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Art + Design Capstone Project | Cultural Biography of an Object

Objects!

This assignment revolves around an object of your choosing––“object” meaning any discrete element of visual or material culture that you find intriguing, and whose history you can research.

Any kind of visual/material object could work for this assignment, from a personal memento to a mass-produced object to a museum artifact (for example a single work of art / design or an historical object) to some other element of visual-material culture past or present. The object could be quite old, or not old at all; it could be famous, or relatively anonymous; it could be one-of-a-kind, or identical to thousands; it could be personal to you, a family possession, or just something you find intriguing. 

As long as the thing is––or at last once was––physically concrete (something one can/course see, touch) and specific, and that has a life trajectory you can uncover through research, you should feel free to choose it!

Picking An Object

You are encouraged to choose an object that “speaks” to you––something that is intriguing, and that you want to know more about.  Ideally, the object would also be something which points beyond itself––to broader questions, ideas, concepts, issues or meanings that matter to you, and that you engage, or might like to engage, in your art / design work.

Object Types To Consider

  • personal/family possessions, ‘heirlooms’
  • things important to everyday life
  • tools/devices/gadgets
  • receptacles
  • functional-turned-decorative things (or other objects that have changed categories)
  • obsolete/ephemeral things that later become newly valued
  • mystery objects, ‘wild’ or uncategorizable things
  • museum artifacts
  • ‘celebrity’ or ‘power’ objects
  • monuments, sculptures, elements of landscape

Initial questions might be organized around categories such as:

FUNCTION: What kind of object is it?  For what purpose was it made? How do you know?

MATERIALS: Of what is the object made? Where did the materials come from; how were they manipulated? What difference does material make with respect to other aspects of the object’s history (e.g. how it is used, or why it is valued)?

ORIGIN: Where did this object come from? This kind of question could of course point you to the maker and place of manufacture (e.g. a factory or studio), but it could also refer to the place of acquisition (say, a department store or an antique mall), and/or to the originating purpose or occasion (say, a commemorative function).

MAKER: Who made this object? “Maker” could mean designer, or fabricator, or others involved in its creation, including those in the company who designed the packaging and sales material, those promoted it, etc.

OBSERVATION

A key form of initial research involves looking closely at your object, considering its noteworthy qualities and characteristics.  Make a list of these, and consider what they might tell us about

  • who made the object and when
  • how the object ‘wants’ to be used (what it was designed for, how it works), and how it has actually been used
  • what specific functions it might have served
  • what more-intangible appeals it may have had
  • how it might have been acquired and used
  • possible stages of its life history

Also pay attention to aspects of the object you can’t explain: curious qualities or features; things that don’t quite ‘add up’; contradictions (say, between the object's form and function, or between intended and actual uses, or between different stages of its life) that you could explore with the help of research.


BASIC CONTEXTUAL RESEARCH

Before you have chosen a specific angle, and you're still getting your bearings, try doing some preliminary research using a a reference source to gain background knowledge, such as about the history of a given designer or manufacturer.  You can try:

  • general encyclopedias
  • other reference sources listed in the "Preliminary Research Resources" box (to your left)

YOU MIGHT ALSO TRY:

  1. DRAWING IT: Draw/sketch your object in order to understand its design and/or defining characteristics better.
  2. HANDLING IT: See how it feels, how much it weighs; think about what it would take to package or transport it; consider how one would store it safely, protect it from wear or age, etc.  What do you learn from this handling?
  3. TESTING IT OUT: Assuming it is not too fragile, and that the owner is okay with this, engage the object in question “as intended” (and maybe then “not as intended”!), and observe what happens: how well it “works,” how you feel when doing it, how your understanding of the object changes, etc.
  4. SHOWING IT TO SOMEONE: Ask friends to react to your object, and observe their reactions.  Maybe pose a couple specific questions to elicit a response that allows you to understand a given aspect of the object you want to explore.  For example, if you wanted to understand the object’s associations with pop culture, you could ask friends to free associate, listing 5 words/things that it makes them think about.  (But don’t tell them about your intentions or views of the object beforehand!)
  5. SEARCHING ON EBAY, CRAIG’S LIST SEARCH: See how objects like yours are described by sellers, and how much they’re selling for, etc.
  6. DOING MAKER RESEARCH: look at the object for evidence of the manufacturer/maker, and then Google search (e.g. enter “Royal Doulton pirate pitcher”) to see if you can find museum, collector, antique, or other sites that tell you something about the maker. 
  7. CONDUCTING A REVERSE-IMAGE SEARCH ON GOOGLE: Find an image, or take a photograph, of your object; look for images that are similar to it, and see what they reveal about other kinds of objects and where they live, how they’re depicted.

 

Digging Deeper

With your preliminary observations and insights in mind, you can develop a set of questions you might find worth pursuing with outside research. Some possible lines of inquiry include:

DESIGN: How was this object made––according to what plans, with what intentions, using what methods/means/tools, resulting in what aesthetic and structural elements, affordances, etc.?

REPRESENTATION: How has the object been ‘known,’ or ‘seen’ in the world? How have its designed functions been made known?  How has it been depicted (e.g. in magazines, journalism, advice books, on billboards, etc.), and what differences might these representations have made?

CULTURAL MANIFESTATIONS/INFLUENCES: Thinking beyond direct representation of the object (e.g. in advertising for that very product or photographs of people using it), what other indirect manifestations of culture are relevant here? What cultural influences (social trends, beliefs, tastes, rituals or subcultural practices/identities, for example) have shaped the object’s function, design, use, value, etc.?

USES/MODES OF CONSUMPTION: How, and by what mechanisms (e.g. marketing, transport, display), has the object been defined as a usable/consumable thing?  In what manner has it been consumed (or not), and in what contexts? If your object has fallen out of use, why?

VALUATION: For what reasons has this object been esteemed or valued in different times and places? What social, economic, or other systems of value might it reveal?
 

Each of these aspects of the the object’s life history could be pursued more fully through research you do with your own hands, or preliminary Googling.  See the "Finding Sources" page.

 

 

Preliminary Research Resources