When I picked up this small bone tool in our basement store, I experienced a visceral reaction, the shock of sudden realisation: it linked me to a great-grandfather I never met. The object evoked thoughts and emotions as I remembered listening to countless stories told by my grandfather, Hal Hooker. He was a warm, fun-loving raconteur, a first-class cricketer and a professional radio and TV sports commentator.
I vividly recalled him telling me that his father George was tall, had huge hands, and was boxing champion of the British merchant navy. Once George’s sailing days were over, he settled in Sydney and set up a canvas-goods business. He must have learned sail-making skills while at sea – and he would have used an object like the one I was holding.
Having read Sherry Turkle’s excellent book, Evocative objects, and having written for New Scientist about the Museum’s Boulton & Watt engine as an object-to-think-with, I had been developing the idea of creating an exhibition of evocative objects. I’d been debating whether it should at core be about uncovering family histories, using objects linked to particular people as case studies.
Finding this seam rubber, of the type that George would have used to flatten seams when making sails or other items by joining strips of canvas, was a timely reminder that an object of unknown provenance can be as evocative as one that relates directly to a particular person. George’s large hands, so vividly evoked by my grandfather, would have wielded this tool deftly. Feeling its weight, examining its carved easily-gripped shape and smooth work-worn finish through my museum-issue cotton gloves, was a transporting experience, linking me not just to family history but also to the fascinating histories of tools, ships and seafaring.
Museums have always had an important role to play in linking people to the past, by preserving and displaying objects, telling stories, demonstrating skills, and interpreting how objects relate to ideas. Today, many museums aim to converse with visitors, listen to their stories, learn from their skills, and share the task of interpretation with them. In the spirit of the ‘open museum’, I would love to hear from any reader who can tell me which of the Powerhouse Museum’s objects they find evocative, and why.
Written by Debbie Rudder