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Objects and their stories: how conversations about belongings help us to better understand ourselves and others

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For the past year, CoramBAAF has collaborated with Coram-I on developing Professor Mark Doel’s work with his virtual exhibition Social Work in 40 Objects with the aim of exploring the following questions:

  • Can the story of social work be told through Objects?
  • Might a collection of objects be more illuminating than a formal text book or a dry definition?

He invited social workers from across the world to contribute (a picture of) an object which somehow represents the meaning of social work to them, together with a bit of information about themselves and the reason why they chose this particular object. The result is an inspiring, heart-warming and often moving collection of objects and their stories.

I was very fortunate to be asked to collaborate with Mark Doel and Daniel Kearns, Social Worker and Development Lead for the Coram Innovation Incubator at Coram-I, to develop Mark’s Objects work and the Resource pack he developed for Coram into a training programme on direct work with children and young people. We decided to invite foster carers and social workers in Adoption, Fostering and Kinship care services to join us for a 6-session pilot training course, which was delivered over 15 weeks in early 2022.

Each session in the course had a different theme, inspired by different categories of Objects. For example, the second session was focussed on “Every Day or Mute Objects”, which are the objects that hide in plain sight, with their importance and stories only visible to those in the know. When Daniel Kearns and I shared our own everyday objects, we didn’t only model how to have an ‘Objects’ conversation, but also shared something of ourselves with the group. Appropriate self-disclosure is an important part of Objects work and we found that telling the story of an object is a very effective and surprisingly natural way to do this. As one pilot course participant said:

“I (…) learned about the importance of these conversations being a shared experience, with an equity in terms of vulnerability. In the same vein, it was good to hear other people’s questioning style and approach to these conversations”

We realised within the first few sessions that there was something special about the Objects conversations we were having. The most frequent comment after participants shared the story of their Object in small breakout groups was ‘I was surprised at how much we have in common’. Somehow, talking about our belongings made it easier to share things about ourselves and our experiences, and to connect the others’ stories with our own lives. The way these conversations unfolded showed that using objects lowers the threshold for sharing personal information and strengthens relationships and connections, as well as being an enjoyable experience.

Our course participants were foster carers and social workers in adoption, fostering and kinship care teams. We reflected on this element of self-disclosure when having reciprocal Objects discussions and compared this with one sided nature of much of our work with children and young people, who are often expected to share so much about themselves with professionals they know very little about.

Over the course of the six sessions, participants also reflected on how their experiences of sharing the stories of their objects, and hearing others’ stories changed their understanding of the importance of children’s and young people’s belongings. One shared that their perception of what was valuable and what needed to be preserved had changed. Objects may look disposable or too “young” to us, but until we have an open discussion about what they mean to the person who owns them, we cannot start to fathom their deeper meaning.

We would of course love you to join us on a future Objects course, but we encourage you to start having Objects conversations right away. Perhaps you could encourage your colleagues to bring an object that has a meaning to them to your next team meeting, or to bring an object into supervision which in some way symbolises an element of the case you are discussing. If you are working with children and young people, you might be brave enough to bring one of your own objects to your next session and see where the conversation goes. At the very least, we encourage you to look around your home, notice your Objects and remind yourself of their stories.


Hedwig Verhagen, Training and Consultancy Manager, CoramBAAF