Object Project: A Conversation Between Us and Our Future Grandchildren

By
Jihai Li
BSc Anthropology, 2021-24


This is an assignment of the undergraduate module ‘Introduction to Material and Visual Culture’. The assignment requires each student to choose one of the objects from the UCL anthropology ethnographic collections and write about it using the theories they learned in the module. Each student was given 15 minutes to engage with the object and ask the curator questions. However, as the curator also had limited knowledge of the objects, it was up to the students to interpret the objects and utilise theories. 

The author picked a Filipino model tricycle and created a fictional story about it. The protagonist, Alex, is an archaeology student in 2048 (born in 2030). As she is working on a 21st Century entertainment project, she asked her grandfather (born in 1987) for ideas. Having grown up with AR glasses, Alex prefers to interact with objects through the AR lenses which tells her the dimensions, descriptions and measurements immediately. Nonetheless, Charlie challenges her view – these are superficial. He stresses the importance of sensory engagement and tells her a story of the object: how it has been made through chain of operations (chaîne opératoire is an archaeological method: understanding the processes through which objects are made is key to understanding the object and the culture behind it) and how it has travelled globally over time (object itinerary is an archaeological theory: understanding the movement of objects contextualizes its history and helps to understand culture). Eventually, they both realize that each other’s approach is flawed; it is the combination of the two that is the most powerful. They then switch lives—Alex goes onto Charlie’s old laptop and Charlie tries AR glasses.


‘Look, Alex, this was my favourite toy when I was little,’ said Charlie, a retired anthropology professor, proudly holding a model tricycle.

An archaeology student, Alex, had asked her grandfather for ideas for her presentation on early 21st-century craftsmanship. She saw the tricycle through her AR glasses. 

‘Can’t believe it still feels smooth and doesn’t smell funny… after all these years…’ Charlie carefully lifted the tricycle up and examined it.1

‘Lexie, take notes,’ Alex commanded her glasses as she started sensing the object. This is a whole new experience for her generation that had very few tangible objects growing up.


<Lexie’s transcript>
<Start 1 Mar 2048 15:03>
<Alex’s voice recognized>
<Charlie’s voice recognized>

<Charlie> Try playing with it. Get some good sensory observation.

<Movement = ”Alex”> Hands = touching/moving back and forth; nose = sniff; eyes = moving up and down

 <Alex’s thoughts detected> So this is what wood feels like? or is it wood? I’ve only read about it in history novels…

Figure 3. Screenshot of Guggle Glasses’ analysis.

<Charlie> I was twelve when I made this as a DIY project. In 1999, we travelled to the Philippines where I fell in love with these tricycles on the streets, so it reminds me of nice family trips.2 When I got back to Phoenix, I saw this tricycle model DIY kit at the mall. My parents said if I got an A in Math, they’d buy it for me. So I earned it! 

<Charlie> Let me see if I can find the day that I made it in my diary… Gosh, I even attached the instructions! 

<Charlie’s movement detected> Hand = turning pages; eyes = reading from the diary

Figure 4. Grandpa’s diary.

<Charlie> The instructions were general. I mostly followed until it came to the back wheels. I glued them on, but they didn’t rotate. Nevertheless, it looked good enough. I then painted the tricycle with my favourite colours and drew flowers on it.3 I remember I was so proud of it! That’s why…

<Alex> And you played with it every day? Just moving it back and forth?

<Charlie> Yeah, it was simple days! I saw it as a souvenir from the Philippines and a trophy for my grade, so I played with it a lot!4

<Alex> You say it was simple, but it’s such a long chain of operations. It only takes two seconds to send someone a car on Guggle Glass now! Plus, I think you’d have to clean up your mess afterwards.

<Charlie> Yeah, but I didn’t care about that. I just enjoyed building stuff from scratch and seeing the final product. Yes, I did have to clean up, but it was worth it. I had to wash the colour plate, pick up little pieces of paper from the ground, and put back the tools I used.

<Alex> But you didn’t build it from scratch, the raw material came from some Chinese factories. DIY is a weird concept, because you wanted to build stuff, but weren’t bothered to prepare all the materials by yourself. Essentially, isn’t it just what assembly workers do – putting stuff together?

<Charlie> But I only had to build one and had some degree of freedom. That sense of fulfilment can’t be taken away. Sure, I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s amazing how it sailed across the ocean to get to America from China and had been to two cities with me. It’s an intersection between alienable mass production and inalienable personal ties.5,6 You also see where modern mass production and global trades meet traditional craftsmanship. We weren’t aiming for efficiency, the utilitarianist goal of technology, but materializing the sense of fulfilment through building the model.7 Do you feel happy having played with a tangible toy now?

<Alex> Yeah. It’s amazing how people with little infrastructure managed to have fun. I always relied on Guggle Glasses to process information; I felt a material object in depth for the first time and I’d say it was eye-opening.

<Charlie> But your generation has fun with unbelievably little infrastructure too – it’s always and only Guggle Glasses. I can’t believe you haven’t gotten bored of the information popping up from those tiny lenses! Don’t you feel like you’re seeing the world through a narrow lens and overlooking the great things you can feel and build with your own hands? 

