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Beyond the Display – an exploration of collections in art, media and design teaching and learning

Browsing the stores of the Mary Greg Collection. Photo: Sharon Blakey

Author: Alke Gröppel-Wegener
Institution: Staffordshire University

Keywords: museum, gallery, object-based learning, collection, handling collection

Visits to museums and galleries are an established part of learning in and about creative disciplines. However, objects in collections that are not necessarily displayed in a museum context can also be utilised through object-based learning (OBL). By exploring three examples, the Mary, Mary Quite Contrary project at Manchester City Art Gallery (which gives students access to museum stores), the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections (which allows supervised, gloved handling of objects) and the Betty Smithers Design Collection at Staffordshire University (which allows students to handle most objects without gloves and check them out), the potential of OBL is discussed and some suggestions are made how and why objects can be integrated into the context of Higher Education.

Visits to museums and galleries are an established part of learning in and about creative disciplines. What is less common in an academic context is to use the collections and archives beyond the display, to see and handle objects that might never be seen by ‘everyday’ visitors. These objects can inspire both research and practice: interacting with them is experiential learning that can open doors for academically less confident students to rigorous analytical investigation, they can make the crucial link between producing artefacts and texts about artefacts.

The following is a brief overview of types of resources that currently frame access to objects. Beginning with the museum visit, it then tells of a project that opened the museum stores to students, as well as introduces two types of university collections – one an accredited museum, the other a handling collection. Based on these examples suggestions are made as to how to integrate object-based learning (OBL) into Higher Education in art, design and media.

The Museum Visit: Browsing a three-dimensional Textbook

A number of research projects have recently looked at the relationship of museums and design education. For example Museums and Design Education: Looking to Learn, Learning to See (Cook, Reynolds and Speight, 2010) included an interrogation of ‘the museum and how they make connections between visual research and the construction of visual material and the design process’ (Speight, 2010, p.19).

What became apparent was that museums are used by design students for a number of reasons ‘including ideas and inspiration, research projects, drawing objects from life and designing and creating objects' (Speight, 2010, p.19). Museums offer environments that are different to university settings. Because here the visitor chooses the path, learning can be much more self-directed and independent than it is in a lecture or seminar environment. This is what Falk and Dierking have described as a ‘free-choice learning environment’ – the learners have individual control over what, when, why and how they learn (Cook and Speight, 2010).

However, most museum visits, while providing a free-choice browsing of the display, are restricted by exactly that: a curation process that pre-selected the display. Experts have already made decisions for visitors: a theme has been selected (chronological, material, thematic, etc.) and objects, as well as additional information, have been researched and presented in a purposeful way.

It is crucial to consider this – a museum exhibition is carefully edited, to the point that Boys describes them as '3d textbooks' (2010, pp.55). In the context of education the visit to such an environment is important, and can be particularly useful for novices wanting to get an overview of a subject. However, this is not the only way in which collections can be used.

Museum Archives: the Mary, Mary Quite Contrary Project

The Mary, Mary Quite Contrary project is an example of how having access to the stores beyond the museum display can result in rich experiences, particularly for art, design and media students. It is a collaboration between Manchester Art Gallery and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), which started by giving two artists and lecturers access to the ‘Mary Greg Collection of Handicraft of Bygone Times.’ Allowing them to use and research the contained objects to inspire their creative practice soon inspired a larger project that included sharing these processes online through a blog as well as inviting more members of the public, especially students, to explore the collection and the linked archive of correspondence for themselves and let it inspire their work (Woodall, 2010).

Through the open-access blog (which can be found at students, as well as the general public, can gain an insight into the ways how the objects themselves inspire creative practice. It also shows how the context of the object is explored through rigorous research – an important issue in academic culture – which again allows for creative inspirations. Links with courses in Interactive Arts, Creative Writing, Three Dimensional as well as Graphic Design have been made and the potential for other courses and university faculties is being explored. Some of the already finished projects can be seen on the blog and an exhibition is planned for September 2012 in the Platt Hall Gallery of Costume, one of the satellite locations of Manchester Art Gallery.

Teaching Collections: Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections
Object collections can not just be found in museums, many universities have their own, often grown out of teaching collections by staff. These resources are available to Higher Education lecturers to integrate into their teaching – if they know they exist and how to access them. For example, the Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections (, while housed in one of the university’s libraries is not just focused on books, and is in fact an MLA Accredited Museum. While there are collections of artists’ books, decorated papers and childrens’ books, there is also a collection of fine and decorative art objects, some of which is the work of students and staff.

Regular exhibitions in its gallery put selected items on show and while the book collections are mostly open for ‘browsing’, the stores that hold the artworks, objects, archives, other materials and the very valuable books are not open to the public. However, the objects can be explored by appointment, supervised with strict guidelines on handling and usage (including reproduction).

