Artifactual literacy: Every object tells a
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
• 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)
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
• …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?
• 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
• They are present in homes of families that
have migrated from other parts of the
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
• Literacy as a social practice (Barton and
Hamilton 1998)
• Literacy as multimodal (Kress 1997)
• Ruling passions (Barton and Hamilton
• New concept: Artifactual Literacy (Rowsell
2009, Pahl and Rowsell in press)
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
• 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
• Website:
• 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
• 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.
drawing out of
themes; taking
themes to
with families
2 stages
of identities
Creation of
boxes and
display panels,
Families reflect
on what they see
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
Research questions
• What artefacts were important to families of
Pakistani origin living in Rotherham?
• How did these artefacts instantiate identity
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
• 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
• 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 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
Every Object Tells a Story
• Set of learning resources created using
stories from the ‘Ferham Families’ project.
• Website:http://www.everyobjecttellsastory.
• 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 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
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
• Jenny Wells, Education officer, The
World of James Herriot museum
• Thirsk Community Primary School
• Kate Pahl, researcher on the project,
Department of Educational Studies,
University of Sheffield
Digital storytelling
• Often used in context of after-school
• Layering of sound, image and moving
image media to create multimodal text
• Identities are expressed through modal
• Some modes have stronger affordances
than others.
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
• 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
• 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
• Kate and Jenny were not experts in the
• Audio digital recordings, video camera
recordings, using the ‘FLIP’ camera
• Multiple, layered perspectives
• We also brought in our own stories and
‘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
– Films made by her children, using a digital
camera, interviewing her
– Digital audio tapes of her talking
Mini story boxes made on 24th
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
I do a lot of hovering and washing – exhausting (image of
sad face)
(Fieldnotes 24th November 2008).
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’s box
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)
Digital storytelling as a circle
Habitus, eg
keeping pets,
passed down
e.g keeping
pets on
A story, eg
the kitten in
the bin, dog
going to the
of story in
classroom transformation
Adding of
music, colour,
Story placed
with object
into digital
story format
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:
• 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:
• 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
Opened up everyday realities
Created listening opportunities
Gave a sensory quality to the films
Accesses voice
Accesses experience of place and space
Expresses identities
Artefacts in everyday life
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.

Research methodologies – using family stories to create family