Misunderstanding Familiar Objects in an Imagined Future

A Critical Method for Discovery

  • Kiersten Thamm Museum of 21st Century Design
Keywords: critical methods, design criticism, hindsight, material culture, plastic, biodiversity, animal rights


The location and presentation of an object establish layered narratives about the object, which habit and familiarity protect. This shield obscures an object’s effects on people and places that originate in that object’s materials and manufacturing. Recontextualizing objects and investigating their physical forms within novel frameworks can counteract these narratives.

This project replaces an object’s expected context with an imagined future full of confusion and curiosity. Through a photo essay and a fictitious research journal, it describes a likely environmental scenario in 2200 and imagines a researcher discovering a bag of objects in the wilderness. The bag includes an artificial plant, a toilet brush, a bottle opener, a clothespin, a clothes hanger, and a stuffed animal. But the researcher is only familiar with two of these objects, and so tries to deduce the function of the remaining objects via their materials and by consulting oral histories from their era of origin. Through naïve misunderstanding, the researcher reveals often overlooked cultural norms and histories of extraction, manufacturing, and use.

The whimsy of this method is intentional; the researcher offers readers the shared experiences of feeling overwhelmed and making mistakes while creating an approachable entrance to thinking more critically about the world humans are currently building.