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Artifactual literacy: Every object tells a story. Dr Kate Pahl University of Sheffield. KP: And you also talked about an old suitcase?

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artifactual literacy every object tells a story

Artifactual literacy: Every object tells a story

Dr Kate Pahl

University of Sheffield

KP: And you also talked about an old suitcase?

RK: Yes, mum’s, I do believe she has still got it I will ask her, I remember very vividly as a child this brown leather suitcase with all these labels on it, I assume they had labels at that time, they weren’t the kind you could take off, and mum saying dad had used it for several years and this is all the places he had gone to – I think she’s got it somewhere (Interview RK Rotherham, South Yorkshire)

research projects
Research projects
  • Artefacts of Identity and Narratives of Migration (AHRC funded) 2007
  • Every object tells a story (funded by Knowledge Transfer Fund, University of Sheffield) 2008
  • My Family, My Story (funded by MLA Yorkshire) 2008-9
some key questions
Some key questions
  • What is the relationship between artefacts and stories?
  • How do artefacts represent identities, cultures and memories?
  • How can artefacts connect communities through interaction?
  • How can artefacts lead to literacy learning?
…we have the “blanket box” in my basement. The blanket box is our family heirloom. It contains photo albums, baby books, marriage licenses, death certificates, a mayonnaise jar full of hand written recipes, and a ton of stories (Wihelm 2003:87)
  •  Family stories convince us we are special; family stories instil in us a sense of pride; family stories teach us hope and courage for the future; family stories give us guidance, meaning, and direction and are rehearsals for life’ (Wilhelm 2003: 88).
why artefacts
Why artefacts?
  • Objects, or artefacts are present in all lives
  • They may not have value in the outside world, they symbolize and represent relationships that matter
  • Objects are handed down, over generations
  • They are present in homes of families that have migrated from other parts of the world.
connecting up home and school
Connecting up home and school
  • When children come to school, they bring many stories from home
  • These stories conjure up relationships that matter to them, and they also hold in their minds links to objects that they find important.
  • As children come to write, they call up experiences and material and sensory realizations of their neighbourhoods, homes and situated experiences of the world.
These experiences are often diverse, multilingual and multimodal (Dyson and Genishi 2009).
  • When children begin to make marks, they do so by creating shapes on the page and drawing their writing (Kress 1997).
  • Literacy can be understood as materially situated, drawn from domains of practice (Barton and Hamilton 1998)
key ideas
Key ideas
  • Literacy as a social practice (Barton and Hamilton 1998)
  • Literacy as multimodal (Kress 1997)
  • Ruling passions (Barton and Hamilton 1998)
  • New concept: Artifactual Literacy (Rowsell 2009, Pahl and Rowsell in press)
research project
Research project

AHRC ‘Diasporas Migration Identities’ grant

Partners: University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, Creative Partnerships, Clifton Park Museum Rotherham, Rotherham Central Sure Start, Ferham School

Community: Ferham, focus on families of Pakistani origin

Outputs: ‘Ferham families’ exhibition and

Research project to develop family learning resource:Every object tells a story

multi agency participatory project
Multi-agency, participatory project

Women’s art project, based at Rotherham Central Sure Start, a family learning project, recruited women from the community into the project, created art-work focused on identity and community, including self-portraits and mapping community

Visual artist, Zahir Rafiq, created website for schools and families with children, funded by Creative Partnerships

Ethnographic interviews in homes by researchers, Kate Pahl and Andy Pollard who also curated the exhibition

Exhibition created March – April 2007


  • Ethnographic interviews, over 6 months
  • Mapping the community through use of cameras and art work
  • Reflexive voice, continual discussion with families in process of curating exhibition
  • Zahir Rafiq as advisor to the project
  • Continue to discuss effects of project with families and Zahir Rafiq, (2006-9)
family background
Family background
  • Mr K moved to Rotherham in the 1950’s to find work, provided passports for many other families. Originally from Pathan regions of Pakistan, on Afghan border. Wife came over in the 1960’s
  • Pattern of gradual settlement with repeated visits to Pakistan. Mr K’s body was flown to Pakistan when he died.
  • Extended interviews with Mr K’s four children, and his widow, together with creative work on website with Zahir with their children aged between 8 and 15.
key themes
Key themes

Gold (gold spray, jewellery, cloth)

Textiles (sewing machine, cotton, clothes)

Travel (shoes, Pakistan, migrations)

Family values (Koran, glass mosque)

Toys (children’s including Action man)

Growing up in Rotherham (photo boards and home background with family trees)

Weddings (case with wedding dress, textile case)

research questions
Research questions
  • What artefacts were important to families of Pakistani origin living in Rotherham?
  • How did these artefacts instantiate identity narratives?
RK … they always had China on them and they had embroidered clothes and they had one of those lace cloths, like in Victorian times.

