Telling objects: which one would you choose?

Jules Prown, then Professor of the History of Art at Yale, would sometimes start a seminar, I’m told, by slipping into class, and taking his seat at a table at the head of the room.  As students began to settle, Professor Prown would produce, say, a 18th century teapot from his brief case, and place it ever so carefully at the center of the table.

And then he would wait.

Students would eventually gather that the teapot was the object of study.  And they would warm to the task of making the teapot speak.  More exactly, they would begin to extract illumination from the object, discussing and when necessary, surmising the producers, the consumers, the economy and the culture from which the teapot sprang. 

The question: of all your possessions which one would you place before a group of students? What does this object say?  What illumination can be extracted from it?  It can be any object. It need not be art and a museum-worthy artifact.  Sleds, without "rosebud" decals, are most welcome.    

I am hoping the comments section below takes photos.  I have an uneasy feeling it does not. If that’s the case, send me your photos and wee essays.  I will post them both in a future entry.

2 thoughts on “Telling objects: which one would you choose?”

  1. two candidates –

    I have indirectly done this when I teach and bring in a slide rule. I worry about the high level of innumeracy among students and a slide rule represents an elegant way to immerse yourself in back of the envelope calculations. It gives a sense of what a logarithm is and you have to sort out the powers of ten and carry them in your head. It is also only approximate and I believe that gives a natural feeling towards understanding and analyzing errors and error propagation.

    Of course these are archaic in general use, but it is a way to be playful with simple calculations and perhaps understand more deeply than students who blindly plug numbers into spreadsheets and the like.


    The second is a solar powered light with a rechargeable battery. I was part of a project that made some of these using discarded sub-spec LED lights about five years ago. The idea was to bring safe lighting into the third world and get expensive and heavily polluting combustion based lighting out of homes where indoor pollution can cause serious health problems. These are now beginning to appear from a variety of manufacturers and perhaps they will improve living conditions.

    At the same time it is an elegant demonstration of the conversion of energy from one form to another, energy storage, the fact that most of our energy comes from the sun, inefficiency in conversion and a few other bits of physics.

  2. The diary my father kept as a teen during WWII. His older brother was a bomber pilot, but Dad stayed on the farm. Students love the war passages, the girl-crush passages, the mischief, and just generally the look into such a foreign time and place. (There are passages that make almost no sense to modern urban kids.) The diary has launched conversations about the war, farm life, writing a diary or journal, 1940s culture, and how language changes and stays the same.

Comments are closed.