Universiteit Leiden

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‘The connection with society is always closer than you think’

On the Things That Talk platform, students publish stories about objects from museums from the many collections of the university library and the city. An interview with Fresco Sam-Sin, its creator. Sam-Sin: ‘Things That Talk is a way to talk to each other about the structure of our education and about how we want to work together with the world outside of the university.’

How did you come up with the idea for the platform?

‘For my own research field, the study on the Manchu Qing Empire (1636-1912), I created an online platform for digital maps. It provides information about regions like Russia, Siberia and China. You can compare different periods of the atlas. Together with students and lecturers, we added stories to it. We added a diary of a soldier to the map, for example, in order to better understand where he was, at what time, and what he experienced there. The maps are very detailed, the largest one would be about six by nine meters when printed. One of the maps hangs in the Museum Volkenkunde with an online module next to it.

Students are very excited about this way of working. On the one hand, they like bringing an object into contact with the text. On the other hand, they like being able to publish their findings for a wider audience. When I contacted Sanne Arens, who is responsible for the implementation of the educational vision within the faculty, she decided to work together to further develop and expand this interconnectedness of education and research and publishing on this topic to more courses and study programmes.’

How do you make this kind of programme interesting for other courses and study programmes?

‘Quality comes first, but if you ask students to publish their work, you must have a nice and modern website. This way they can proudly present it in their own network. The infrastructure has to be smooth and publishing must run smoothly. That’s why we called in external agencies, Fabrique and Q42, to translate what started out as a map platform into a new and widely applicable platform. Organically, we came up with the concept of creating a platform where people could share their research and their stories about objects.

When we went from specific maps to objects in general, more ideas started coming in. Students wanted to combine historical objects with modern variations of those objects. Lecturers wanted to visit museums with students to examine their collections, while some students were very interested in objects in people’s homes.

With these and other ideas, we started talking to even more students, lecturers and chairs of the programme boards within the faculty. New ideas and connections between history and the present, and between objects and text are constantly being added. Students and lecturers who are active on our platform know that all of their ideas are taken into account and considered. That is how Things That Talk encourages the discussion about the structure of our education and about how lecturers, researchers and students want to work together with the world outside of the university.’

What role do students play?

‘This summer we appointed student ambassadors to promote and boost the project. They are the point of contact for the lecturers and students who are active on Things That Talk. The ambassadors ensure that new ideas for the platform are collected and ensure that unexpected technical obstacles are cleared.

The student ambassadors also help to establish and maintain contact with heritage institutions and other involved parties. They put out their feelers to collect stories about people with interesting objects. From the National Museum of Antiquities to the National Museum of World Cultures, the ambassadors know which exhibitions are planned for the next five years. This way, the students can get ahead of what's to come and help the museums with telling stories about planned exhibition pieces.’

What will the students be doing next semester?

‘This academic year, students will work with a lot of objects within a very diverse curriculum. They will tell their stories. Not only lecturers will evaluate the stories, but also fellow students inside and outside of Leiden. Technology makes it possible to ask students outside of your own field for feedback, and we are currently thinking about how we can do that in such a way that students learn to give constructive feedback, which the receiver can use to improve himself/herself. At the end of the semester, the students will draw up a paper about their vision on how a project like Things That Talk fits into our education system and how we, as a faculty, can learn from it.’

The students’ stories are also intended for society. How do you want to include this?

‘What I want is for students to learn from the city and for the citizens to come into contact with what the university does. Some students want to tell stories about Chinese restaurants in Leiden, for example. What can we see there? How did objects end up there? Why do the owners have those specific objects? The figurines, the window decorations and the tableware – they all tell stories. And among the objects that are made to disappear, such as food, students want to see how they are adapted to the taste of Dutch guests. The things we see in restaurants have a direct link with museum collections; the figurines and the tableware with the collection in the Museum Volkenkunde, the napkins with the collection of the Textile Research Centre.

We are constantly looking for partners with whom we can collaborate. The more partners outside of the university warm to our plans, the more interconnected our university becomes with what lives and moves outside of the university.’

The platform is currently only available in English, why is that?

‘Leiden University is located in Leiden and The Hague. It is therefore quite natural that in the next phase we will have to move towards Dutch. But there are a lot more languages that are spoken within our society; Surinamese, Hindi, Berber, Syrian. And here, too, I see many opportunities to use the skills of our student population: because the languages we learn are also used in the cities. How wonderful would it be if we could ask people about their objects in their native language?’

You have obtained a scholarship from the Leiden incentive programme Museums, Collections & Society. What are you going to use it for?

‘The Museums, Collections and Society programme is about the dynamics and implications of collecting. Pieter ter Keurs, the coordinator of this program, describes Leiden as a kind of Smithsonian; a large museum group. His ambition is to bring together pieces from different collections. Not under one roof, but by connecting pieces from different museums. When the collections were purchased or brought back from faraway places, decades or even longer ago, they were scattered across various museums. As a result, a lot of information was lost at the time.

I will investigate how items from collections are spread across the various museums in Leiden and The Hague; and how that relates to collections worldwide and why. I also want to tell and visualize this in such a way that a broader public can enjoy it and that perspectives are chosen that will cause the online visitor, who normally has nothing to do with this subject, to have access to this subject.’

Do you have any tips for colleagues?

‘Try to truly include students in your research during lectures and make them co-owners. Even research that is further away from society can be made interesting for a broad audience. In a lot of applications, there is a paragraph about ‘knowledge valorisation’. We need to fill that with more vision and not make it an obligatory part that we only look at when we are granted the scholarship.

If you set up structures within your research project that reach an audience outside of the university, it is not only satisfying but also guarantees that you will get to know people outside of the academic world who have knowledge and experience in the field of your research. That is exciting. If our researchers start doing that, this will become normal for our students.

Join forces with people within your network to see where your research comes together. This way you can build robust platforms that don’t need to be covered by just your application. It will surprise you, but Things That Talk can play a role in this because the technology can be used for more than just objects.’

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