Using rare book illustrations as starting points for creative drawing at MMU Special Collections
(Fig. 1)

The contained objects are also used for teaching by academic staff with support from staff from MMU Special Collections, who will also deliver sessions on request. Groups are restricted to 20 students and 20 items per session. The teaching staff using this resource are mainly from the Faculty of Art and Design, using the collection to teach creative practice in, for example, Three Dimensional Design, Graphics, Printing, Fashion and Textiles. Here the objects are often used as inspirations or examples. History of Art and Design use objects as illustrations and starting points for debates on critical theory and overall Contextual Studies. But the collections are also used more widely, by the English Department, particularly in the area of creative writing, by the History department as well as Education and Library and Information Studies.

Handling Collections: The Betty Smithers Design Collection at Staffordshire University
The Betty Smithers Design Collection (BSDC) at Staffordshire University operates slightly differently from the accredited museum. While allowing students access to design context through objects, this is a handling collection, where most objects can be touched without gloves. It comprises of an eclectic and idiosyncratic mix that reflects a 20th and early 21st century social history through everyday, small-scale objects. There are frequently changing displays which are located in small glass cases that can be found across the buildings of the Faculty of Arts, Media and Design, where the BSDC is housed, and there is the occasional themed exhibition. However, there is no large gallery space or permanent exhibition and neither is the BSDC a black box type archive, where only curators and archivists have access to the treasures housed in darkened stores: the thousands of objects that make up this collection of everyday things can be found in a number of rolling racks in a rather small room. Here it is not just the looking, it is the handling that takes centre stage. On top of that everything, apart from the truly unique and valuable items or objects where there is a health and safety concern (such as cut-throat razors), can be checked out as if they were library books by both staff and students. This allows them to interrogate them more fully at home, in the studio or use them in projects (although it is not allowed to permanently alter them or pick apart garments).

A group of students ‘rummaging’ through the garment collection at BSDC
(Fig. 2)

This ready-made archive is being utilised for visual and tactile research by staff, students and the wider educational community. In the art, design and media field the costumes and textiles provide inspiration for designs by Graphic, Illustration and Surface Pattern Design students; domestic products give three dimensional and tactile understanding of the construction of individual items to Product and Three Dimensional Design/Craft students, and objects even provide starting points for anthropomorphic characters of the Animation and VFX students. On top of that Photography and Film/Media Production students frequently check out garments and objects to dress shoots.

Teaching with Objects
Despite universities having these or similar resources at their disposal, objects seem to be underused in Higher Education. Reasons for this may be that utilising objects as part of the curriculum is unfamiliar to staff and that they are not sure how to get the best out of these sessions. As Stephanie Boydell, curator of MMU’s Special Collections gallery, states: ‘Many [academic staff] are not used to or comfortable teaching with objects and may need guidance’ (2011). This is underlined by the fact that OBL does not seem to feature on many Postgraduate Teaching Certificates for Higher Education.

But how to go about using these resources? One of the more obvious ways to use objects from collections in teaching of the creative disciplines is to use them as subjects for drawing sessions. This is particularly useful as in this setting students can arrange the objects to have access to views (like the bottom or back) that they might not necessarily see in the gallery. Not being in a formal space also can lead to an exchange of ideas between students that can feel out of place in a museum with other visitors around where students often feel inhibited to sketch as they do not want strangers to see/critique their drawings.

However, this is not the only way in which objects can be used. Subjects that have been introduced in lectures or books as images can be introduced as the ‘real thing’ through objects, thus providing a larger context of material culture and foster discussion. Having authentic objects at their disposal has particular potential to engage students who do not have confidence in their academic abilities. Through experiences akin to play, for example through imagining the items in a shop rather than in a museum, a link can be made to the students’ own experiences and describing objects or garments becomes less scary for them, because they seem removed from the academic context. In sessions in the BSDC (where the objects can actually be handled and arranged as in a shop display) this strategy often leads to lively discussion that is used to draw out the vocabulary and critical skills that some students seem to think they do not have.

Linking objects to familiar television programmes, such as Flog It or the Antiques Roadshow, also helps an initially playful investigation. Questions asked can include: What was its use? (particularly effective if this is an odd object) What was it made of? When was it made and used? How much did it cost then? How much money was that in weekly wages at the time? How much would it go for now?

