This study focuses on the ways that people interact around contemporary craft objects. The ambiguous quality of these objects holds people’s attention and inhibits autobiographical narratives. The study focused on the relationship between the perceptual language used by participants and the ways in which they interacted with the objects. The analytical approach taken here begins with close observation and careful description of single cases and working towards valid generalisations rather than imposing an interpretation from the outset by explicitly positing a hypothesis. Six pairs of women were invited to participate in object handling conversations in an art museum setting. The conversations were recorded using digital video cameras. Analysis treated interaction as an embodied process and drew on work, which interprets interaction the outcome of social and cognitive processes. We found that the interplay of language and action shifted fluidly throughout the conversations. Not all actions were verbally expounded on and these could only be interpreted tentatively. Utterances could change the meaning or purpose of an action without any apparent change in the dynamics of the action. When attending a complex quality, such as the material nature of an object, the relationship between language and action was correspondingly complex. Participants used a variety of frameworks to understand the objects and these shaped the qualities of the objects that they attended to. Participants’ words and actions could usefully be interpreted in terms of meaning rather than just social action and with reference to findings from cognitive research on perception and action.


Perception, Language, Action, Embodied Interaction, Contemporary Craft, Qualitative Research, Observational Research, Museum Studies, Visitor Studies

Author Bio(s)

Bruce Davenport is a Research Associate in Media, Culture, Heritage in the School of Arts & Cultures at Newcastle University. His research focuses on the ways that museums and art museums work with different audiences, especially older people and those with dementia. Bruce is interested in the interactions which take place within these engagements as well as their outcomes. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: bruce.davenport@newcastle.ac.uk.

Neill Thompson is a Senior Lecturer and programme leader in the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University. Neill is also a chartered psychologist. Neill's research focuses on applying principles and methods from social and occupational psychology to the workplace, with the aim of informing organisational practice. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: neill.thompson@northumbria.ac.uk.


We would like to thank the staff at the art museum where the research took place (and the senior management of the museums service) for allowing the research to be carried out. We would also like to thank the participants who were willing to give up their time to take part. Ethical Statement: Before this study could begin, permissions were obtained from the senior manager at the relevant museums service, and from staff at Northumbria University. The Faculty of Health and Life Sciences Research Ethics Committee at Northumbria University reviewed the study and granted approval to conduct the study. Funded: The study was self-funded and carried out as part of Davenport’s study on the MSc Psychology programme at Northumbria University.

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