Asking ‘what do you see?’ allows objects to speak for themselves.
Jim Harris is a big fan of looking. Really looking.
As a teaching curator of the Ashmolean Museum, he says that undergraduates are always keen to show him how much they know. ‘In Oxford, that’s almost inevitable, because students … are here because they know things. And they are knowing more things every day and they want to share that,’ he says.
But in his teaching – not only with undergraduates but with executives and experts in a variety of fields – he insists on stripping away knowledge and focusing first on what people can see, arguing that it is only through what we see that we can develop an understanding of what an object is, what it does, how it was made and what its function is.
This is particularly important in teaching because ‘it levels the playing field for the students. If you ask them “what do you see?” then you are not privileging the more articulate student. You’re not privileging the student who has been educated in a context where their voice has been heard and valued. You’re not privileging the student who expects to answer the question. … The question … requires no prior knowledge or prior expertise in order to be answered. And therefore it enables the group to function on an equal basis. The object-led classroom is a fundamentally democratic teaching space.’
However, it doesn’t always feel like that when you go into a museum, particularly if it is a very large one, or if you are not used to going to museums. Museums, as Harris said, are somewhere we usually go with an ‘understanding deficit,’ expecting to be taught something. We start from the entrance, walk slowly from case to case, reading the labels carefully (even if they do little actually to enlighten us), and mentally tick off the famous exhibits (the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum), before urgently replenishing our sugar levels in the attached cafe.
But looking effectively at an object, presuming no knowledge, can reveal greater knowledge and make broader connections than you might imagine.
” It is an object to be seen and to be imagined,
as if people you knew were performing this horrific act …
it brings you into the picture in a way that is very hard to deal with.”
Harris often shows students a panel from an altarpiece depicting the martyrdom of St Bartholomew. He tells them nothing about it but asks them what they see. ‘[They] very quickly recognise that it’s a religious object from the Christian tradition,’ he says: St Bartholomew himself looks as if he is being crucified. He is of course being flayed alive – and ‘the more closely you look at it the more awful it becomes.’ But as you continue to look at the object you also notice that the people doing the flaying are ‘contemporary people – they are wearing the clothes of the people who made the object and would look at it.’ As Harris says, ‘it is an object to be seen and to be imagined, as if people you knew were performing this horrific act … it brings you into the picture in a way that is very hard to deal with.’
This power of the single object is why Harris describes the Museo Civico Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, Italy, as ‘a perfect museum.’ It has just one object: Piero della Francesca’s painting of the pregnant Madonna, ‘standing in a fur-lined tent, the canopy drawn aside, between two angels.’
The picture is in a light controlled environment. ‘If you are the first person there in the morning, the lights are off. And they are movement sensitive so as you walk into the room the lights come on,’ says Harris. ‘It is as if the angels have drawn aside the canopy just for you, for your audience with the Virgin. There’s a bench, where you can sit. Not many people go there. … You can quite often have it to yourself. And then you can stay as long as you like. You can walk up close to it. You can see the surface, see how the plaster has deteriorated over time. You can see the pigments themselves glistening. You can walk round the back of it. … It’s perfect because that’s all there is to do: to look at this thing.’
Not far from this building is another type of ‘perfect museum,’ devoted to a single type of object – bilance, or weighing scales. Even if you are not naturally interested in weighing scales, the fact that there is nothing else to look at – you are undistracted – means that you are encouraged to look at them more closely. ‘They are compelling because they are left to speak. And when you leave them to speak they leap into life. You start to imagine. And if you start to imagine then the museum is doing its proper job.’
But what do you do when you come to a museum like the Ashmolean (or even bigger)? Their huge collections are the very definition of distracting. Harris recommends that you choose a limited number of things to look at; and if you find that difficult, you could adopt one of his ‘principles’ for visiting large museums.
The Star Trek Principle
Explore strange new worlds
Choose to explore a part of the museum that is not obvious, such as the Print Room of the Ashmolean, which may appear to be hidden behind closed doors. The drawings in the collection are only hidden because they are sensitive to light and therefore cannot be displayed. But this does not mean they are inaccessible.
Seek out new life
Find a part of the museum where you wouldn’t normally go. Harris recommends the Dutch still life rooms at the Ashmolean because they are always empty. ‘Choose a picture, pick it apart. Work out why it can’t possibly exist,’ he says. ‘Don’t look at too many. Go there and then go away.’
And new civilisations
Choose a part of the world that you have never thought about in terms of its material output. Think of the museum as a place to travel. And be strict with yourself; travel to one place and see what that does for you: ‘If you went to India, you wouldn’t find yourself making a day trip to Beijing.’
The Wedding Principle
This principle is ideal for identifying single objects to look at.
Find one of the oldest objects in the collection.
Ask a member of staff to direct you to the most recent acquisition on display.
Look at something on loan from another collection.
Harris’s example is of an object with a rather melancholy history, but that may not always be easy to find. Perhaps it would be easier to look for something that is actually coloured blue.
Whatever principle you decide to follow, Harris concludes, ‘Decide on a mode of attack. Make a choice. Choose a time or place or type of object. Don’t allow the museum simply to wash over you, because if you do you won’t see anything. You cannot see unless you look.’
Dr Jim Harris was speaking at Oxford Saïd as part of the Engaging with the Humanities series.
Credit to Caroline Scotter for Saïd Business School.