Researcher: A doily?

RK: Yes, we had china on that traditionally, to put them on. I don’t recall mum having a doily when she came to England (laughs).

RK: When you get married you also have duvets and they are generally made of silk or velvet, and they are hand sewn, they were at that time hand sewn, now they are not, the cotton inside is all from the local fields,
Mum sewed herself. She used to make dresses for me and everything, she’d crochet, embroider and sew, learnt everything at school…. she had a sewing machine. It is a Singer one and it was bought when my brother ….when he was born dad bought mum the sewing machine as a present. We still have it somewhere. (Inteview, Ruksana)
The story goes that he put the money in his shoes, he had little shoes built where he could hide the gold because people would steal from you when you slept on the boat, or the train, you know, it was great difficulty, and carrying cash on you, I mean it’s difficult now but in them days, he brought whatever he had back, he came all the way back to Pakistan, India, and looked after his family there. (interview JK)
Although the artefact on display remains materially the same, different stories, or different versions of the same story, can be related to it according to the specific identity its owner wishes to invoke in an interaction. (Hurdley 2006: 721)
I always have gold spray in the house and I decided to spray the elephants because they were just cream and they didn’t match my candlesticks and I decided to spray them gold, (laughs)
As regards gold, culturally a girl is always given gold when she gets married as well as looking nice, because you wear the gold with your outfit, your wedding outfit, it is for a rainy day as well in case anything happens and you go, oh we’ll sell the gold, not only are you given gold, you are given other things in the dowry, and that is like your part of your inheritance from your parents so you kind of take your inheritance with you when you get married. (Interview, Ruksana)
Effect of heterochrony, where a long timescale process produces an effect in a much shorter timescale activity
  • Timescales can be short (the time it takes to spray an elephant gold and place it on display) or far stretching over generations (gold as dowry)
  • Timescales can be long-term (dowries, textiles, growing cotton) and then become shaped in short term (need for duvets)
Zahir: To me it was a heritage project – about identity – it was normalising and bridging perceived gaps about what these people want and how they go about their lives. I think things like the children showing their favourite football team and wrestlers, the images in their bedrooms, and the stories of the uncles who worked in the Hong Kong police force and working for the navy, and the armed forces, in Pakistan this was about the commonwealth. The family were keen to explore their New York connections – J was always talking about it. In terms of tracing ancestry, for Asian families how difficult would that be. Ferham families to me is the beginning of the ‘who do you think you are’ like the television programme (laughs). (interview March 2009)
key themes1
Key themes
  • Migrant literacies
  • Narratives and artefacts
  • Stories told and re-told
  • Identity and artefact stories
  • Focus on creating inclusive spaces
  • Exhibition as site for identity transformation
every object tells a story
Every Object Tells a Story
  • Set of learning resources created using stories from the ‘Ferham Families’ project.
  • Website:
  • Two teachers from Sheffield Family Learning and Burngreave Community Learning Campaign created the pack with Abi Hackett and Zahir Rafiq.
Parven explained, “The group shared their traditional culture with us and explained the purpose of the use for every object, for example the belt with a knife holder which is worn on the waist. This is worn when dancing at a cultural event. One of the ladies brought in a dress and she said that she could bring a picture of her daughter wearing the dress. This shows everyone’s enthusiasm for sharing their views on objects they value from their homes.”
every object tells a story1
Every Object tells a Story
  • Discussion topics to develop conversation amongst the group:
  • Which three objects would you save from your home if there were a fire? Why? Are these objects different from what other members of your family would choose?
  • Where do you keep the objects you value the most? At home? In a certain room? On display or locked away?
..each student was then invited to tell the story behind their own objects and through this we were able to gather various vignettes capturing an insight of each person’s identity…. We discovered that Shireen (Malaysian) is a keen photographer; she grew to be interested in photography through sharing her husband’s passion in the subject. Shanaz (Pakistani) explained that the engraving on the ring contained the initials of her nieces and nephews and that she longed for a child of her own and when she was to be blessed with one then its initials would also be engraved.
Andrea (Polish) brought in a photo of her mother-in-law carrying Andrea’s daughter it was the closest thing she had to her own mother who died before her granddaughter was born. Myra (Egyptian) brought in some praying beads that had been a gift from her old medical school teacher who had also been a mentor to her. Sara (Pakistani) brought in a photo of her wedding day as it represented a time when she was back in her homeland and also represented the start of a journey to a new country. Almas (Malaysian) brought in a purse which was given to her by her best friend back in Malaysia just before Almas left for the UK. (Van der Vord 2008)
a museum for my community
A museum for my community
  • Consider the different meanings that objects can have,
  • Discuss as a family which objects in their home mean the most, and compare this with the responses from other families
  • Identify and celebrate the special things in their home, and explore how these objects relate to family memories and stories
  • Think about the special meaning objects have over time, and find out about how museums take care of and display some of these objects
  • Consider the secret stories which objects can hold, and the different meaning they have for different people
my family my story
My Family My Story
  • Jenny Wells, Education officer, TheWorld of James Herriot museum
  • Thirsk Community Primary School
  • Kate Pahl, researcher on the project, Department of Educational Studies, University of Sheffield
digital storytelling
Digital storytelling
  • Often used in context of after-school projects
  • Layering of sound, image and moving image media to create multimodal text
  • Identities are expressed through modal choice
  • Some modes have stronger affordances than others.
aims of project
Aims of project
  • Targeted families who might want to spend time with their children and make films outside school.
  • Five families recruited, two girls, three boys
  • One family brought four children, two very young, to the sessions.
  • Aim was to create Digital Stories, called ‘My Family My Story’
process of doing the project
Process of doing the project
  • Created mini story-boxes, called ‘all about me’
  • Then created story-boxes from shoeboxes, which were decorated
  • Each family did a timeline of their family history
  • Each family took photographs using disposable cameras of their special objects at home
  • Digital stories recorded using digital audio equipment and moving image media
  • Families met once a week, after school also in museum for 3 months
Children and parents did most of the filming
  • Kate and Jenny were not experts in the process
  • Audio digital recordings, video camera recordings, using the ‘FLIP’ camera
  • Multiple, layered perspectives
  • We also brought in our own stories and objects
my name s lucy and my favourite object is my children because they are always there for me
‘My name’s Lucy and my favourite object is my children because they are always there for me’

