Written by Susannah Eckersley,
Lecturer in Museum, Gallery and Heritage Studies,
Newcastle University.

Thinking about Objects

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Artefacts migrate with humans and tell different stories of their travels. They can be seen as witnesses of crucial events and moments in people’s lives. They can be bearers of meaning, objects of attachment, comfort, despair or utility that connect to places, identities and experiences. Meanwhile, natural specimens might have travelled more than you, seeking environments in which to thrive. Objects makes suggestions about rethinking the significance of things, not just in themselves, but in understanding where they have been and why.

REMEMBER: Objects are also known as things, artefacts, entities, items, goods, stuff, belongings, possessions, material culture.

Objects are the things which humans gather, create, collect, use and discard according to their material, functional and psychological needs at any given point in time. An object which is essential one day, may become useless the next. At the same time, an object with no obvious practical function may be considered by some to be more valuable than one which is used every day. Objects are therefore both simple but also highly complex parts of human life. An individual object can be at once sign and symbol for different people and different purposes so its meaning and value under any one of these categories may be contested.

REMEMBER: Objects can act as evidence, souvenirs, mementoes / reminders, bringers of luck / talisman, gifts, warnings.

Objects are multi-layered
In museums, objects become layered in and with meanings, depending on how they are shown (or not shown), where they are shown, to whom, in what way, for what purpose, and in what contexts (visual, exhibitionary, historical, scientific, cultural, etc). In her lecture given for ‘The Dictionary of Now’ Sharon Macdonald talks of museums ‘making’ objects through their acts and processes of selection, collection, curation and exhibition.

REMEMBER: Objects may simultaneously be functional tools, representational tools, emotional and psychological tools.

Museums are not only repositories of objects, but also of memories – memories which are often associated with the objects and their stories, and which can be encountered through connections between people, objects and stories. Arjun Appadurai points out the particular significance and difficulties of memory in relation to migrants and their representation:

“because memory becomes hyper-valued for many migrants, the practices through which collective memory is constructed are especially subject to cultural contestation and to simplification. Memory, for migrants, is almost always a memory of loss.”

Telling multiple stories

So, objects can tell many stories – but only if we enable them to do so, only if we know the stories or are prepared to find out about them, and then only if we share them. Within the context of migration it also is crucial for museums to be aware of and sensitive to the potential for objects, stories and exhibitions of migration to create or reassert stereotypes, discriminatory ideas, or limiting categorisations of migrants and migration.

REMEMBER: there is never only one history of an object!

QUESTION: How could you open up the multiple stories of objects in your museum through interventions, layered interpretation or dialogic encounters?

Objects which are already in museum collections, whether on display or in storage, will always have multiple stories which they could tell, there is never only one history of an object. Many objects which have been collected for other reasons, will relate to migration in one way or another, if these relationships and stories can be teased out. Trying to tell multiple stories for an individual object can be challenging, as visitors often look to museums to provide a clear narrative, and so may find apparently ‘conflicting’ information confusing or irritating.

Some ways of allowing an object to tell multiple stories include:

  • Interventions – often by artists, student, community or activist groups, which can include:
    Creating alternative labels to objects, or alternative routes through displays, which pick up on hidden stories and themes. (In the past these museum interventions have focused on under-represented aspects of society, such as legacies of post-colonialism, LGBTI, disability, gender, minority histories, etc)
  • Selecting individual objects for reappraisal and redisplay, often through participatory curation, or co-production.

Layered interpretation – this may include using:

  • Different media – e.g. by using audio or audio-visual commentary from differing perspectives to compliment a traditional interpretation panel or object label, or by including an interactive which encourages visitors to discover or consider varying perspectives
  • Visual design techniques – to indicate that different stories are being told about an object, such as speech bubbles, illustrations, or using changing colour palettes for different voices.

Dialogic encounters – providing the opportunities for visitors to react to, discuss and comment on the objects and their stories, often adding their own stories in response. This can be facilitated through:

  • Talks, tours and workshops in museums which examine specific themes, focusing on individual objects within the displays, and which may be addressed to specific audiences.
  • Interactives (whether high-tech or no-tech) which can provide opportunities for visitors to respond to the objects in different ways, either immediately or following a museum visit.
  • Websites, social media accounts and online forums connected to the museum or exhibition can provide opportunities for debate and comment outside of the visit itself.

KEY ISSUE: ‘No-tech’ examples include graffiti walls, post-it note comment walls used as extensions to the traditional visitors’ book (often found at the end of an exhibition the lasting impact of such devices on the way in which museum objects are used to tell stories is questionable however).

KEY ISSUE: ‘High-tech’ examples include digital interactives designed specifically for their setting, which allow visitors to reflect differently on the topics addressed by the museum and the objects displayed.

Working with the symbols of migration

Increasingly, objects are being collected specifically for migration exhibitions or museums about migration. There are already some clear object ‘tropes’ which are used to symbolize migration in museums and which act as signifiers of the emotionally loaded migration processes of movement, disruption, change and new beginnings.

Established ‘tropes’ include: suitcases and bags, passports and identity documents, mementoes, (such as photos of family members), keys or other evidence of a home, symbols of belonging and of ‘otherness’ (whether religious, cultural, linguistic, etc).

Many of these have become ‘universal’ signifiers or even clichés of migration and their use in a large number of museums may reduce their impact on some visitors. This is not to say that such objects should not be collected or displayed, but that museums need to take care to ensure that they also include objects whose symbolism is more complex or in need of drawing out through story-telling.

More complex migration objects include:

  • Mementos of a place which has been left behind, or souvenirs of the place to be reached, which might – without the associated story – be meaningful or of value only to the original owner
  • Talisman or good luck charms, which have accompanied people on their travels, or which have become significant to them in their new homes
  • Items selected or co-curated by migrants, which are often highly personal and symbolic of significant moments, places or events in their lives both in relation to migration as well as beyond migration.

Objects as ‘accidental refugees’

Appadurai, in his lecture for ‘The Dictionary of Now’ talks of objects being migrants themselves – ‘accidental refugees’ – which museums use as tools by which to tell stories. Refugee objects, he argues, are presented by museums as fixed, static and stable – the opposite of refugee people who are presented as unstable, incomplete, damaged and in movement. Both refugee people and refugee objects, Appadurai argues, should be seen as a mixture of stability and movement, with a need to share their stories. Both human and non-human agents should be seen as having history and stories which include, but also go beyond the limitations of the category ‘migration’.



Appadurai, A. (2016) [Lecture] The Dictionary of Now, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. 10 October.
Appadurai, A. (2016) ‘Aspirational maps – On migrant narratives and imagined future citizenship’, Eurozine, 19 February.
Macdonald, S. (2016) [Lecture] The Dictionary of Now, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. 10 October.