Object-based Learning and the Modern Art School Curriculum
Judy Willcocks
Head of Museum & Study Collection
Central Saint Martins
Judy Willcocks (UK) has a long standing interest in developing the use of museum collections to support teaching and learning in higher education and teaches an archiving unit for the MA in Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins, London. She is also interested in developing relationships between universities and museums, and was the co-founder of the Arts Council funded Share Academy project, exploring the possibilities of cross-sector partnerships.
Reading time: 14 minutes.

Central Saint Martins was formed in 1989 when the Central School of Art and Design merged with St Martins School of Art. The College is now one of the UK’s most comprehensive art schools, teaching a wide variety of subjects from art and architecture through fashion and performance to curation and business administration. Central Saint Martins currently has over 4,500 students and is part of University of the Arts London.

The origins of the Museum & Study Collection can be found in a teaching collection set up by the Central School of Arts and Crafts in the late 19th century. At that time there was a widespread assumption that aesthetic appreciation was a learned experience and a number of government funded training schools (including Glasgow School of Art and the National Art Training School in South Kensington) began to collect objects to inform and inspire makers with a view to challenging the perceived design superiority of mainland Europe (Kjølberg 2010).

We know from our archive holdings that under the guidance of its first principal, W R Lethaby, the Central School was actively collecting a wide range of material, including early printed books, Japanese woodcuts, German film posters and medieval manuscripts. So from the very start, the opportunity to interrogate objects for intelligence about materials and making techniques was seen as a key part of the College’s studio practice.

The collection continued to grow until the Second World War, when it was put into storage and largely forgotten. This fits with the story of similar teaching collections, many of which were mothballed or disbanded in the light of expanding student numbers and increasing pressure on space. However the 1970s saw the introduction of cultural studies and the revival of art history and teaching collections in art schools underwent a renaissance (Evans 1996).

The Central School collection was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1980s and the College embarked on the herculean task of cataloguing and making sense of it and applying for Registered Museum status. At that stage it was agreed that the ongoing aim of the collection should be to tell the story of Central Saint Martins and its constituent colleges rather than collecting art and design objects more widely. As a result of this new focus the College began purchasing work from student degree shows every year, resulting in an extraordinary collection of contemporary art and design works including 3D printed jewellery, laser-cut textiles, digitally printed garments and born digital artworks. We now have almost 25,000 objects and 100 linear metres of archive holdings.

Using those collections to support teaching and learning within the College is still a core aim of the Museum & Study Collection, but tastes and teaching practices have changed and by the time I took up post in 2008, the preoccupation with teaching art history in the art school had fallen by the wayside. I inherited a well ordered but not much used collection, and was faced with the challenge of it to work in a way that is relevant to contemporary pedagogic practice.

Initially I found that a struggle. I came to Central Saint Martins from the independent museum sector where the majority of our visitors were either primary school children or retired autodidacts. I had very little to do with the sort of people I was to meet at Central Saint Martins. Older people can be quite a passive audience – they have come to be educated - which fits well with the traditional curatorial model of the ‘expert in the room’. But art and design students are very different. They want to challenge and push back. They want to learn actively – through handling and doing - not passively through listening and looking.

Our initial aim was just to get people through the doors. My tiny team and I made an enormous push to try and get teaching staff to bring their students in for handling sessions. We were reasonably successful and in our first year we energetically shared the best of our textiles collection with textiles students, our rare books with graphic designers and so on. We collected feedback and they all seemed to be having a lovely time. But the students rarely came back for independent study and enthusiasm amongst the teaching staff was relatively short lived. We had to ask ourselves ‘what were we doing wrong and how could we do better?’ And so began my journey, to take the Museum from where we were as a little known oddity and to where I wanted to be at the heart of curriculum development, supporting teaching and learning across the college.

There have been a number of key turning points along the way. The first was moving to a new building where we had an opportunity to design our learning and display spaces. The architecture of your learning spaces is a crucial part of the way you engage with audiences and the importance of aspect, light and ambience to visual thinkers should not be underestimated. While the historian may relish a visit to a dark and dusty archive study room, the art school student does not. In our old buildings the spaces where we saw students and mounted our exhibitions confirmed all their negative stereotypes of museums and archives as dusty and irrelevant. In our new building in Kings Cross (where we moved in 2011) we were lucky to secure a bright, airy space on the ground floor just off the College’s Lethaby Gallery - a place where we could have challenging conversations and show old objects in a new light

The second turning point for me was undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice – to all intents and purposes a teaching qualification for higher education. There is a strong tradition within UAL of supporting non-academic staff to take the qualification and get into the classroom. Doing the postgraduate qualification allowed me to spend two years networking with colleagues and introduced me to a wide range of learning theories which I could use to develop my own practice.