Boydell states that OBL allows student to 'develop key skills and learn new ones: such as how to observe, record, assess and analyse and question an object; it encourages critical thinking, and allows students to use prior knowledge and build confidence. Also in groups, [it] builds on team working skills, communication, presenting, listening, learning from peers and confidence building, particularly as students can implement and pass on prior knowledge and be in a situation where all ideas are acceptable.' (Boydell, 2011)

Objects: the Missing Link between Practice and Theory?
Through these types of activities students are able to learn the value of rigorous exploration as well as the value of the everyday. This can lead to them investigating objects and garments from their own household (collections) in a new way, taking steps to analyse them further. Speight (2010) makes the point that this is a skill similar to the studio critique or ‘crit’, but this is by no means limited to creative practice subjects. Ruth Waterhouse (2011), a lecturer that uses the BSDC as part of her sociology teaching, states that working with the objects has freed up students thinking they have to deal with exclusively textual material, the abstract. She finds this reflected in the work they produce, both the subjects they select and the way they present their final research projects. While the assessment criteria stipulate a ‘portfolio’ of work, Waterhouse interprets this widely and encourages students to utilise their visual sense alongside the written text. She reports that almost half of the students take up this opportunity to ‘go broader’ than just writing things up, presenting their work in a more innovative way, for example an essay on body modification was presented in a skin tone, torso-shaped portfolio complete with drawn tattoos and laced using piercing rings (see Fig. 3). According to Waterhouse this makes theory meaningful on a personal level and helps students make sense of a society through exploring its objects imaginatively.

Detail of portfolio handed in as part of research on body modification by sociology student Rachel Pemberton
(Fig. 3)

Visual (and tactile) methodologies such as handling collections are widely underused in Higher Education as they are seen as ‘not academic’. However, the combination of the tactile with the visual is very powerful, experientially rich and complements the conventional rationalism of academic research, it is what engages the students, providing a bridge between the everyday and the academic and is a clear example why this form of engagement needs to be built on further and fully integrated into the educational environment rather than left to gather dust in the closet.

The use of collections – or indeed any objects – is extremely useful for art, design and media students, because it is located between two Higher Education experiences: it is outside the studio, though it can intersect it through providing inspiration, but it is more self-directed than the formal museum visit. It can also act as an aspect of contextual research that allows a different way of learning than text-based secondary sources. Boydell argues that object learning uses different kinds of intelligence, saying that students can draw their own conclusions and can ‘discover’ answers on their own, rather than just receive ideas from academics (2011).
What the discussed examples show is that the work with objects that is removed from both the practical making in the studio as well as the abstract secondary sources that are often the basis for contextual research, involves a number of different learning strategies for designers that has the potential to engage students differently in academic investigation. And that is its true potential.

Contact information

Dr Alke Gröppel-Wegener is a part-time Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, Media and Design at Staffordshire University where she teaches study skills to creative practice students and has recently been awarded a Teaching Excellence Fellowship. Her strategies to provide students with the academic dimensions to their practice-based courses include experiential, electronically enhanced and object based learning, making use of the Betty Smithers Design Collection wherever possible. She documents her research on the tactile dimension of academic learning in a blog (

Boydell, S. (2011) Networks resource issue [email]. Message to A. Gröppel-Wegener (10 August 2011).

Boys, J. (2010) ‘Creative Differences: Deconstructing the Conceptual Learning Spaces of Higher Education and Museums’. In Cook, B., Reynolds, R. and Speight, C. (editors) (2010) Museums and Design Education – Looking to Learn, Learning to See (pp. 43-60). Farnham, Ashgate.

Cook, B., Reynolds, R. and Speight, C. (editors) (2010) Museums and Design Education – Looking to Learn, Learning to See. Farnham, Ashgate.

Cook, B. and Speight, C. (2010) ‘Bridging Perspectives – Approaches to Learning in Museums and Universities’. In Cook, B., Reynolds, R. and Speight, C. (editors) (2010) Museums and Design Education – Looking to Learn, Learning to See (pp. 29 – 41). Farnham, Ashgate.

Speight, C. (2010) ‘Museums and Higher Education: A New Specialist Service?’ In Cook, B., Reynolds, R. and Speight, C. (editors) (2010) Museums and Design Education – Looking to Learn, Learning to See (pp.11 – 28). Farnham, Ashgate.

Waterhouse, R. (2011) Use of the BSDC [interview], Staffordshire University with A. Gröppel-Wegener (23 May 2011).

Woodall, A. (2010) The Mary Greg Collection at Manchester Art Gallery (Case Study for the Learning at the Interface Conference), available at


Header photo:
Sharon Blakey. Browsing the stores of the Mary Greg Collection
Fig. 1 Using rare book illustrations as starting points for creative drawing at MMU Special Collections © Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections
Fig. 2 A group of students ‘rummaging’ through the garment collection at BSDC © Staffordshire University Betty Smithers Design Collection
Fig. 3 Photo: Alke Gröppel-Wegener. Detail of portfolio handed in as part of research on body modification by sociology student Rachel Pemberton.
Listing photo: taken from Fig. 1 above.