<Alex> It’s unfair to say that I’m missing out on your old type of fun; You are dismissing the worldwide network behind Guggle Glasses! Why don’t you try the glasses for a day?

<Charlie> Deal. And you live without them for a day. Write your presentation on my old laptop from my university years.

<Movement = “Charlie”> bringing a “laptop” to the desk

<Alex> Wait, I need Guggle Glasses to teach me how to use… What was it called? Power…Point?

<Charlie> Just figure it out, you little miss know it all. You know nothing without guggle glasses after all. Do I need to show you how working with PowerPoint is a whole new chaîne opératoire?

<Alex> Fine! I’ll figure it out!

<End of transcript>
<Alex’s movement detected> Glasses are removed.
<End 1 Mar 2048 16:37>

<Start 1 Mar 2048 16:45>
<New wearer detected = Charlie>

<Charlie> This is impressive – it tells you the dimensions and components of an object immediately!

<Alex> Now you don’t think it’s a narrow lens but one that broadens your vision? 

<Charlie> Arguably, yes. But it’s the appropriate combination of methodologies that makes your investigation powerful. If I just used the descriptive data from Guggle Glasses, I still wouldn’t know how the object came to be. It was through our conversation that you found out about its actual source, China, an international network, and the chaîne opératoire done by me that made it happen. The emotional value, itinerary, and biography of the object are important. 

<Alex> Well said, they’re all going into my presentation.

<Movement = “Alex”> fingers = typing on “laptop”

<Charlie> Can’t wait to see your presentation.

<Alex> I’m sending it to your glasses, just say ‘accept and open’.

<Charlie> Accept and open.

<Wearer-operation> Opening “object project.ppt”


Reflection

Chaine operatoire: 

  • Validates techniques; not just ‘technology’ (utilitarianist means-to-an-end)
    • DIY wouldn’t otherwise be recognized as a technique Visualizes holistic processes => insights into often overlooked details (e.g. cleaning after building the model) 
  • Caters to the hierarchy of senses where vision is favoured (the desire to visualize processes through diagrams)
  • Making of the model = good example of a process that can be broken down into steps and recorded visually; fitting methodology 
  • Less focused on the end-product (the object itself)

Object Itinerary: 

  • Focuses on the environments that the object interacted with in time which made it unique
  • Less focused on the end-product 

Social life: 

  • Focus on the changes in the states of objects, not on normality (the end-product)
    • DIY model combines mass production and handcrafts – > a transformative process that brings about the change from ‘generic’ to ‘personal’  => fitting methodology

Multi-sensory approach: 

  • Focus on the normality -> compensates the above three which all focus on some part of the process of making or using the object
    • Can be reductive if we only investigate the end-product without the social context and technical processes involved 
  • Combined with the above three methodologies to avoid speculations entirely based on observations. 

Conclusion: methods and theories compensate each other to gain a comprehensive understanding of objects.

Title image: Figure 1. Model as presented to author.

1 Multi-sensory approach from E. Edwards, C. Gosden, and R.B. Phillips (2006) Introduction. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, edited by E. Edwards, C. Gosden and R.B. Phillips. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Pp. 1-32.
2 The social life approach from I. Kopytoff (1986) The Social Life of Things: Commodities In Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.; S. Woodward (2019) Jeanologies: Materiality and the (Im)Permanence of Relationships and Intimacy. The Anthropology Of Dress And Fashion: A Reader. Pp. 109-116.
3 Chaine operatoire from M. Martinón-Torres (2002) Chaîne Opératoire: The Concept and its Application Within the Study of Technology. Gallaecia 21: 29-43.
4 The social life approach from I. Kopytoff (1986) The Social Life of Things: Commodities In Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.32141. EPUB.
5 Object itinerary from R.A. Joyce (2015) Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Anthropological Practice. Project MUSE, Santa Fe: SAR Press, pp.3–20.
6 The social life approach from I. Kopytoff (1986) The Social Life of Things: Commodities In Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.32141. EPUB.
7 Mauss, M. (1979) Sociology and Psychology: Essays. Ben Brewster (trans.) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  1. Edwards, Elizabeth, Chris Gosden, and Ruth B. Phillips (2006) Introduction. In Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, edited by Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden, and Ruth B. Phillips, 1–32. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  2. Kopytoff, Igor (1986) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  3. Joyce, Rosemary A. (2015) Things in Motion: Object Itineraries in Anthropological Practice. Project MUSE, Santa Fe: SAR Press, pp.3-20.
  4. Martinón-Torres, Marcos (2002) haîne Opératoire: The Concept and its Application Within the Study of Technology. Gallaecia 21: 29-43..
  5. Mauss, Marcel (1979) Sociology and Psychology: Essays.Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  6. Schultz, Lainie (2018) Object-Based Learning, or Learning from Objects in the Anthropology Museum.” The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 40(4):282-304.
  7. Woodward, Sophie (2019)  Jeanologies: Materiality and the (Im)Permanence of Relationships and Intimacy. The Anthropology of Dress and Fashion: A Reader. London: Bloomsbury, pp. 109-116.

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