I was struck by the work of early 20th century educational psychologists, including John Dewey and Jean Piaget, who established learning as a communal, democratic process and by Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky 1978) who championed the notion that knowledge was constructed by the learner. I read Bruner (Bruner 1966) who identified interest and curiosity as the motivation for learning, and David Kolb (Kolb 1984) who argued for an educational model that could translate the ‘abstract ideas of academia’ into concrete practicalities and prepare increasingly large numbers of students for the world of work.

Handling session Museum & Study Collection

I came to understand the importance of experiential and student centred learning in art and design pedagogy; the fact that we process so little of what we hear, but understand and recall so much of what we do. I took what I had learned about educational theory and set it within the context of my knowledge and understanding of the museum world. I drew on the work of Scott G. Paris (2002) who coined the term ‘object-centred learning’ specifically to address the use of objects within a museum context. For Paris, meaning is not inherently held within the object; rather a transaction between the object and the viewer creates a space for meaning construction.

I began to explore frameworks for encouraging students to engage more deeply with objects, in a way that would foreground their own knowledge and experience. I was influenced by the work of Jules Prown (Prown 1982), who advocates a staged, almost forensic examination of objects, but also by Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine’s Visual Thinking Strategies (Housen 2002; Yenawine 1999) and Eilean Hooper Greenhill’s notions of individual and collaborative meaning making (Hooper Greenhill 2002). I stopped showing textiles to textile students and started to show objects from different disciplines on the assumption that the most important element of the object engagement was not discipline specific, but rooted in the student’s own experience.

The third important turning point for me came when I was introduced to colleagues at University College London who were then starting to explore the possibilities offered by object-based learning as an academic discipline within higher education. I will always be indebted to the UCL team for their generosity in sharing their knowledge and experience with me and encouraging me to begin my own research. We worked together to explore the way object-led sessions were experienced both within the art school and in a more traditional university setting. Gathering feedback from hundreds of students we began to unpick the impact object-based learning sessions were having on them.

We found that students were using a variety of skills including research, analysis, communication, team-working and observation (Chatterjee and Hannan 2015). Object-based learning was identified as a useful tool for addressing troublesome knowledge, while the multisensory and interactive elements of object-based learning were described as leading to a deeper and more memorable learning experience. Unsurprisingly we discovered that for art and design students the opportunity to handle and touch objects was a key part of the embodied learning experience (Willcocks 2015). This information helped us to understand and improve our teaching practice, and advocate for object-based learning in terms of curriculum development and resourcing.

The fourth key moment came when I started to collaborate with Graham Barton who runs UAL’s central academic support team. The collaboration brought together two pedagogic practices – museological teaching practice and learning development. Over the past four years we have worked together to design and evaluate object-led teaching sessions. I do a lot of team teaching with Graham which has had a huge impact on my professional practice. While team teaching is resource intensive it’s something I would highly recommend, because I believe the challenge and compromise of sharing a classroom led to some innovative practice and beneficial outcomes for students. While my area of expertise lies in using education theory to design object-based learning sessions with defined learning objectives, Graham has a wealth of experience around learning approaches, academic practices and academic literacies. Where our interests conjoin is in the use of objects as mediating artefacts for increasing learning awareness.

In our workshops museum objects have been repositioned as a focus for self-reflection and meaning making, marking a move away from more traditional curatorial practices and the notion of the expert in the room. Together we create a liminal space where students can explore their own habits of mind, frames of reference and decision making processes. It would probably be useful here to give an example.

Our workshops take many different forms, but there are a number of tools we use to scaffold discussions and guide students towards a better understanding of their habituated responses and research practices. One tool we use is an exploration of the sort of questions students are asking when they undertake research. An object is placed in the centre of the room and students note the questions that arise in their minds on post it notes.

The questions are then analysed and grouped according to whether they relate to material or theoretical concerns, pragmatic assumptions or grand hypotheses. We explore how different disciplines have a habit of asking different sorts of questions and discuss how asking a hypothetical question (I wonder if this was made by a woman…?) can actually act as an assumption, colouring all questions that follow. For me if a student has a moment of realisation about how their discipline or cultural background drives their questioning habits then it’s been a worthwhile workshop.

A second tool we use is a framework that encourages forensic exploration of an object through description, deduction and hypothesis. This methodology is based on the work of Jules Prown (Prown 1982) who coined the phrase ‘material culture’ in the 1980s. In this session students work in smaller groups exploring their object for as long as an hour. We begin by asking them to list the object’s material qualities, then they are asked to see what they can deduce from a close examination of the object, before moving on to hypothesising and storytelling around the object.

