• Students from the Schoool of Philosophy and Art History handling ESCALA objects.

    Students from the Schoool of Philosophy and Art History handling ESCALA objects.

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Object- Based Learning

Posted: 13 December 2016 by Sebastian Bustamante-Brauning

Since opening the ESCALA Teaching and Research Space in November 2015 we have been able to formalise our approach to using the Collection for learning. Our ambition is that artworks are a fully integrated part of teaching across the University. We are seeking staff and students who want to challenge conventional ways of learning and lead through innovation. ESCALA contributes to the University’s vision of excellence in research and excellence in education through research-led teaching and teaching-led research using the Collection. Our Space and artworks contribute to knowledge exchange and help our students to make connections to improve their understanding of the world and inspire curiosity. In this blog post Sebastian Bustamante-Brauning outlines ESCALA’s learning provision and explains some of the features of ESCALA’s approach to Object-based Learning (OBL).

I am very pleased to be working for ESCALA in my role as Assistant Director. One key area I will be working on is the development of our Object-based Learning (OBL) provision here at the Colchester Campus. Opening our Teaching and Research Space in November 2015 was transformative for ESCALA. Students and staff now have the chance to see and interact with artworks in the Collection in a way that was physically impossible before. Our mission for providing unparalleled access to art from Latin America is being realised following the opening of our Space.

OBL is an active form of learning in which the object takes centre stage. For those unfamiliar with OBL here are some of the key features of this approach: (1) Through direct exposure to artworks, learners draw on their existing experience and make connections and develop new knowledge (2). OBL has underpinned ESCALA’s education strategy since 2012 and is a key area of research for ESCALA. Our former Frontrunner and intern Gisselle Girón developed our early sessions using the work of the Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña. Gisselle toured these artworks around classrooms and gave students the chance to bring their own ideas to improve their understanding of Vicuña’s life and work. Gisselle, alongside Jasmine Magaña (another of our interns) were also able to expand our work in this area by successfully collaborating with colleagues in the Language and Linguistics department and Learning and Development here at the University of Essex.

Using objects for learning can improve understanding of a range of subjects in many different disciplines (3). Furthermore, OBL can help to develop communication skills, teamwork, research skills and observational skills (4). The senses can be an important trigger in learning environments which can help in knowledge production and retaining information (5). The University of Essex is a proudly international university and ESCALA, as its largest Collection with an international focus and network, is part of this international profile. OBL is a key strategy for understanding a diverse set of cultural values and beliefs. Research into OBL in Higher Education Institutions has focused on internationalism and the strengths of using objects to engender a truly global understanding of the world we live in, especially when considering perspectives outside of European canons of thought (6). ESCALA’s original aims were to bring underrepresented art from Latin America to students in the UK and hence our collecting forms a challenge to dominant modes understanding Latin America being driven by and emanating from Europe only. The scope of our Collection allows students and staff ponder many and varied histories and themes emanating from our artworks. Our students, many of whom are international students, each bring unique experiences and perspectives to our Collection and each add valuable insights to how we understand and use the Collection in a truly interdisciplinary sense. Students continue to make profound connections as our strapline ‘Connecting through Collecting’ underlies. Through our OBL sessions students are placed at the centre of their own learning.

There are a number of ways that students and staff can get involved in OBL learning sessions. We encourage staff to get in contact if they are interested in trying out OBL in their classes. ESCALA can provide research and planning on how to incorporate artworks in teaching. Over the years we have accumulated a wide range of resources on our artworks, many of which are contained in the ESCALA Documentation Centre and additionally in the Albert Sloman Library. We have staff who can help deliver OBL sessions in our Space. Due to space restrictions we can accommodate sessions with a maximum of 12 students. Otherwise larger sessions can be organised in other seminar rooms in the Constable Building. We often say that, even if don’t you think your subject matter might immediately relate to art, it is likely that we have an artwork which can serve to illustrate a theme or subject or serve to prompt discussion and ideas. Please do get in touch either by emailing escala[at]essex.ac.uk or sbusta[at]essex.ac.uk if you would like to discuss OBL further.


1. ESCALA has largely drawn on the expertise of UCL Museums that have pioneered practice and research into OBL and we are grateful to the guidance and inspiration they have given us over the years.
2. Chatterjee, Hannan and Thomson have drawn on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle in their discussions of OBL. See Chatterjee, Hannan and Thomson “Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education” in Chatterjee and Hannan (ed.) Engaging the Senses Object –Based Learning in Higher Education (2015)
3. UCL’s work has shown the range of ways in which objects have been used in their context. See Chatterjee and Hannan (ed.) Engaging the Senses Object –Based Learning in Higher Education (2015)
4. For a discussion of development of skills and museum visits in particular ‘critical thinking skills’ and ‘social responsibility’ see Stan Altman “Student Development through Arts and Cultural Partnerships,” 191-207, in ibid.
5. Judy Willcocks “The Power of Concrete Experience: Museum Collections, Touch and Meaning Making in Art and Design Pedagogy” in ibid, 54
6. On the internationalisation of University curricula and moves away from Anglo-centric perspectives see Pam Meecham “Talking about Things” in Chatterjee and Hannan (ed.) Engaging the Senses Object –Based Learning in Higher Education (2015), 80.


Chatterjee, Helen J. and Hannan, Leonie (ed.) Engaging the Senses Object –Based Learning in Higher Education (2015) Ashgate (Surrey).

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