Student/Community Engagement through Material Objects
What do objects know? What kinds of relationships can we have with objects? How does engaging with historical objects change the way we know history? How can this engagement decolonize official histories?
These are some of the questions that motivate IAS faculty member Raissa DeSmet’s teaching and research.
Raissa DeSmet came to IAS with a doctorate in the History of Consciousness from U.C. Santa Cruz. During these highly theoretical studies, DeSmet found herself craving engagement with tangible objects. “I can’t just live my life from the eyebrows up,” says DeSmet. For her, this was a return to her background in the arts, specifically metal casting.
DeSmet’s engagement with material objects is also rooted in her identification with her family’s diasporic history. “Like many of our students, I, too am a diasporic subject. I'm from an immigrant family and have grown up with objects in my own home and world that are invested with story and power, and which are ways of knowing.” As DeSmet explains, objects that we grow up with become part of how we know our histories and relate to others.
DeSmet’s special attachment to museums began in her youth. Growing up Indo (Dutch-Indonesian) in Spokane, Washington in the 1970s, DeSmet’s family was often taken for Native American. She recalls an ironic incident in which a museum employee invited her and her mother to climb into an exhibit of Native American life. Despite the mis/taken identity that was attributed to her, she took the opportunity: “Because who doesn’t want to climb into the diorama?”
Museums became spaces of pleasure for DeSmet. When she began teaching museology at UW Bothell, she was told that Bothell students won’t relate to museums because of their race and class positions. DeSmet not only rejected this idea, but took it as something of a dare to create a museum cultures class.
In the first iteration of this class, DeSmet made the acquaintance of Holly Barker, Curator for Oceanic and Asian Culture at the Burke Museum. Barker invited DeSmet back into the collections: “It was almost like the invitation back into that exhibit space when I was a kid,” recalls DeSmet.
“We're so seldom invited into those areas of labor in the museum that are not forward facing like galleries. So there was something secret and special about getting that view. I was very cognizant that it was a privilege to be there. I just felt pulled into that and I wanted to pull our students into it, too. I just didn't believe that they couldn't follow me there because, in fact, they're the ones who get it,” says DeSmet, referring to the diasporic background of so many UW Bothell students.
DeSmet argues persuasively that we all grow up with objects in our homes that hold intrinsic meaning and shape our development. This is amplified when one grows up in an immigrant household, in which different objects, from different places, histories, and cultures are found. These objects hold knowledge. And our students know that more intimately, at times, than a professional museum curator.
What can an object know? “Well, when you’re talking about a handmade item, it knows, first of all, the form of its own production. So much knowledge is lodged in that. The material, the technique, the form – these are all parts of the knowledge that resides in an object,” says DeSmet. “But you can also think about the social and cultural contexts that anchor the object. Students can then think about objects as witnesses, which is what I particularly like: what histories have objects been present for?”
DeSmet describes the emotional charge that can accompany objects, such as a tricycle that survives an explosion, or a bed that rested a child as she grew into adulthood. DeSmet asks students in her museum cultures classes to think about the ways objects can accompany us through our lives, and even outlive us. In DeSmet’s experience, putting material objects in students’ hands helps to ground conversations about other ways of knowing that can, at times, become too abstract without tangible interactions.
Having students and community members engage with material objects/artifacts that are collected, curated, and displayed by museums does more than provide teaching and learning moments for those involved. This form of engagement decenters, decolonizes the whole project of display in the museum setting.
Working in partnership with the Burke Museum, DeSmet notes their mission and vision statements:
The Burke Museum cares for and shares natural and cultural collections so all people can learn, be inspired, generate knowledge, feel joy, and heal.
The Burke Museum inspires people to value their connection with all life—and act accordingly.
“This is a very different project than just holding and keeping. You get a different product,” says DeSmet, who notes that this is a cultural and institutional shift. Rather than closing the work of museums off from the public, producing digestible displays, this model engages communities in co-creating them. This is a program of decolonizing the knowledge and histories of the objects that are displayed, driven by the knowledge holders of the cultures that produced them.
DeSmet’s partnership with the Burke Museum continues to evolve. Fall 2019 saw the Burke installed in a brand new building on the UW Seattle campus. “What the Burke has been able to offer students both before and after the move to the new building is real immersion in the collection – students cleaning objects, tending to them, constructing things around them, working the database – our students have had very intimate encounters in museum space.”
Many UW Bothell students don't know that their student ID card (Husky Card) gets them free admission to the Burke. The Burke eagerly partners with DeSmet’s courses in order to bridge that gap. “We want our students to feel a sense of ownership,” continues DeSmet. “That is their space. This is their museum. We want them to feel at home and realize a sense of belonging there.”
Drawing from this engagement with the Burke, students in DeSmet’s Museum Cultures class were asked to engage with objects from their own families and communities, and tell the stories held in these objects. Our Student Feature presents some examples of their work.