Can Objects Speak for Themselves?

What came first – the object or the interpretation? Okay, so this isn’t quite the chicken and the egg scenario…but it’s a fascinating question none the less.

This week on Twitter, Drew Radtke (@RadtkeDrew) asked:

tweet tweet

Can objects speak for themselves?

My gut reaction is “yes, yes, YES!!!” (I’m a big fan of radical trust, after all), although I know that this opinion isn’t necessarily the most popular one out there. Click here to see some of the feedback Drew has received and weigh in on the conversation yourself.

Are some objects so powerful that they require no content or interpretation? Can you name any examples? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Drew Radtke is currently pursuing his M.A. in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. A Virginia native, Drew has worked extensively with historical issues of slavery and civil rights and their treatment in museums and other cultural institutions. He is primarily interested in the topics of shared authority among museum professionals and the public, access to cultural sites for all regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, and using museums as vehicles for creating meaningful conversations about current human rights and social justice issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter @RadtkeDrew.

21 thoughts on “Can Objects Speak for Themselves?

  1. The very fact that hoarders, antique stores, and American Pickers exist prove that objects can tell a story without interpretation. What interpretation does is enhance that story, helps more people recognize the significance, and helps more people make an emotional connection. You can value an object without the extra interpretation, and you can interpret an object that you don’t physically have, but the two are infinitely more powerful and meaningful when combined.

    • I really like this: “You can value an object without the extra interpretation, and you can interpret an object that you don’t physically have, but the two are infinitely more powerful and meaningful when combined.” Thanks, Dani!

  2. Interesting question considering most museums take historic objects completely out of context and the labelling/interpretation is often necessary. I’ve seen art that needed no interpretation at all but also seen some which is ceases to be art when not accompanied by explanation. I think interpretation can enhance or detract depending on the power of the object to tell its own story.
    In short it depends what it said object is, where it is, what you story you are trying to tell and who the audience is. An ‘uneducated’ audience perhaps needs more context.

    • Drew and I received a tweet from Dan Spock quoting Theodor Adorno: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident any more.” I think the word “interpretation” is often over-generalized thus allowing for a broad array of definitions/approaches. Is interpretation simply the words on a text panel or does it also include the lighting (or lack thereof) and placement of an object in a gallery? The fact that an object is held in a collecting institution’s storage facility/gallery/etc. assigns some value to the object. This is definitely one of my favorite conversations in the museum world – especially when it comes to audience. I’m interested in what they know, think they know, or admit they don’t know – and what they find boring or exciting – and wonder how that can help strengthen interpretation strategies (or collections policies and exhibition design). Thanks for participating in this lively discussion, SJGARRICK!

      • Adorno is right there I reckon. I started a debate about this at work yesterday, then we got onto objects and narrative. Does the narrative wrap the object or do we use the object to support our own narrative agenda? We didn’t come to a conclusion…
        Also, to be in the mind of the average Joe visitor… that would be interesting.

  3. Sure, an object can speak for itself, in that a viewer can read or invent a story just by looking. But through interpretation the object can tell stories that the viewer might not otherwise have access to. Depending on the object, the museum, or the visitor this may or may not be important.

    • Thanks for commenting, REBECCASHERZ. I think what you’ve described here would be a great children’s program! Present a series of objects without interpretation and allow for the children (and their families) to create/tell their own stories about this objects – followed by interpretation by education staff to see how close or how far off they were.

  4. Objects hold power, whether they are “interpreted” as we, as museum professionals, understand the term interpretation or they are left a blank slate. The truth of the matter is, the visitor / audience member brings a set of expectations, understandings, and personal interpretation into museum settings. Objects have the power to inspire dialogue, spark controversy, elicit emotional reactions, bring up memories… Interpretation, when properly done, can enhance these responses and put them in context to a greater conversation.

  5. My real issue with the idea of objects “speaking for themselves” is WHO are they speaking to? Sure, objects might “speak” to people who already value historical objects or who already value art and have an understanding of what they mean (in other words: people who are already inclined to visit museums).

    I love the idea of radical trust, but I’ve been frustrated in modern art museums (and history museums too for that matter) too often to be totally comfortable with presenting objects sans interpretation. I don’t think interpretation needs to be didactic or your standard (sometimes boring, often unhelpful) info-panel, but enough scaffolding to build meaning is important.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lindsey. You bring up a great point – “who”.

      Do you think environment/design can set up enough scaffolding to build meaning?

      • Definitely! I think non-verbal/unwritten context can probably do more to help make meaning for visitors than almost anything else (except maybe experiencing the object by using it or creating something – depending whether we’re talking history or art here, or both!).

  6. Yes, objects can speak for themselves, but what is the object saying? Interpretation gives a voice to the object, and provides context as to the message of the object.

  7. I think that objects can speak for themselves and that this can lead to very meaningful experiences for audience members. The problem (probably not an actual problem at all) arises when a venue wants to tell a specific story.

  8. Jamie, contrasting open and directed (with information) interpretation works really well in programming. We did this at The Noguchi Museum with teens getting to know the collection, and thinking about how museums tell stories. It’s also interesting to have people make up titles (or even labels) for an object, and then tell them the real title, or share the museum label. Interesting how much information can be contained in a title.

  9. Most if not all objects speak for themselves but most of the time you will need either knowledge you learned beforehand or an interpretation to hear what they are saying. Think of it like some speak your own language and others speak a foreign language and you will need a translator to understand them.

    I have several objects in mind that REALLY speak for themselves (hey, I’m a collection manager so anything else would be a surprise). To name only one: a half-burnt letter that was damaged during the Lakehurst desaster and was delivered to its recipient afterwards you can see at the Museum für Kommunikation in Berlin. Even if you never heard of the Hindenburg tragedy you will be touched to see this battered piece of paper.

  10. Glad to see this conversation going on. There’s a great (if I do say so myself) new book out from Left Coast Press that addresses a lot of this topic. It’s called The Objects of Experience by Wood and Latham. (wink wink)

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