Evocative Objects - Lincoln's Hat and book cover

Thinking about “evocative objects”

Blog Post

“We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.” This was a central tenant of MIT professor Shelly Turkle’s talk on “evocative objects at the 2009 American Association of Museums annual meeting. For those of us who love museums—and for those of us lucky enough to work in them—the emotional and intellectual power of objects is quite familiar. This power—the “evocative” nature of an object—comes from its relationship with a person, according to Turkle. She has left me, years later, wondering about these critical questions:

How can museums best facilitate evocative experiences and relationships with objects? How can we best provide access to the deep and transformative experiences that objects can provoke?

In her work, Turkle cites Donald Woods Winnicott’s idea of a “transitional object,” something that demonstrates a fluidity between the self and the object. In other words, an object that inspires an experience in which it is easy to lose track of where we end and the object begins. For me, this idea underscores the ways in which we have very personal, human-like relationships with everyday things—particularly those that evoke memoir, a sense of a personal or communal past. One example that comes to mind is a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz

Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz at the National Museum of American History

Dorothy’s slippers are not just historical props from a Depression-era film but are, to me, the embodiment of the wonder and joy I felt as a child watching the film with my grandmother at Radio City Music Hall. They make me think about the mysterious bond that often exists between grandparents and grandchildren, an inter-generational appreciation of the imagination, of the importance of love and creativity in the intellectual and emotional growth of a child. But even more—the slippers feel like they belong to me or are in some way an extension of myself. I know from the lines that form to see the shoes that many Smithsonian visitors feel similarly, each thinking with the objects in their own way. Such evocative experiences may come more easily for visitors when objects are easily recognized from past encounters.

Objects provide powerful opportunities for self-reflection. Turkle gives the example of visiting a collector’s home and the kinds of questions that begin to arise as one contemplates the collector’s choices: What about this object made it qualified to be part of this collection? Why did the collector choose to display it in her bedroom? What would I want to view while lying in bed? These questions inevitably lead to deeper inquisitions, like: Who am I? Objects tell us something about identity; they give us clues about what it means to be human.

Turkle also referenced Freud’s concept of the “uncanny” (unfamiliar yet familiar) and the “cognitive dissonance” that comes when confronted with an uncanny object. This idea, as well as the concept of “liminality” (something betwixt and between), suggests additional ways that objects can evoke something mysterious, almost mystical, in our encounters with them. In her discussion, Turkle suggested that the curatorial challenge is not to make things become evocative objects but rather to let them be evocative. In her own recap of the annual meeting, museum experience designer Nina Simon blogged about her frustration with this idea: “Only a small population of people walk into a museum and “feel” the power of the objects without assistance . . . We need help to make dumb objects ‘sing.’” So the question becomes:

How can museums assist visitors—not by helping them put an object into a set category—but by facilitating an exploration of an object’s complexity and boundlessness? What can museums do to exploit the “uncanny,” the “liminal,” the opportunities for self-reflection?

Other thinkers have explored the concept of “numinous” objects, those items that are invested with power or spirit. Numinous objects can ignite transcendental experiences, connecting visitors with the people and spirit of earlier times. One collector and blogger describes such a feeling when viewing the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre on the night of his assassination. She writes: “When we stand before it, we “feel” or “know” Lincoln in a way that reading, visualizing, or even seeing a photo of it can’t compete with. We want to see it—make pilgrimages to see it; we’d touch it if we could. We have numinous experiences with that hat.”

This brings us to the most challenging question raised by Turkle to those of us working in museums and new media:

Can digital objects be evocative objects?

She offers the example of an architecture student interacting with the personal aspects of Corbusier’s drawings—the coffee stains, the feeling of the same bits of paper in her hand that were once in his. When the objects were digitized, however, the student felt that both she and the objects had somehow become depersonalized, anonymous. Browsing the digital archive she forgets where she is, becomes distracted, starts sending colleagues emails—things she never experienced when interacting with the actual artifacts. For Turkle, digitization takes us away from the body and the ways we experience the world with them. Museums must explore, along with the audiences we serve, the question: what are we gaining and what are we losing when objects become digital? How can we facilitate satisfying experiences that cross the lines of “in-person” and “online”?

Dr. Turkle’s work is many-layered and challenges us all to think about the ways in which objects can deepen and enhance human experiences. What do you think about some of the questions I’ve raised? What examples can you give of evocative objects? How do you see museums maximizing their potential, connecting our visitors with our collections?