14: Art and artefact: displaying social work through objects


This chapter presents the origins, process, and findings of an online research project, Social Work in 40 Objects. The project is ongoing, and its aims are to explore the possibility of discovering meanings in social work through material objects and the stories that attach to them. The experiment is proving to be a quantitative success, with over 160 objects to date (2020) from 26 countries donated to a virtual exhibition of social work. Qualitative success is evident in the many facets of social work refracted through the objects and the wide variety of relationships to social work apparent in those who are participating. The research methodologies that support the experiment are explored, as well as the theoretical perspectives that have deepened the analysis of the findings: these include material culture theory and museum ethnography, especially the notion of ‘charged objects’. The ‘snowball’ method speeded and broadened the donation of objects and a ‘bricolage’ process helped in the playful clustering of groups of objects into themed ‘collections’. The chapter explores the learning from this experiment and presents a suggested typology of objects.

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