How to read an object

As part of my MA in Graphic Media Design at London College of Communication I was tasked with drafting a commentary of an object from the UAL Archives and Special Collections CentreI chose to read a calliper (DU_124) from the David Usborne collection at the UAL Archives and Special Collections (see here for further details on that choice and the final output, the video STANDARD).
This audio recording demonstrates how to read an object using a methodology proposed by Jules Prown (1982), a piece that I first came across in a workshop on ‘Researching skilfully through archives and objects’ run by Academic Support at the University of the Arts, London.


Prown’s methodology is ‘based on the proposition that artefacts are primary data for the study of material culture, and, therefore, they can be used actively as evidence rather than passively as illustrations.’ (Prown 1982 p.1). The term artefacts is fairly broad, including, for example: art (paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, photography); diversions (books, toys, games, meals, theatrical performances); adornment (jewellery, clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, tattooing, other alterations of the body)
; modifications of the landscape (architecture, town planning, agriculture, mining); applied arts (furniture, furnishings receptacles)
; devices (machines, vehicles, scientific instruments, musical instruments and
For Prown, the ‘underlying premise’ material culture as a field of study is that ‘objects made or modified by man reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and by extension the beliefs of the larger society to which they belonged’ (Prown 1982 p.1). So, for example, this calliper reflects the beliefs of 20th century scientists, engineers and craftspeople who made and used it; and of the wider international community to which they belonged. Perhaps the ‘most obvious’ types of belief about which we can learn from examining objects relate to ‘value’; whether it be inherent in or attached to the object, and whether relating to its utility, aesthetics, emotions etc. (Prown 1982, p. 3). So, for example, the calliper teaches us something about how we value measurement, and in particular consensus in relation to measurement. In fact all objects have special value per se in the sense that they are the only physical trace we have of historical events. They may also be more representative of society, especially of those who are relatively poor, more truthful as to the realities of life in a particular time (as compared to reports) (Prown 1982, pp. 3-5).


‘What can be observed in the object itself…internal evidence’. Start general then get specific.
  • Substantial analysis (measurements etc)
  • Content (decorations motifs etc)
  • Formal analysis (visual character)


‘What would it be like to use or interact with the object?’ or ‘if representational work ‘to be transported into the depicted world’. Handle it, use it. Note conclusions must be reasonable, common sensical.

  • Sensory engagement
  • Intellectual engagement
  • Emotional response


‘What is desired is as much creative imagining as possible, the free association of ideas and perceptions tempered only, and then not too quickly, by the analyst’s common sense and judgment as to what is even vaguely plausible’ Prown 1982 p. 10).

  • Theories and hypotheses
  • Program of research (for validation)


Prown, J. D. ‘Mind in Matter: An introduction to material culture theory and method’ 17:1 Winterthur Portfolio (Spring 1982) pp. 1-19

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