Object Lessons

Institute exhibition
30th September 2015 - 3rd January 2016
Gallery 4

'Educational Specimen Box'
Unknown maker
ca. 1850

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 'object lesson' was developed by the influential Swiss educationalist Johann Heinrich 'Henry' Pestalozzi in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, based on the premise of learning via a direct encounter with a collection of objects. The method was popularised and extended in Britain by the siblings Elizabeth and Charles Mayo in the early nineteenth century. This focused exhibition offers a fascinating first-hand insight into this once innovative, and now, less familiar concept that is central to understanding objects.

Beginning with the concrete object, direct experience and observation, object lessons provided a way of encountering the world through form, material and process. The object lesson, however, was not limited to the classroom, its approach stretched to far larger scale educative programmes - for example The Great Exhibition of 1851 was described as 'an object-lesson upon a world-wide scale.' This, the first large scale exhibition of manufactured products that aimed to educate the population, reframed sculpture as a didactic instrument for a mass audience, and influenced the ways in which sculpture was taught, collected and displayed for the rest of the century.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a Victorian educational specimen cabinet of object lessons. This encyclopaedia of natural and processed materials native to Britain and gathered from across the Empire aimed to educate through direct experience. Alongside, four photographs from the second half of the nineteenth century showing the development of the educational collections at the South Kensington Museum are displayed, charting the collection's progress from a diverse amalgamation of teaching apparatuses and reproductions to a more specialised set of collections of fine and decorative arts that nevertheless retained their instructive role.

Object Lessons shows the relationship between these practices and the development of a national system of art and design education in nineteenth-century Britain. It reunites, for the first time in 175 years, a prize-winning student drawing of an architectural frieze from 1840 with the plaster cast from which it was drawn. Executed by R.W. Herman, one of the first students to study at the Government School of Design at Somerset House, the frieze demonstrates the prevailing belief in the capacity of objects (even reproductions) to transmit knowledge through the attentive and precise translation of form. Herman's work was considered so exemplary that his drawings were purchased for circulation around the regional Schools of Design, effectively becoming object lessons themselves. Herman went on to teach at the School, rising to become the Deputy Headmaster of the National Art Training School at South Kensington, a direct descendant of the Government School of Design and predecessor of the Royal College of Art.

Object Lessons intersects with the exhibition Paul Neagu: Palpable Sculpture on display in Galleries 1, 2 and 3 and Upper Sculpture Study Gallery. The work of Paul Neagu (1938-2004) engaged in the production of 'palpable' and 'tactile' objects from the late 1960s onwards, which often took the form of a box to be handled and explored, echoing the process of producing knowledge through direct material encounters. In addition to the specimen box of object lessons, the connection is most resonant in the display of three nineteenth-century books: two editions of Elizabeth Mayo's Lessons on Objects originally published in 1830 and the illustrated American edition of the work edited by John Frost and retitled Lessons on Common Things (1835). Shown open at the chapter 'On the Senses', they describe the perceptual apparatus and the mechanisms through which we can come to know and understand an object in both concrete and abstract terms.

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