those rich connections and those, those thoughts in people. And I think sometimes, as you said, people feel that we are asking for something really profound, and.

We really just want people to just, to make any connection they can between themselves and the object. And sometimes I find it’s easier if maybe I model an answer first and say, well, this, this is what, how I’m connecting with it right now, but if you ask me tomorrow, it might be in a completely different way.

at that moment and what comes up for you. And I love what you were saying about creating those conversations as well, so, Quite often, we can have the best questions in the world, but if we don’t make the people we’re talking to feel comfortable enough to answer them, then those questions will fall flat.

So how do you create those connections with the people you are talking to so that you can get them to feel comfortable enough to share, memories and really to, to remember those memories, to feel relaxed enough to do that in your presence? Yeah, I think it’s been really interesting. There’s something I’m still working on and I’m, every now and again have a, like a little breakthrough moment.

anonymity as well, so you can put them through my website and there’s an anonymous submission form so you don’t have to put your name to it.

So sometimes I think we’re comfortable when we’re a little bit more anonymous. And there’s no personal, I don’t keep any of any personal data, so they all anonymous. But I think it definitely works better as a conversation. And it’s definitely. In a, in a group or in, in an individual conversation, I’ve been able to ask someone why something’s important to them, to give examples, to share, and to have it as an exchange.

And I think my most successful moments have been where there’s, there isn’t an exchange. And I think that exchange has become quite important. That I’m not just asking you, I’m not just taking, and that feels quite uncomfortable to. Take, I want you to come away and feel a little bit richer as well from the experience.

offered a memory and in return taken a memory. So with a tea, we put, everyone wrote it on carbon paper and one copy would go into a tea bag, into a tea caddy and you could take one out. And there were really lovely moments of like children lifting them out and being like, that’s a good.

I’m gonna put it back so someone else can enjoy it as well. Just kinda sort of people taking away and putting it in their pocket to take later to read later, or people kind of taking it, reading it and putting it back in. That that’s been enough. I’ve absorbed it, I’ve collected it. So I found, yeah, have definitely having in exchange works, I think giving people examples of the sorts of stories I’m looking for, and I feel like there’s a really fine line between how much you need that question.

without kind of, yeah. Putting, putting words in someone’s mouth.

Claire: Absolutely. And as you say, that’s very much two-way process, that it’s, it’s, it’s a conversation and there’s a flow to it. And also you want the people that you are talking to, to be able to, to feel that you are invested as much in their story as they are. So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s very important that that happens.

When you were talking, I was thinking, I was thinking about whether anything has surprised you in any of the. Maybe the, the objects that people have chosen or the memories that have come up. Is there anything that’s been surprising in the process? Quite often we can have expectations for how something might turn out, but is there anything that’s kind of been thrown up that’s slightly outta the ordinary?

it was based around Deford and New Cross and I, I did it by mapping memories and asking people to share their memories, the they every day or historic of the local area.

And there were just really great things that came up, but suddenly sort of brought the area a bit more alive for me is when my studio was based for a long time. And I, so I’d worked in a long time in the area, but it. Just these like wonderfully kind of quirky stories that came. My favorite was about, an allotment tortoise, and it was about remembering this tortoise.

He used to go around eating everyone’s vegetables and that one day they took the tortoise home in the pram of our brothers, in the brothers pram plan. And 59 years later, they still have Tommy and I have so many questions about that story. . Does anyone know they took the tortoise? How old was the tortoise?

now I walk around. David, I was walking back to my studio, I’m still bass fat and kind of been like, what did Tommy see? Like how much has this area changed since Tommy was a terrorizing the allotment?

But there’s, yeah, I think there’s bits of how it really makes something come alive for me and that how it, it ignited, reignited my curiosity. And part of what we did is that, is we did a walk that was memory based. So again, had sub coast guards and we went to certain spots. We walked through Bedford and New Cross and asked people at different points to, they either shared a memory that I’d collected beforehand and.

bit I’ve really enjoyed.

And I think I just enjoyed things that weren’t necessarily a surprise, but. Just really comfortable in their familiarity is when I was collecting stories about how many people’s stories were about walking along a beach and finding shells, and just something that felt very intrinsically human of like walking along, seeing something and gathering it.

And it was just something that for me, felt very familiar, but really kind of reassuring and comforting in. Humanness of gathering. Just things that aren’t precious, but are precious.

Claire: Um, yeah. Yeah. Lovely. Really lovely. And I also love the idea of a memory walk as well that’s sparked lots of ideas for me.

So, Hannah, tell us, what’s next for you? What’s next for the Memory Bank project? How people, our listeners might be able to get involved.

people to get involved. Um, I think for me, I want to make it into a surgical database, so I’d love it to be a database that other people could use them, whether that’s museum educators, museums, whether that’s schools or story starters, whether that’s other artists, um, who could use it as inspiration.

So I’d really love to see both memories become part of a journey and to be able to use it. So I’m working out how to make that into a searchable database so you could type in a keyword and find a host. Different stories and different perspectives that could start you on your way. Um, and then look at how I can, uh, introduce performance more into my work as an artist.

and also on my website, which is hannah where there is a submission form. It’s just an anonymous submission form. There’s some ideas of objects that you could submit, a memory about, or Memories that you feel have suddenly sparked, listened to a conversation. I’d love to collect. But yeah, hopefully I can find more opportu creating process of creating opportunities where I can develop it more into a sort of performance piece of an interactive pieces and artwork that is about exchange and memory exchange.

Brilliant, brilliant. And I’m gonna share as well in, Slow Looking Club cause I think there’ll be lots of interest there for people who are fascinated by objects who’ll also be able to participate. So thank you. I’ll put all the links to your website, to your Instagram accounts and everything in the show notes so you can go and find out more about Hannah’s work there.

But thank you so much for coming on the show today. It’s been an absolute pleasure and a joy to talk to you. Thanks Hannah.

Thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.

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