Hidden history embedded in objects that surround us

Lisa Godson column: New book tells the story of everyday objects

The image from the cover of The Secret Life of Objects

A new book, The Secret Lives of Objects, by researchers on the MA in design history and material culture at the National College of Art and Design, tells the stories of a series of everyday objects chosen from the collection of the Little Museum of Dublin (full disclosure: I edited the collection).

The idea of tracing the life of an object is an old one. A favoured task for Victorian schoolchildren was to write an essay on a day in the life of a penny; novels have been structured around the biography of a specific object as it passes from hand to hand over decades, as in Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes, and countless museum exhibitions and online projects voice the stories of artefacts.

Often, whatever else it is, the object just functions as a window, helping us look through it at an idea, a person or as a witness to history. What is often missing is a sense of the object itself – who designed and made it, how it was consumed or distributed, what values it held at the time of its making, or simply why it looks the way it does.

To write a full account of an object, the first task is to observe its physical co-ordinates – its shape, dimensions, markings and hints of how it has been used.


Customised tape measure

A Dean tape measure once owned by Dr James Hanlon wears its function along its length. A typical coated canvas, designed to be used by a tailor, in 1953 it had black cotton thread stitched on to it to mark every quarter inch, with seed beads attached to mark every nine inches. As Lynda Dunne discusses in her essay, this adaptation was made by Hanlon's secretary, Josephine Kearney, in 1953, as Hanlon was blind and deaf and relied on touch. The simple customised tape enabled him to be in the world – to measure his children, to make objects, to diagnose and to heal.

Donna Gilligan’s study also focuses on an individual – the object is a chocolate box from 1936 issued by “Alfie” Byrne, the then lord mayor of Dublin and featuring his image and the Mansion House on the lid. Byrne was commonly associated with sugary food – he was known for giving sweets out to children, held ice cream parties in the Mansion House and was part of a committee that introduced free buns into Dublin schools. As Gilligan discusses, these acts of gift giving literally sweetened the deal.

The objects open up the past in specific, unique ways – a menu from Restaurant Jammet, as analysed by Rory Hutton, demonstrates the nature of fine dining in Dublin in the 1930s, a streamlined hood hairdryer discussed by Fiona Dunne prompts a discourse on the nature of female employment and the influence of Hollywood on female grooming; and a telephone sign from the 1930s led Paula Vallely to consider the relationship between infrastructure and the Irish language. Elaine McDevitt's analysis of a poster advertising the Disney film Darby O'Gill and the Little People provides insights into the uneasy accommodation between Irish folklore and the impetus to attract American investment in Ireland, and stands for the hyper-commercialisation of identity.

New stories

These researchers’ work offers insights into both the past and the objects that have survived. As well as new analyses and insights, they provide new stories – Therese McKeone’s research into a bottle, for example, describes a circle encompassing a gambling racket, glass-making. milk and the eradication of TB.

Unlike more conventional collections, many of the objects in the Little Museum have no specific provenance other than eBay or anonymous donation, and detective work is the only way to uncover their origins. For example, Alison MacCormaic's research into a kitschy plastic thatched cottage ornament led her into souvenir shops and conversations with importers of "fancy goods" who traced its origins to Hong Kong in the 1970s.

In researching the working methods in the factories that produced such souvenirs in great quantity, she realised this ornament was "designed" from a specific visual source, and found the original cottage on a John Hinde postcard. Oral history was also significant for Eimer Murphy in researching a protest postcard made by conservation movement Students Against the Destruction of Dublin.

Lengthy conversations and rounds of emails led not only to the identification of the card’s designer and maker but also to a strong sense of how we construct our relationship to the past, and how our understanding of objects is always emergent. While the designers of most commonplace objects are largely unknown, through research we can begin to understand something about the beliefs and values that are held in material form in everyday life.

The Secret Lives of Objects project was funded by Year of Irish Design 2015 and is a collaboration between NCAD and the Little Museum of Dublin.

For further information on the Secret Lives of Objects, please email godsonl@staff.ncad.ie