Lucy had four children, two very young.

  • Her story was instantiated in:
    • A mini box she drew on the first day
    • A full size shoe box she decorated
    • Photographs taken at home with a disposable camera
    • Films made by her children, using a digital camera, interviewing her
    • Digital audio tapes of her talking
expansion of stories over time
Expansion of stories over time

Lucy: Right: [I took my] children

I like to listen to music

I love biscuits (laughs)

That’s me two bears

Jennifer: She has got a massive one

I like to have dolls

Jennifer: She has got loads in the house

That’s me on the phone I like to talk to my friends (image of phone)

I do a lot of hovering and washing – exhausting (image of sad face)

(Fieldnotes 24th November 2008).

8 th december box making
8th December box making

J: (filming): Can I do about your box mum?

L: I have got my children’s names in because I got a picture of them

I have got a spider because I don’t like spiders

J: Scary!

L: Its blue because I like blue

I have got a candle there, I made one

Music because I like music

I don’t know what else to do

Lucy: I took pictures of my two birds

of my candles

I have got a quartz stone

I took a picture of the [bar]

Jenni took a picture of the candle

(from digital audio tape 8th December)

what was the learning
What was the learning?
  • Evidence of increased family interaction, between parents and children and between siblings
  • Evidence of increases in the length of stories, in the shaping and crafting and telling of the stories.
  • Evidence of speaking and listening skills increasing over time, as well as confidence and enjoyment of project.
I thought it was good that we were talking about the objects – what we held precious were such random things like an old tin of my nan’s and it was the memories. Also, it’s nice for them [the children] to know that such precious things, everyday objects, it’s the meanings and the feelings that are with the objects, not necessarily expensive things from consumer culture, or material culture. (Comment, parent, My Family, My Story)
artifactual literacies can
Artifactual literacies can:
  • Display experiences the class have all experienced together
  • Develop interests and passions,
  • Harness popular cultural enthusiasms
  • Open up figured worlds of practice
  • Develop powerful opportunities for talk and model making
  • Create opportunities for writing
artefacts interrogation
Artefacts interrogation:
  • Value – does value matter in the case of this artifact, if not, why not
  • Timescale – what is the timescale of the artifact, is it intergenerational
  • Space – what spaces has the artifact in habited and how has it travelled
  • Production – is the artifact found or newly made, how was it made
  • Mode – what modality is most salient and why
  • Relation to institutions of power – who controls the artifact and its attendance communities
talking about objects
Talking about objects
  • Opened up everyday realities
  • Created listening opportunities
  • Gave a sensory quality to the films
  • Accesses voice
  • Accesses experience of place and space
  • Expresses identities
for more information
For more information

New publication:

  • Pahl, K. and Rowsell, J. (forthcoming) Every object tells a story. New York: Teachers College Press
  • learning resource pack available as pdf plus images from object stories.