Recently, I stumbled upon the work of photographer Gabriele Galimberti. While on an 18-month globetrotting photo journey, Galimberti captured a particular look at childhood and material culture in "Toy Stories." From Botswana to Boulder, this series showcases children starkly posing with their most prized toy possessions. These artifacts of childhood differ in quality and quantity, condition and type –– revealing unspoken cultural patterns of play, parenting, and society through still lifes. This photographic study is reminiscent of other global collections of environments and artifacts such as James Mollison's Where Children Sleep (article), Peter Menzel's What the World Eats and Material World, and Julian Germain's Classroom Portraits.
Pouring through these pictures reminded me of the role artifacts play in our design work with learning communities. In a discovery phase with a new client, we use a variety of methodologies to get to know and understand their world. We complement an investigation of voice, behavior, and interaction with documentation of materials and environments. Below are a few ways we use artifacts to uncover new communities.
When we conduct observations of client learning communities, we are always looking for artifacts. We notice and catalogue evidence of learning, values, culture, and community shown through the items that pepper hallways, offices, and classrooms. What do the signs placed around the classroom door communicate about core values? What stays the same between classrooms; what differs? What do rugs and bead bars illuminate about Montessori education? We read into this tangible evidence of identity to understand who our clients are, how they work, and what they value.
If somebody walked into your home or workplace, what would the artifacts in your space communicate?
Just as we can observe items that already exist, much can be learned from the act of representation. In workshops, we often ask students/communities to make an object that symbolizes a facet of their culture, an aspect of their identity, or a reflection on their own learning. Simple prototypes of play dough or pipe cleaners, these creative artifacts and the stories behind them provide invaluable insight into a community.
If you had to represent something seemingly intangible*, what would you create to communicate its spirit?
(*eg: your creative process, your learning style, an aspiration, a memory, etc.)
We believe you never grow out of "show and tell." This simple exercise of sharing stories about meaningful objects is both revealing and reflective––reflective for the sharer and revealing for the listener. We often use show and tell as a simple way to break the ice at design workshops and salon dinners. This disarming exercise prompts guests to reflect before the event and jumpstarts relationships at the gathering.
What is something you shared at "show and tell" as a child?
What would you share now at a dinner party or team meeting to reveal insight into your values or worldview?
Another way in which we can communicate a spirit of a culture or the life of a place is through the collecting and curating of artifacts into a still life. We also use these tapestries of objects to illuminate our studio life, assembling artifacts to convey our mindset or approach. Like peeking into chef's mise en place or a doctor's medicine bag, our tools communicate the "how" of what we do. On an impromptu and less-curated scale, you might peek into the backpack or desk of a student reveal a casual snapshot of his or her practical life. See Things Organized Neatly or The Verge's "What's in your bag?"
Peek into your backpack or briefcase, what would your impromptu work still life look like?
Reflect on a current project you are working on, how would you curate a still life to communicate your process?
Take a moment to think about the artifacts of your life, work, or school. If an archeologist was going to reconstruct an understanding of your community through your material culture, what would it communicate?
If you try any of the above prompts, feel free to share your reflections in the comment section or email Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.