This is the seventh in a series of experiments (see here for the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth) investigating how model making can be used in sociolegal research processes. As these experiments have progressed I have come to realise that my intention is to understand how we can, and why we might, make sociolegal research ‘visible and tangible’.
Writing with reference to the field of social design Ezio Manzini has noted that a key way in which designers can facilitate social activism is by deploying their expertise in ‘making things visible and tangible’. In so doing ‘expert designers’ can activate and empower the ‘diffuse designer’ in everyone (Manzini 2015). Shown in this light I might be seen as a proto-expert designer deploying design strategies to activate non-expert or ‘diffuse’ designers in the sociolegal community, thereby leavening their research process.
This seventh experiment can be seen as an extension of an object-based research and teaching strategy with which I have been experimenting for some years under the auspices of the Legal Treasure Project. An open call was issued for legal researchers to apply to participate in a one day Legal Object Workshop at the British Museum funded by Kent Law School. Each applicant chose an object from the British Museum catalogue, explained how it related to their current research and reflected on the implications of using a curated object in this way. Selected participants were PhD students and faculty members from Kent Law School, McGill University, Osgoode Hall Law School, Queen Mary University of London, University of Ottawa, University of Oxford and University of Windsor.
Participants were asked to prepare a 10 minute verbal commentary to be delivered in front of their chosen object and a simple ‘trace’ of their commentary to be distributed to other participants. Meanwhile I planned a feasible route through the museum and a set of tweets; and designed a large format laminated display mat and a foldable guide for the day. I also created an online Pop-Up Museum of Legal Objects as a repository for these and other objects to be added over time; and highlighted the event via social media. By these individual acts I began the process of making our research tangible and visible.
Before the workshop, a couple of participants raised queries about the ‘trace’. None appeared to be unsettled or intimidated by the idea, many seemed energised. This individual experience of planning and making of a trace for distribution to as yet unknown but specific collaborators was the second stage of making our research tangible and visible. My experience of choosing my object and making my trace is described here.
On the day of the workshop we gathered next to the totem poles in the Great Court of the British Museum for an informal introduction and folding of the guides. This communal act was the third stage of making our research tangible and visible. I was pleasantly surprised not to have had any resistance from security to me bringing the large display mat into the Museum.
The presentations formed the fourth stage of making our research tangible and visible. Presentations were made in eight rooms on three different floors of the museum, so we made a scene even in our transitions. They were also made in varying conditions: low of good lighting, with tourists and school children stopping to listen and/or creating enough noise that presenters had to shout. My fellow Legal Treasure Tour operators, Lisa Dickson and Sophie Vigneron, and I were familiar with and warned of these aspects presenting an object-based commentary in a curated context. Other participants noted how surprisingly different it was to present in such an environment, and how they would adapt their style in future.
One participant was unable to attend so I invited her to send an audio recording. Audio quality constraints and ambient noise caused me to play an extract of her voice so that we could have her in mind, and then to deliver her presentation myself. I also made and distributed a foldable paper photo representation of her trace so that its presence might be felt in the space.
I took photos of the presentations, as did others, and Lisa Dickson recorded audio of every presentation. Social media coverage was systematic but fairly narrow: I tweeted a brief snippet of footage of each presentation. Several other participants tweeted my presentation to fill a potential gap. Retweets came primarily from institutions such as Kent Law School and the Sociolegal Studies Association.
The commentaries (written versions of which are posted here) were engaging and rich, placing varying weights on the objects themselves (such as physical characteristics, cultural significance, provenance), the legal ideas to which they might relate and the significance of their status as collected objects. The creativity expressed in the traces, and the effort underlying them, took me – all of us, I think – by surprise. In my videos I tried to capture the moment of the distribution of the trace, as well as the object and the presenter. A distinct feature of each of these acts of distribution- the fifth stage of making our research tangible and visible – is the evident enjoyment of all: smiles on the faces of donors and recipients and the words ‘thank you’.
Once we had completed the commentaries we reconvened by the totem poles in the Great Court to reflect (via a simple form and conversation) while making models of our chosen objects in black, yellow and/or red fimo modelling clay. Several participants commented that this, the sixth stage of making our research tangible and visible, was an especially relaxing and fruitful way to end/consolidate our experience. Finally we placed all our models on the display mat to form the first pop up museum of legal objects and the seventh stage of making our research tangible and visible.
Each participant took home their fimo model (to be backed at 100 °C for 30 minutes) as a visible and tangible (stage 8) reminder of the day.
Participants shared a photo of the traces they collected, now in their new home (stage 9).
Most of the commentaries from this event will appear, together with a selection from the SLSA 2017 Pop Up Museum of Legal Objects theme, as an Autumn 2017 special issue of the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly.
E. Manzini (2015) Design when everybody designs MIT Press