Object Lessons: the story of material education in eight chapters

Press release:
Duration: September 16, 2016 – January 16, 2017
Opening: Thursday, September 15, 7 p.m.
Milanese Mosaic Pastes, Cabinet of Factory Products, c. 1800, Collection Technical Museum Vienna, Photo: A.-S. Lehmann / Jars From a Teaching Aid Kit On Paper Fabrication, Lehrmittel-Verlag F. Rausch c. 1920, Collection Werkbundarchiv, Photo: A. Herrmann
If you know how to fabricate a candle from fat or a pen from a fishbone, you can survive in prison. If you know how blood reacts to lemon juice, you can remove stains. If you know why polylactide is more sustainable than polyethylene, you can change the world.
Today, knowledge about materials, their origins, and processing is more valued and desired than ever before. At the same time, such knowledge is specialized, concealed, and the domain of experts. How can it be made available to everyone?
From September 16, 2016 until January 16, 2017, the Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge will show the special exhibition Object Lessons: The Story of Material Education in 8 Chapters.
This exhibition recounts the story of learning with, about, and through materials: in science, at school, in commerce, craft and at home, in novels and movies, in the archive and on the Internet.
From tree compendiums, slag gravel, and sea silk to rabbit tails, cork stoppers and cloud leather, the exhibition ranges from historical DIY books to a digital material archive to show that material literacy has always been relevant, why it was forgotten, and what it may look like in the future.
Object Lesson Box, after 1830, Collection Museum of the History of Science, Technology & Medicine, University of Leeds, Photo: E. Lie / E. Mayo: ‘Lessons on Objects’, Surrey, London, 1838, Collection Werkbundarchiv, Photo: A. Herrmann
The center piece of the exhibition is an Object Lesson Box: a small cabinet developed for teaching purposes in the 19th century that contains over a hundred materials, including plaster, gold leaf, sugar and rice. The book and the box are the tactile legacy of Charles and Elizabeth Mayo, who converted Swiss reformer Johann Pestalozzi’s illustrative education into their own structured teaching concept. Here children are encouraged through exemplary dialogue to explore different materials by looking, touching, smelling, and tasting. According to this method, knowledge is gained not only through the characteristics of things, but also through language, local customs, and science.
Following the dialogic principle of Object Lessons, the exhibition presents material education in 8 chapters. The first Object Lesson explains the emergence of the concepts ‘Elementarbildung’ and learning with HEAD, HEART & HAND (Pestalozzi) and gives a summary of the role of reform pedagogics from Fröbel to Montessori.
With delicate samples of animal hair and heavy rocks, the Object Lesson SAMPLES, SETS, REFERENCES offers insights into material’s role in science education: what appears to be the same is differentiated ad infinitum or even destroyed to learn about all of its details. A drug box that was used in pharmacology teachings serves as a link to the third Object Lesson CHALK, COAL, PAPER. Placed behind glass, educational material can no longer be touched.
Teaching Kit „Light metals“, Lehrmittel-Verlag Eugen Emde, after 1945 / Plaster Sample Case, Tebolith-Edelputz-Werk, Tettenborn a. H., Gebrüder Beyermann, 1932, Collection Werkbundarchiv, Photos: A. Herrmann
The fourth Object LessonMODELS, MERCHANTS, MAKERS, is dedicated to manufacturers and craftsmen. Chicken feathers, clay samples, mosaic pastes and snake skin tell the story of why the emperor of Austria decreed that an inventory must be taken of all products produced by domestic factories and manufacturers at the beginning of the 19th century.
The fifth Object Lesson SAND, SOAP, SODA depicts the household then and now as a space steeped in the practice of transmitting material knowledge. Traditionally, it was passed on orally and in the form of handwritten documents or printed companions for housewives. Today this know-how is shared in countless Internet forums, giving it an unforeseen revival.
Handwritten Soap Recipe, c. 1890, Private Loan, Photo: A. Herrmann
Talking about material and its characteristics is the topic of Object Lesson six MY DEAR WATSON, which focuses on adventure, crime, and science fiction novels. Here, material becomes a stylistic device within the dialogue – comparable to Mayo’s Object Lessons – that helps the story unfold suspensefully. For example, Sherlock Holmes explains to his sidekick Dr. Watson that he is able to solve murders using material analysis (Arthur Conan Doyle). It becomes clear that material, be it old or new, bears an incredible amount of information and whoever has access to it can save themselves or take revenge, survive, or convict.
In the seventh Object Lesson GOOD AND ATTRATCTIVE, material education with the aid of the so-called ‘Werkbundkisten’ during the 1950s and 60s is addressed. These boxes were conceived as a means for taste education in schools by the Deutscher Werkbund who, since its foundation in 1907, served as a mediator of product qualities such as function, form, and material. Showing the topicality of taste education, a seemingly outdated concept, a ‘Werkbundkiste’ will be equipped with new materials for this exhibition, critically scrutinizing whether sustainable or recycled materials are always morally ‘good.’
View of the MATERIAL ARCHIV, Material Archive S4 ZHdK Zürich, 2016 Photo: I. Volkers / Students with Werkbundkiste, 1950s, Source: Landesbildstelle Berlin, Orgel-Köhne Photoreport
The Swiss MATERIAL ARCHIV is featured in the last Object Lesson ARCHIVE, LIBRARY, NETWORK, facilitating a hands-on interaction with material. Combining a digital information network with tangible samples, the MATERIAL ARCHIV is the contemporary counterpart of Mayo’s historic cabinet whose ambitious goal to carry the whole world of materials within itself was limited due to its confined format. Today’s digital archive, however, can include every material there is and ever will be, showing material education’s potential future.
The exhibition is curated by Ann-Sophie Lehmann (University of Groningen) and Imke Volkers (Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge).
There will be a supporting program and a final conference (scheduled for January 2017). Object Lessons will be on display in the Gewerbemuseum Winterthur (Museum of Applied Arts and Design) April through October 2017.
Supported by Hauptstadtkulturfonds. In Cooperation with Material Archiv and the University of Groningen. Our corporate partners are Manufactum and Modulor.

On our Website’s section “Exhibitions” and its our press section, you will find more detailed information and a selection of images.
Further inquiries:
Imke Volkers
Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 92 10 63 -22
Isa Hönle
Tel.: +49 (0)30 / 92 10 63 -55
Opening Hours:
Thursday through Monday: 12pm – 7pm
Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge
Oranienstraße 25
10999 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 / 92 10 63-11
Fax: +49 (0)30 / 92 10 63-12

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