On object dialogue boxes: Silence, empathy and unknowing

Alexandra Woodall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
21 Downloads (Pure)


Museums and the objects they hold are full of noise, yet at the same time, they are silent. This paper explores the oxymoronic ‘deafening silence’ of the museum object by investigating ‘Object Dialogue Boxes’ and visitors’ responses to these. Made by artists Karl Foster and Kimberley Foster, these boxes contain surreal things made as interpretive or pedagogical art objects. Use of these objects, as a form of ‘material interpretation’ enables visitors to respond to collections in imaginative, empathetic and playful ways. Yet the objects inside the boxes are unfamiliar and strange. Provoking an initial silence, they often destabilise visitors, whose expectations of museum visiting might be to know and find out, but who now find themselves in a situation of deliberate not knowing. This paper explores ‘unknowing’ as an interpretive strategy, arguing that it allows for rich empathetic responses to objects from visitors. Paradoxically, this engagement is often as much about silence as it is about dialogue. The paper experiments with the twin metaphors of cataphasis and apophasis (derived from mystical theology), to explore some of these paradoxes, and concludes by suggesting they are helpful in developing imaginative strategies for museum and gallery interpretation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)96-111
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Heritage Studies
Issue number1
Early online date31 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2019


  • Object Dialogue Box
  • mystical theology
  • material interpretation
  • silence
  • unknowing

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