Talking Objects


Developing skills and expertise
in partner museums.

1. Introduction
2. The object
3. The group
4. Practitioners
5. Museum staff
6. The methodology

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The Methodology

Talking Objects was developed at the British Museum in 2008 with the generous support of the John Lyons Trust. Over three years the methodology was developed and tested through the delivery of 15 projects working with young people in the London area.

As a result of the Talking Objects National programme, six partner museums across England have had the opportunity to test this original methodology. This tool kit is therefore an amalgamation of this shared experience. All the groups adapted the methodology to suit their own requirements and this section explores how the methodology can be flexible to suit any organisation or audience.

Talking Objects Toolkit

Taster sessions

The taster sessions are an opportunity to meet your target group and introduce the project to boost interest and successfully recruit participants.

Taster session 1

The first taster session usually takes place up to a month before the main project at a place where your group usually meets (approx. 1–2 hours).

It works well to explain your role and ask the group some questions about the museum:

  • How many of you have been to the museum before?
  • What did you think?
  • How old do you think the museum is?
  • How old do you think the oldest object is? What country do you think it is from?

Delivering a short object handling session is a good way to break the ice and introduce the themes of the project. Showing a previous Talking Objects film has also been useful in communicating the value of the programme.

Taster session 2

This usually takes place 1-2 weeks before the project begins and takes place at the museum with specialist and museum staff on hand to discuss their roles and the collection they look after (approx. 1–2 hours).

The focus object is usually introduced to the group alongside related handling objects and other resources. This session usually ends with refreshments and an informal consultation asking the group what they think of the Museum and whether they would like to take part in the project. It is important that participants choose to be involved. This results in higher consistent attendance throughout the programme.

If you have more time constraints you may choose to only deliver one taster session. This was the case for a few Talking Objects National partners when an original group was unable to commit to the programme and time limitations meant they could only hold one taster session with a new group.

If you are unable to deliver both or any taster sessions you may have to build more time into the main bulk of the project for participants to get to know one another.You may find maintaining participation numbers more of a challenge in some cases.

Talking Objects Toolkit

Project delivery

The main project delivery takes place over four consecutive days. This requires that the project is scheduled during a time that is convenient for all the participants. For the Talking Objects project at the British Museum the key audience group was young people, therefore the project took place during school and college holidays. However, some partners reported that having their projects run over holidays had been problematic for recruitment and participation numbers. You may find you need to adapt the delivery dates of your project for groups of a different age or with other commitments.

Day one

The aim of the first day is to discover the story behind the focus object(s) and the object specialist should be present. The four-day project usually takes place at the museum between 12.00 and 17.00 with a break for lunch.

  • The day starts with icebreakers and group games and an introduction to everyone involved in the project.
  • The object specialist is encouraged to not only talk about the object’s official history, but also present different interpretations of it that have been put forward over time. They are also asked to say what they personally think about it. Do they like it? What does it mean to them? Is it their favourite object in the collections? What do they not know or can’t be sure about the object?
  • If possible, it is ideal to allow the group to handle the object. If this is not possible a replica or related objects can be used. It is a strong statement to the group to entrust them to hold a museum object
  • It is also advised at this point to visit a related display or gallery to demonstrate the context in which the object is presented to the public

Day two

During this session the creative practitioner takes the lead with the group revisiting their thoughts from the previous day. At the end of the day, the group’s creative response to the object should be part way developed.

Find out more about creative facilitation 

Day three

The morning of the third day is committed to completing the creative response to the object. Time should then be allocated to planning and practicing the presentation and/or performance on day four.

Each member of the group should be given the opportunity to decide which part of the presentation they would like to do and where they would like to stage it in the museum. You may find the following categories for the presentation useful:

  • Welcome to staff, introductions of the group, followed by an explanation of what they have been doing over the 4 days
  • The meaning of the object – ask the group to tell the audience about the object through their eyes. What are the key bits of information that are most interesting to them?
  • Shout-out wall. Explain the shout-out wall (see panel, right). What is it and how have they used it? Pull out some of the things written on it to highlight how it has been used throughout the project
  • Presentation of work/final performance. This is delivered either as individuals or as a group and can involve an explanation of the creative outputs or if appropriate, a performance of their creative response

Day four

Debate session attended by museum staff.

  • Participants and staff are introduced to one another before group presentation
  • The meaning of the object – ask the group to tell the audience about the object through their eyes. What are the key bits of information that are most interesting to them?
  • The group then introduces their response to the object – i.e. through staging their performance or individually showing and explaining the artwork they have created
  • Staff asked for their immediate feedback on the young people’s presentation/performance etc
  • The object specialist is asked to respond to any further questions the group might have
  • Following the presentation a Line of opinion activity takes place. Please visit Resources and practical advice to find out more about this participatory activity

The day ends with a thank you and to all those who have been involved, followed by refreshments and a certificate presentation ceremony. Many partners have also invited the participant’s friends and family to come and watch the performances and presentations.


Talking Objects Toolkit


The shout out wall

The group are asked to write or draw their initial impressions about the object on a large piece of paper put up on the wall which will remain there for the entirety of the project. It is important the group know they can revisit the shout-out wall at any time during the project to express their feelings and thoughts.

Towards the end of the day the creative practitioner(s) may want to discuss how their responses to the object will feed into the next day’s creative session, using the shout out wall and brainstorming activities as aids.


Talking Objects Toolkit

Finding the right fit

The four-day framework provides a clear structure which can be particularly useful but it is by no means a fixed practice. Talking Objects partners have adapted the methodology to suit the culture of their organisations and the groups they intended to work with.

Case study: Newark and Sherwood Museum Service

As a local authority museum in a rural community, the consecutive four-day format was not practical for Newark and Sherwood Museum Service and their chosen group. The decision was taken to stretch the methodology out over a two month period. This allowed extra time for planning and reflection and was a better fit for the part time staff working on the project. It was also possible to organise off-site visits that related to locally relevant objects; capturing the group’s historical imagination and increasing interest. Because there wasn’t a dedicated learning space and the group worked in multiple locations, they created a portable shout out wall on moveable board.

Case study: Bristol Museums and Art Gallery

The project at Bristol Museums and Art Gallery benefitted by relocating the last sessions to the group’s meeting place. The change in space increased participation numbers and also resulted in the ‘line of opinion’ being recorded for local radio. The project reached beyond the museum, ultimately reaching new and different audiences. Visit What is Talking Objects? to find out more about adapting the methodology and what this has meant for the legacy and sustainability of the programme.

Bristol Museums and Art Gallery have also used the methodology in the classroom. Talking Objects has been used in this case as a catalyst to start a conversation about complex subjects such as the history of the British Empire and the methodology revised to support a lesson period.

Case study: Tullie House

The methodology can also be adapted to different time-scales, using the principles of supporting a dialogue between museum staff and audiences, and encouraging audiences to have their own personal response to museum collections. Tullie House have gone to the extreme of using these principles in a gallery setting, training front of house staff to design ‘collection conversation’ desks to engage the public in a dialogue about the collection. These new interpretations and responses are then fed back to the curatorial team.


Talking Objects Toolkit


Having the radio broadcast was an excellent way to round off the project. The participants had a chance to publicise their findings/work to a wider audience via the radio interviews and also gained an experience of how a studio operates.
Observer, Bristol