In a recent series of workshops in a community setting, I have been intrigued to observe many of my ideas about the importance and value of objects being not only confirmed but enriched and extended.

My training and background in art therapeutics mean that I am always prepared for workshops to carry emotional undercurrents for participants and I work hard to contain the group – keeping all the members safely held at a level that is comfortable and enabling. It’s not that I avoid deeper waters purposively – it’s simply that the boundaries of the work in community arts must be set in a different place. In therapeutic work, we know our purpose is to confront and contain that which has been traumatic and continues to cause distress. It’s a project which takes time.

In community arts the brief is often to enable, value and support in more immediate ways. It’s life enhancing too, of course, but very different in tone to the therapeutic enterprise. There are many ways of keeping a group within a certain comfort zone while providing enough interest and challenge – also while giving space for genuine exchanges of the self. The trick is knowing how to pitch things and my best trick of all is leading by example – sharing at the level I’m aiming for, enthusing about objects and what they can do for us, and giving some verbal signals about the purpose and function of the group all help.

My observation however, is that the objects also work hard to protect us. I say this knowing that without the boundaries set through the strategies I employ things may be very different. Objects can evoke powerful emotions in us which can be traumatic and at times overwhelming. Yet objects also ‘contain’ emotion. They hold our memories and our felt responses, and because they are not us but separate and at some little distance, we may observe them in a relatively peaceful place at one remove.

Using the safety nets of sound group work practice we found that loss, retirement, loneliness and even personal crisis could be ‘shared’, referred to discretely, obliquely even. Individuals were held and heard by the group and through their objects were valued and accepted. It is possible to acknowledge and bridge these feelings in ways which are light in tone but deep in effect and the net result of these encounters was a noticeable uplift. By week three participants were on a roll, sharing and arranging their objects ready for a professional photographic session, and the possibility of showing this work in various settings spurred them on.

This post for The Museum is perhaps best seen as one of three about the therapeutic potential of objects, maintaining how important they are not only in mediating our emotional lives but also in speaking for us. I came away from this group with such a sense of the lives and personalities of each member through their prized objects – their ability to share them brought each one a sense of intimacy which in turn pierced their social isolation. I can’t help thinking of objects as consummate mediators and connectors and am tempted to say that throughout this series of workshops it was the objects that did the talking.


Today The Museum seeks to follow on from the excerpts from Philipa Perry’s article on transitional objects, which was posted a few blog posts back. In doing so I delve back to an article I wrote as a special feature for The Palette Pages entitled ‘Art As Healing?’ here

In it I explore my own background in art therapy and what compels me to work with my father’s plays in my work over on Barcelona in a Bag I suppose it has been only a question of time before The Museum blog and my personal artist blog should meet, if only for one post!

In my own practice I consider it vital to unpick the therapeutics of the work – it is after all autobiography of sorts and very much a ‘felt’ response to the material I encounter in my research. An understanding of the emotional entanglement with my subject allows for a distancing eye to come into play and I find there is no conflict in ‘working through’ my subject, and the visual output from the project. For me this is natural and harmonious but not always easy. We can’t control the material that may be encountered when using research into past lives, but also as war is my subject I am exposed to atrocity in many forms.

Thus an understanding of therapeutics, for me, is a tool of the object artist’s trade. I wonder how other’s see this?


The Willard Asylum suitcases are an inclusion to The Museum suggested by conceptual object artist Dawn Cole who works on WW2

This is an incredible collection – apparently 400 suitcases of former patients of the asylum, found in the attic of the building several decades later in 1995. It’s suggested that these are the possessions patients brought with them on entry to the institution with which they were perhaps never reunited. It’s almost overwhelming to view the accompanying photographs and their poignancy strikes harder the more the eye scans the objects in each case shown.

These photographs are sumptuous – beautifully curated, and I read in one comment some doubt about authenticity. I think this seed of doubt is a product of the curation process. Is there something which goes against the grain of authenticity in these photos, and challenges belief? Certainly there is a sense of the ‘editing’ hand at work. Where is the sense of chaos and distress that might accompany admission to an asylum one might ask? And yet – isn’t the process of packing one of ordering, sifting and deciding, and might not relatives have helped? The reasons for entering an asylum were perhaps also social and moral at times and mental illness poorly understood – we can’t make assumptions on a supposition about a state of mind. So many questions are laid open – and of course the ambivalence shown in the comment raises the importance of documentation and narrative. What are we being shown exactly? At what stage in the story are we?

My own desire shifts between wishing to see photographs of the discovery – the attic and the suitcases as they were – and feeling grateful for the opportunity to see the beautiful and sensitive work of the curators and photographers.

I am extremely grateful to Dawn for suggesting this rich find – so many angles for object artists to bring to and draw from. I’m looking forward to your responses.

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Riches are arriving at The Museum door in quick succession and the past few days have seen a lot of activity and interest in the project to create a forum for ideas and a resource for artists working with objects. Last night ‘The Gift’ arrived from one of The Museum’s earliest supporters and inspirations, artist Kate Murdoch whose a-n blog you can catch here  And what a gift it is. Striking at the heart of the emotionality often contained within the simplest and most ‘valueless’ objects that pass through our lives Kate turns the question of value upside-down and her arresting photograph brings home the beauty of a gesture underlined by a grim social reality.  Kate’s work is delicate and powerful all at once and the Museum is most grateful for this precious donation.

My offering to the Museum of Object Research is a small, gold-coloured, heart shaped brooch, cheaply manufactured to promote the Variety Gold Heart charity, which was established some 20 years ago. I saw these brooches everywhere at one point in my life, but the only ones I see nowadays are in charity and junk shops. The face value of them isn’t high and they usually sell for around 50p – £1 apiece. A lot of you I’m sure, will be aware of them.

This particular brooch, however took on a completely different meaning in terms of its value because of the circumstances in which it was given to me. Being handed the brooch as a gift, marked a symbolic moment and an exchange of friendship and kindness which touched me, emotionally. It’s something I still find myself thinking about.

I wrote about how I came to be the owner of the brooch in a post on my a-n ‘Keeping It Going’ blog in January of this year – the poignant circumstances in which it was handed to me by ‘yet another emotionally bruised and battered casualty of the recession’, as I described the shop owner at the time. As we spoke, in his abandoned, near empty shop, people were loading vans with the few remaining items – bargains galore! – the owner’s voice was despondent as he gave things away for virtually nothing.

The fifteen minutes or so I spent in the shop saying my farewells summed up value and worth in a nutshell to me. The items in the shop were worth nothing to him now that his business had failed and I saw in the once proud, creatively-driven shop owner ‘…yet another person left feeling devastated about their business ‘failing’ – all that time, all those hours, all that money invested – all for what?’

As it turned out, I came away with something of greater value and worth than anything I could ever have paid money for – this small heart-shaped brooch, handed to me with a quick ‘here y’are, have this’ by the shop owner. His action for me is a pertinent reminder that even in these difficult, cash-strapped times, kindness costs nothing.

The brooch demonstrates perfectly the way in which seemingly insignificant objects can become objects of great personal value. So often, the emotional attachment we make to objects transforms them from being irrelevant into something special – to be valued, cherished and carefully looked after.
For me, donating the brooch to the Museum of Object Research, to sit alongside other objects, all with their own unique attached stories, increases the significance and worth of the brooch still further.


Kate Murdoch.