polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Object Retrieval: Knowledge as Narrative

by Andrew Wade

The interactive, democratic and participatory city is fascinating to me. Besides simply being one of several million people animating the streets as I walk through London, I'm constantly searching for avenues of expression to connect my will, my thoughts, into the greater urban narrative. So as I passed the main gates of University College London last week and a Routemaster double-decker bus caught the corner of my eye, I was eager to explore this opportunity.

The bus serves as host and central nervous system to Object Retrieval, a project by artist Joshua Sofaer, curated by Simon Gould in association with UCL Museums & Collections. It runs for 7 days (15-21 October 2009), seeking to attract a rolling roster of researchers from various disciplines to contribute their knowledge of an object from the museum collection. The object in question is a metal toy car manufactured in the United States, accompanied by case study notes from the pathology collection that reveal a case of lead poisoning in the toy's child owner.

The buzzing office space inside the converted bus was astonishing. The contrast between the now out-of-date, iconic Routemaster bus, first introduced by London Transport in 1956, with the high-end technology inside was brilliant. Due to the rotating nature of the research work, bundles of post-it notes lined the walls, one colour for ideas already researched and documented concerning the car, and another holding ideas for future visitors to explore. While this was the physical headquarters of Object Retrieval, the website is designed for anyone in the world to contribute research or to read that compiled by others. This collaborative and multidisciplinary effort to building knowledge and re-claiming an object that is decades old to create a living history showcases the transformative power of 21st century communication networks.

As I sat in the temporary office space reading the already compiled research, it was fascinating to see the narrative branch out from the central reference point of the object into various offshoots in the fields of architecture, philosophy, mathematics, technology, and others. The research of one builds upon the previous research of another, people share brief encounters and discussions in the bus while exploring the object, and from this participatory and dynamic patchwork emerges a relevant and ambitious biography of the toy car.

The possibilities for this kind of knowledge production to liberate the modern researcher from "habituation, the anaesthesia of the everyday" are extensive. If you would like to contribute to the retrieval of this object, please participate here.

Credits: Photos by Andrew Wade.