Words. on. Things.

In 1819, the minister and teacher Charles Mayo travelled to Yverdon in Switzerland to meet the famous reformer of education, Johan Pestalozzi. He stayed for three years, observing how Pestalozzi, who compassionately advocated the education of children put his revolutionary theories into practice. Pestalozzi assumed that children learned best and most naturally through the engagement with their direct, physical environment, which would equally appeal to “head, heart, and hand”. Later, Charles Mayo described how Pestalozzi attributed the origin of this Anschauungsunterricht to the children themselves: faced with words and pictures during class, the pupils had wondered out loud why they should look at the picture of a window if there was an actual window in the classroom, and why at a picture of a ladder if a real one stood down in the courtyard? And so they started to experience actual objects and not their representations. But Mayo also noted the disadvantages of this method: teacher and pupils had to rely on objects at hand or leave the classroom. In the latter case, bad weather might disrupt the lessons or the object one had set out to study, a cow for instance, was not in the meadow. But most of all, pupils were distracted by the jumbled presence of things in the real world, which were not neatly ordered, but there all at once or not at all.

Upon his return to England in 1822, Mayo established the first Pestalozzian school and together with his sister, Elizabeth Mayo (1793–1865), developed a systematic approach to object-based teaching. In 1830, Elizabeth published Lessons on Objects. This book became extremely successful and appeared in twenty-six editions until the late 1850s. It contains one hundred lessons on different objects and supplies concrete instructions on how to carry them out. The Lessons are divided into five series. The first three deal with things, materials, and substances, which children would encounter in everyday life. The fourth is devoted to the senses; the fifth is advanced and focuses on modes of production and categories of materials.

Mayo instructs teachers to present the objects as concisely and neutrally as possible and let children find their own words for them. Qualities of materials should first be experienced before they are defined with specific terms: only after a child has bent a piece of whalebone back and forth should it become acquainted with the term ‘elastic,’ because only then can the new word really be grasped and remembered. The very first lesson is on glass, in reference to the origin of the object lessons, the window in Pestalozzi’s classroom. First the children are asked to describe the material: how does it look and feel? It is bright, they answer, and it feels cold, smooth, and hard. And what does it enable, the teacher asks? Seeing through! What else can you see through? Water! And what do you call this property? We don’t know! It’s called “transparent”. In the 5th series, glass is addressed again, but now with detailed information about its use and manufacture, showing how the same thing can generate basic and more advanced knowledge.

All objects, this is stressed again and again, are to be passed around, touched, smelled, even destroyed, as is the case with Indian rubber, which Mayo suggests setting on fire in order to experience the quality of being inflammable. The series on the senses starts with touch, not sight, and thus reverses the familiar hierarchy of perception. It is brought into practice with seven spices, in order to train smell and taste. Yet – amidst all this hands-on instruction – the book makes no mention of how a teacher gets her hands on all those objects, materials, and substances that are the indispensable part of each lesson. Only beyond the last page, in the publisher’s advertisements, do we find a clue.

Here, an inconspicuous advertisement announces that “cabinets, containing the substances referred to in these lessons“ are to be purchased at a cabinetmaker in Westminster. Later editions list many more suppliers. At least four such cabinets have been preserved in museum collections in the UK. Recently, a fifth box has been acquired by the Museum der Dinge (Berlin). The mahogany boxes differ in size, content, and state of preservation, yet they are all extraordinarily beautiful in the way they hold the material universe, stacked neatly in four trays.

At first glance, they appear as heirs to the Wunderkammer and kunstcabinet, yet they are in fact the opposite, as they do not contain the curious and precious, collected for an exclusive audience, but the ordinary and everyday, combined for the benefit of everyone. When facing a tray up close, the object lessons start to take shape in our imagination. Each carefully-folded cardboard compartment has a sticker which corresponds to the one on the object. This double labelling lends the object a slightly surreal presence; a curious double insistence on stating the obvious: this really is a piece of thread. A bottle with oil. A shard of earthenware. A shell.

The label assisted teaching practice: when the items from the box were passed around they ensured that every thing returned to its right place. The labels and the carefully typed out period after each word also ensure the relation between word and thing as such. Or rather, they prompt us to examine, question, reassert the relation between words and things. On the title page of the Lessons on Objects, there is a quote from an children’s story by John Aikin and Anna Laetitia Barbauld: “We daily call a great many things by their names, without ever inquiring into their nature and properties; so that, in reality, it is only their names and not the things themselves, with which we are acquainted.”

By sticking names to things, the Mayos did not attempt to enforce a one-to-one relation. But they made sure that knowing the name also meant inquiring into the nature and properties of the thing it designates. The words pasted to the things beg to verify and check, to find out that the thing actually is something and what exactly.

The pairing of the thing and its name, one on top of the other, emphasized by the punctuation mark that turns the word back on to itself, is appealing and acute because it is both, poetic and political. How so?

Roland Barthes, who painstakingly described the mythologizing potential of language in his seminal Mythologies (London, 1972), deemed only two forms of speech to be truly political, because they are able to resist myth or have the capability to demystify: an object-language that arises in the actions carried out with an object and therefore a language linked “to the making of things”. And a poetical language that he termed pre-semiological and that aims to “catch the thing itself” and not its potential meanings. Both, the object-language and the poetic language come together in each punctuated word pasted onto a thing it names: these are poetic objects. And while the boxes were of course constructed worlds, based on choices we need to understand in their historical context and their presuppositions about the world they were to contain, they still invite us to perceive the world through things, to train all our senses. The little labels request to check if it is “only their names and not the things themselves, with which we are acquainted“. To keep wondering and finding out what oil or a shell or red ware or a bottle glass or a piece of clay really is. These word-things – or thought-things, to use Hannah Arendt’s definition of a work of art – render the material engagement with the world both, political and poetic, and make room for a critical-positivist position between words and things.


On view: Object Lesson Box, after 1830, Museum of the History of Science, Technology & Medicine, University of Leeds. Photographs: Armin Herrmann.

This short text was written to accompany the images on the invitation of Laura White, for which I would like to thank her very much. The text is based on a number of publications and the exhibition Object Lessons: The History of Material Education in 8 Chapters, I curated together with Imke Volkers at the Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge, Berlin (Sept. 2016 – Jan. 2017) and the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur (April 2017 – Sept. 2017).

Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “Objektstunden. Vom Materialwissen zur Materialbildung”. In: Herbert Kalthoff, Torsten Cress, Tobias Röhl (eds) Materialität. Herausforderungen für die Sozial- und Kulturwissenschaften, Paderborn: Fink Verlag, 2016, p. 171-93.

Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Cube of Wood. Material Literacy for Art History, Groningen 2016

Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Imke Volkers, “Object Lessons. Material begreifen in 8 Lektionen. Eine Ausstellung im Museum der Dinge, Berlin”, Museumsjournal 6/2016, p. 54-55.