This is really an exercise in ‘noticing’… taking time to sit with the object and think deeply about what it means and what its place in wider society might be. In this exercise students develop transferable skills (such as defending their ideas) and come to understand how each of their peers sees and understands the world differently. We talk a lot about collaborative meaning making and respect for difference – in this exercise everybody has something to bring to the table.

There are many ways you can structure object-based learning sessions to achieve richer, more experiential object-engagements. The key thing is to think and act creatively and ensure the focus remains on the user and their own, personal meaning-making experience. As my colleagues and I have gained confidence and developed more robust teaching frameworks we have found ourselves better able to experiment within the classroom, often changing which objects we show according to the interests and experience of the group. We have also developed a small, university-wide community of practice to share our ideas and learn from one another.

So have I achieved my aim of bringing the museum from a little known oddity to a centre of curriculum development? There have been some significant successes. The Museum now works with most of Central Saint Martins’ courses and many more across the wider University. There is still room for improvement but our visitor figures have shot up from the low hundreds to the thousands and we now speak a language that allows us to communicate with our colleagues in teaching and learning. We have successfully embedded museum-led projects in the curriculum of a number of courses and teach object literacy to a wide range of students. We have even seen object-based learning identified as a key strand in the University’s Learning, Teaching and Enhancement Strategy 2015 – 2022.

However, there remain some challenges. Decolonising a white, Western collection has proven a challenge and work in this area is ongoing. A significant number of our objects, such as our katagami stencils or ukiyo-e prints, do come from other cultures, and we try to foreground their use in our teaching. We also have a proactive collecting policy that seeks to acquire new work that speaks to issues of gender or race. We have even borrowed archive material from other collections, such as the June Givanni Pan African Cinema archive, to give our teaching practice more breadth and depth. However, our tiny staff team remains resolutely white. We are trying to address that issue by hiring in practitioners to team teach with us but ideally we should be appointing a permanent member of staff to ensure that all of our processes (including cataloguing) include the voice of other cultures.

As a historian I remain optimistic about the future but mindful of how the wheel of fortune turns. I look at this history of teaching collections, their rise and fall according to pedagogic fashions, student numbers and curriculum developments, and accept that this moment of recognition, of dovetailing so neatly with current teaching practice, may not last forever. For the moment, however, teaching collections in UK universities seem to be experiencing a true renaissance. The key for us all will be to remain fleet of foot and responsive to change and with that in mind, I am excited about what the future holds.

Judy Willcocks (UK) has a long standing interest in developing the use of museum collections to support teaching and learning in higher education and teaches an archiving unit for the MA in Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins, London. She is also interested in developing relationships between universities and museums, and was the co-founder of the Arts Council funded Share Academy project, exploring the possibilities of cross-sector partnerships.


Backemeyer et al. 1996. Object Lessons: Central Saint Martins Art and Design Archive. Lund Humphries, London.

Bruner, J. S. 1966. Toward a Theory of Instruction. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Chatterjee et al. 2008. Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. Berg, New York.

Chatterjee, H. and L. Hannan(eds), 2015. Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education. Ashgate, Farnham.

Evans, S. 1996. ‘Teaching Collections, Then and Now’ in Object Lessons: Central Saint Martins Art and Design Archive, Backemeyer, S. (ed.), Lund Humphries, London.

Housen, A. 2002. Aesthetic Thought, Critical Thinking and Transfer. Arts and Learning Journal 18. May issue.

Kjølberg, T. 2010. ‘Museums and Material Knowledge: The V & A as Source in Fashion and Textile Design Research’. In: Museums and Design Education: Looking to Learn, Learning to See, Cook, B., Reynolds, R., and Speight, C. (eds.), Ashgate, Farnham.

Hooper Greenhill, E. 2002. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. Routledge, New York.

Kolb, D. A. 1984. Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Paris, Scott G. 2002. Perspectives on Object-Centred Learning in Museums,Routledge, Mahwah, NJ.

Prown, J. 1982. ‘Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture, Theory and Method’ in Winterthur Portfolio, Volume 17, No. 1. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Yenawine, P. 1999. Theory into Practice: The Visual Thinking Strategies. Paper presented at Aesthetics and Art Education: A Transdisciplinary Approach, a conference of the Service of Education, Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal. Available at www.vue.org/downloads.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. _Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes _(M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman., eds.) (A. R. Luria, M. Lopez-Morillas & M. Cole [with J. V. Wertsch], Trans.) Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. (Original manuscripts [ca. 1930-1934])

Willcocks, J. 2015. ‘The Power of Concrete Experience: museum collections, touch and meaning-making in art and design pedagogy’ in Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education, Chatterjee, H. and Hannan, L. (eds). Ashgate, Farnham.