Displaying Social Work through Objects

Mark Doel   Article
Abstract This article examines the possibility of demonstrating social work through a collection of objects. It presents the experience of a web-based project, Social Work in 40 Objects, which aimed to provide an alternative approach to understanding social work—through display rather than definition and description. The project was experimental, with no presumption that it would be possible to express the abstraction of social work through the materiality of objects. An open, online ‘donation’ process successfully elicited 127 objects from people across twenty-five countries and five continents. The process by which the objects were collected is discussed, with the author cast in the role of curator of a Virtual Exhibition of social work. Theories from material culture and museum ethnography are introduced to understand the broader significance of stuff, its relevance to social work and the power of metonymy and metaphor. Examples of donated objects are used to consider their ability to convey the complexities of social work. An object typology is suggested, derived from the modes of meaning ascribed to the objects in the collection. The project uncovered the importance of the stories underpinning the objects via explanatory plaques, and the significance of the relationship between object, person and profession in creating charged objects.   Keywords: Artefacts, charged objects, material culture, professional identity, social work, stuff *Correspondence to Mark Doel, 44 Psalter Lane, Sheffield, S11 8YN, UK. E-mail: doel@waitrose.com