Guest blog: Displaying understanding of visible and imagined objects

Among the articles in ROLSI 52 (1) was a fascinating account of what people do when looking at (or being asked to think about) museum objects. I’m delighted that the authors, Chie Fukuda and Matt Burdelski, agreed write a piece to illustrate their study in shorter form. 


Chie Fukuda


Matt Burdelski

Multimodal/multisensorial analyses of situated interaction have increasingly focused on the role of objects (along with talk and other semiotic resources) in producing social action. But what actually happens in the interaction between guide and visitor?

Our collaborative effort in examining guided tours as situated activities within museums and culture centers has led us to examine how objects are brought into being and deployed in interaction, and how recipients display their understanding of them.

We set up a study of interactions, in Japanese, in guided tours in a Japanese-American museum and Okinawa culture center. We found that the invoking of objects included not only those that were visible (i.e., on display in the exhibit) and in some cases touchable, but also on occasion those that were invisible or “imagined” (i.e., not on display in the exhibit) and thus often required more discursive and embodied work in order to be referred to and talked about.

What the guide does to invoke an “invisible” object

Invoking of “invisible” objects is typically done by using talk and gesture to build upon the prior and on-going sequential context in which the recipients’ attention had been drawn to visible objects. For instance, as shown in Figures 1 and 2 and the co-occurring talk, a guide uses gesture and talk to invite the visitors (two male visitors: MV1, MV2; one female visitor) to imagine a block of ice being used inside an icebox in order to keep food chilled.

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Co-occurring talk (g1 = guide’s non-verbal action; G1 = guide’s verbal action)

Just prior to her invoking of the icebox and block of ice, the guide had referred to and been talking about a pair of ice-tongs, which are on display in the exhibit (Figure 3).

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Fig 3: Ice-tongs

She told the visitors that iceboxes were commonly used by Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i in the early 20th century prior to (the invention of) refrigerators. In order to give readers of ROLSI a sense of what these ice-tongs looked like to the visitors, we culled the data but could not find a clear image of it for publication. As a result, the first author (Fukuda) contacted the culture center and was granted permission to take a picture of it for publication (Figure 3). It should be noted that this pair of ice tongs sits among a collection of other everyday objects from the early 20th century.

What the visitors do to display understanding

How do the visitors display understanding of the imagined objects (ice block and icebox) that were invoked through talk, gesture, an object on display, and the sequential context?

As shown in Figure 4 and the co-occurring talk, one of the visitors (MV1) makes a gesture towards a different yet visible object in the exhibit. This object is a wooden cabinet with screens that had been talked about by the guide earlier as a place for storing food, which was also used in the early 20th century. As he makes a hand gesture towards this visible object, the visitor (MV1) makes a comparison with the imagined object (ice box, figure 5).

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Having the space to discuss only this one example briefly, we should note that it was not only guides but also visitors who at times invoked “invisible” objects during the guided tour. For details, we invite the reader to take a look at extract 2 in our article appearing in ROLSI, 52(1), 20-40.

What we get from our study

In summary, our collaborative analysis of guided tours, as institutional activities, reveals how objects (both real and imagined) are brought into being through the use of verbal, embodied, and material resources, and how recipients display their understanding of those objects through an array of multimodal resources. The findings have implications for how we approach the study of objects and understanding in situated interaction.