In my final year (2012-13), I was amongst eleven University of Birmingham students who enrolled on a pilot MOMD entitled Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things. The course encouraged students to critically engage with the material world by considering how objects make and reflect culture.
This may sound like pretty familiar territory for the History of Art student, but it demonstrated that art historical methodologies actually occupy a small niche on a broad spectrum of disciplines that ‘read’ cultural objects. Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things is notable for being Birmingham’s first truly interdisciplinary module. Each week, sessions were delivered by a different University department, including the Research and Cultural Collections Study Centre, Lapworth Museum, the Centre for West African Studies, the Medical School, the Barber Institute, the Learning Hub, Cadbury Research Library, and Winterbourne Gardens.
The content of the classes were therefore exceptionally diverse. We had a go at some of the tasks involved in the professional roles of our session leaders, such as writing museum labels and condition reports for objects, considering an application for invasive research on a museum specimen, curating a display of objects from Special Collections, making a wax model for casting, and planning an activity to engage a target group with a work of art. We were also treated to a number of behind-the-scenes style tours and demonstrations, including watching a rock being sliced open to reveal a splendid fossil in the Geology Department, and prototype parts for an airplane being cast in the Metallurgy Department’s foundry. Sessions frequently incorporated class discussions, which were especially interesting because the group was comprised of students from many different cultural and academic backgrounds.
Although academic theory did inform our reading and lectures, the course was unusual in that it didn’t focus on the need for an in-depth understanding of an academic field. Rather, it seemed to be about developing a broad awareness of the use and interpretation of objects. During a review session, many members of the group agreed that the module had given them the skills and confidence to assess even objects that they had no prior knowledge of.
The assessment of the module allowed us to demonstrate this. Each student was randomly allocated an object from the University’s Collections and asked to produce a number of readings of that object from different perspectives. My own assignment considered a work that I, like most students of the University, was already familiar with: Eduardo Paolozzi’s colossal sculpture Faraday, which is located on campus near the train station. I decided to refrain from an all too obvious art historical reading. Instead, I considered the work as a commodity; assessed how digital media could enhance public engagement with the sculpture; and evaluated the way that the work is interpreted within the context of the University Collections.
We also produced a reflective learning journal upon completing the course. The prospect of being assessed on a piece of work based almost entirely on my own, highly personal reflections was one that I initially found daunting. However, the assignment proved to be a really valuable conclusion to the course. I found that observing the themes and connections between the diverse sessions revealed a number of things that I had not necessarily been taught, but had learned as a result of the course.
As well as improving my understanding of the use and interpretation of objects of culture, I would say that taking Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things actually served to enrich my University experience. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the University beyond my own department, and presented the privileged chance to explore its rich collections.
Making Cultures is now available as an MOMD (Module Outside the Main Discipline) for second year students and you can read more about it here.