Do objects tell stories? From Linda Sandino

The UCL Centre for Museums, Heritage and Material Culture Studies recently co-organised with the Mellon Foundation a series of ‘oral interventions’ about  ‘Voices in (and around) the Museum’ :

The series asked a range of interesting questions about the voice, both literally and metaphorically, and its deployment as an affective strategy that could enhance and engage visitors’ experiences.   Broadly, the talks centred on ‘how voices emanating from objects and subjects in the museum impact on the institution’s traditional remit of researching, collecting and displaying objects’.    As someone researching curators’ lives, de-privileging the object is welcome, but I continue to be troubled by the question of what kind of narratives objects are supposed to voice?   Why are narratives displaced onto the object?  Is this a museum and collector’s fetish?

The idea that exhibitions and displays are narratives is commonplace, as is the idea that objects contain stories, usually memories, either official, or private.   Titles of exhibitions are like book titles that indicate the subject (as it is also the title of the catalogue): ‘The Cult of Beauty’ (V&A), ‘Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500’ (The National Gallery).   But it’s not objects that tell stories; it’s people who use objects to tell stories.  So why do we continue to submit to the idea that objects tell stories?

Linda Sandino, CCW University of the Arts /V&A Senior Research Fellow


Published by corinnesquire

Corinne Squire is Professor of Social Sciences and Co-Director, Centre for Narrative Research, at University of East London

Join the Conversation


  1. I suppose objects and things literally cannot not tell stories because they cannot speak or write…They can contain, however, information about our desires, wishes, fears, fantasies, and histories of a lived life. I am not a museum curator but I have done a limited amount of research about our relationships with objects (in and out of galleries and museums) and many people have described, quite strongly, the importance of particular objects in their lives. For some, objects and things can have “voices” that provide direction, inspiration, support, comfort, excitement, stimulation,companionship, and other psychosocial mechanisms. The UCL Museums project brought out into the open what many people may keep hidden.

  2. If we assume that narratives are co-created in interaction with some kind of “Other” and that even when we tell stories in private (e.g., diary writing) there is an imagined counterpart that we address and that acts and reacts back (maybe an “inner voice” or a person that was part of the actual experience that we now narrate), it may make sense that we displace narratives to objects as if they were the source and teller of the (their own) story. In this way they become a “real other” with a reality of their own that allows for interaction and therefore for a new co-creation. Another thought that comes to mind now that I am writing this is that the idea of objects telling stories, especially objects defined as art, may be closely linked to the idea of objects as sources of inspiration. When we say that (artistic) objects inspire us, we also assume that they tell us something – something new, something that transcends what we consider as being located and based inside of ourselves, something we can only grow on, something our (life) narrative, our identity can only grow on, because it is NOT (already) part of ourselves. To put it metaphorically, in a room full of mirrors (= objects that reflect the stories we project onto them) we can see who we are but not who we may be (= that which can only evolve from interaction with “the Other”, from reaching beyond the mirror). Well, I am not too satisfied with the metaphor but hopefully some of what I could not put straight to the point here comes across because I find your question very intriguing. Thanks for posting it! All best, Sabrina

    1. I really like your concept of how objects can act as co-creators of narratives about possible selves, Sabrina (hello!) especially via artworks as objects of otherness. It really pushes forward the idea of the souvenir as already embodying something usually defined e.g. a memory, and already familiar. (The mirror analogy reminded me of something I read years ago, a small publication by Baudrillard about how writing on a word processor was about encountering, or seeing ‘same-ness’ rather than otherness.I must try and find it again). I think your point really emphasises the significance of narrative as the strategy for ‘reaching for meaning’ as Jens Brockmeier puts it in his essay with that title. Many thanks. Linda

  3. The question raised is provocative. If asked, few people will admit that their objects “speak” to them, but if you listen carefully to their everyday narratives you will hear something quite different. While they might not phrase it with the exact words “my car told me to drive slower,” they might, on the other hand say something like, “I don’t know why I bought this cup…it just spoke to me.” There are many ordinary explanations for this kind of statement: perhaps it might rationalize an impulse, defend a mistake, or brighten up a conversation. But there might be an uncanny explanation, too. Ask collectors, for example, how they find a treasure amidst a jumble of cast-offs and they might tell you that they actually “hear” a voice beckoning them. The voice might not be human and it might not be received aurally, but it is a communicative response nonetheless. Interview musicians about the instruments they play regularly and you will often hear them talk about their interactions as a conversation, not with themselves but with the instrument itself, not in music per se but in other meaningful modes. The important issue here, I think, is to carefully separate “voice” from “sound.” If we study other cultures with open minds we might find compelling evidence (i.e. Japanese Shinto religion, Maori notions of mana) for other ways to understand the possible ways objects might have power, spirit, agency, and voice. Thanks for opening up an interesting discussion.

  4. Storytelling is not a matter of words. Indeed, words are only one particular – and arguably small – part of the story world. That images can tell stories is universally accepted, and we do not need to translate such stories into words in order to understand them. Objects are images, but much more than that, they are sensuous things touching us with their affective power, imbued with an aura of the unspeakable. They may provide hard forensic evidence or fleeting feelings that are difficult to grasp, but without things there can’t be any stories. We live in and are part of a material world which is also one of magic and metamorphosis, where everything moves and flows, where things and people, voices and silences, nature and culture, times and places, realities and imaginations cannot be separated but mingle in ever-changing ways. From this rich pool of being and becoming stories emerge: told in words or whispers, caught in a glimpse or touch, written on paper or carried on an object, overt or oracle, exposed in the limelight or hidden in the shadows. What matters is not so much the voice, but the listening, the ability to perceive, to sense, to tune in, to feel, to dream. Every thing and every body has a story to tell, if only we can hear it. Artists, seers and poets can be useful guides.

    An interesting conference on objects:

  5. A bit late, but one might one to check this out:

    Lippert, Julia. “A ‘Natural’ Reading of Historiographical Texts: George III at Kew.” In Narratology in the Age of Cross-Disciplinary Narrative Research. Sandra Heinen and Roy Sommer, eds. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.

  6. “This object tells a story” is another way of saying “this object has a story.” Of course people can tell any kind of story through objects, but this only means that objects can be recycled. When we speak of the story told by an object, we mean not just any story anyone might tell using the object as a prop, but rather, a story which is necessarily structured around the object’s specificity, not around the teller’s individuality. Which is not to say that the teller’s individuality may interact fruitfully with the object’s specificity (or historicity should I say), opening it up and making the object readable for people who could not see the story in the object or could not hear the story “told” by the object. A story told by an object is therefore a story which concerns anyone who wants to know more about the piece of history which inheres in the object. Or, ultimately, a story which concerns anyone interested in understanding the historicity which inheres in anything and in anybody.

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