Frozen in time?

Charlotte Connelly was one of the curators of the new Information Age gallery at the Science Museum in London and has since begun a collaborative doctoral research project on early 19th-century electricity, jointly supervised by the museum and the University of Cambridge. She assisted with the conference Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition including by chairing a session on the visual arts in transition. 

We often imagine that museum objects end their lives when they enter a collection. At the Objects in Motion conference, there was much discussion over whether museum collections are alive, dead, or just resting. Often museum objects have been through a long journey – from their native setting or perhaps another kind of a life to being stripped of their context, given a label and an identification number and placed reverently in a cool dark store to await an audience. An audience of researchers perhaps, arriving one at a time to eagerly inspect a particular quality of that object, or maybe an audience of millions when the object finds itself on display in a large national museum. Whichever of those is true, the question remains: are those objects alive?

Perhaps the perceived dead-ness of museum objects comes down to the act of conservation. At the point of entering the museum, objects are preserved. They are frozen in time, and conservators work to keep the object as a stable representation of the moment it entered the museum collection. However, throughout the Objects in Motion conference we heard challenges to that reading of museum objects.

13th-century wooden Tibetan book cover depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni on the night of his enlightenment. Credit: Wikimedia / Walters Art Museum.

13th-century wooden Tibetan book cover depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni on the night of his enlightenment. Credit: Wikimedia / Walters Art Museum.

Emma Martin‘s tale of Tibetan book covers showed objects that had been deconstructed, on display as reconstructed artefacts. Wooden book covers had been removed from their books and used as a domestic display before entering the collections of National Museums Liverpool. It was only when they were displayed in an exhibition as the covers to manuscripts, housed within library pigeonholes, that the reason they were produced becomes clear. In one reading, the deconstructed book covers were deadened while they served as adornments for a fireplace in a colonial house, only to be reincarnated on display in a showcase.

In another paper, the challenges of pinning down the precise qualities of digital objects was discussed. Paul Gooding and Stephen Bennett considered video games as continually changing objects. Modern video games are often remastered versions of older games, and even original games are subject to frequent patches and updates thanks to the web. Meanwhile different games platforms have subtle differences. Where is the original ‘living’ game in this picture? What can a museum or archive freeze in time in order to deaden and preserve digital objects that are fluid and changeable?

The evolution of the character Link from "The Legend of Zelda", from 8-bit to Wii gaming platforms.

The evolution of the character Link from “The Legend of Zelda”, from 8-bit to Wii gaming platforms.

The closing discussion of the conference saw plenty of debate about the risks and rewards of allowing communities to interact with ethnographic collections. This is a direct challenge to the idea that the objects are dead and frozen. Whether it’s a mask being worn for a dance or a musical instrument being played, there is life yet in a museum object. An alternative example might be the running of industrial collections. A 1950s computer, Pegasus, was until recently operated in London’s Science Museum. Every time it was run there was the risk that thermionic valves would blow and need to be replaced. This occurred regularly, and yet the object – its inventory number, description, and outward identity – remain. To the museum, the object is the same one that entered the museum many years ago.

So, are museum objects truly frozen in time? There is no single good answer to this question. However, it is clear that very few objects sit on a shelf remaining inanimate once acquired. Even if they undergo little physical change, their audiences alter their meanings. Perhaps a better question is: are our attitudes to this object frozen in time? To keep objects alive we must facilitate more people interacting – physically or intellectually – with them, in order to keep our perceptions of the objects vital.

The Pegasus computer at the Science Museum in London. Credit: Marcin Wichary / Wikimedia.

The Pegasus computer at the Science Museum in London. Credit: Marcin Wichary / Wikimedia.


“Wish You Were Here…” – the artist as ethnographic “object”

Dr. N Jade Gibson is an interdisciplinary academic, visual artist and writer at the Wits City Institute at the University of the Witswatersrand in South Africa. Her short film Wish You Were Here…, in collaboration with Gareth Jones on cinematography, is being shown at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

A material object is seen and categorised as a visual referent within the mind, where, linked with its contextual associations and other referents, it becomes part of visual memory, both individual and collective. This short art film explores how ‘objects’ in the past, as in photographs, books, experiences and film media, shape unconscious perceptions of how we encounter ‘objects’ in the present. In the case of the short art film ‘Wish You Were Here’, the object is myself. I present as an ethnographic art ‘object’, in order to examine the mis-identification and projections of others who create me as being of multiple and different ethnic identities and provenances. Although essentially a playful piece, the work also draws on and relates to more disturbing connotations; the phenotyping and determination of racial ‘types’ in the past and present, the deliberate construction in the composition of the ‘ethnographic’ photograph and film, and the impact of racial and ethnic stereotyping in the present, despite the world being increasingly presented as a more and more genetically and electronically interconnected space.

Being of mixed ethnicity, apparently Scottish/Irish/Spanish and Filipino, yet growing up in the UK with adoptive parents and thus having no cultural knowledge of Filipino culture, and never having been there, I find myself constantly mis-identified by how I appear to others. This is often initially with absolute certainty by those who see me, as being identified as a number of different, and often quite diverse, ethnicities. Over the years, I was curious what images and associations might exist in the people’s heads who mis-identified me, and how these might interplay with images of ‘ethnic stereotypes’ shaped through images in the past, as well as present.

I found myself asking, over the years – what images? from where? – were being projected onto myself? I decided to explore these questions through a creative mode of investigation. Firstly, I wrote and gathered stories of specific experiences I had had of being racially ‘identified’ and selected a set of examples from these. I asked myself what I was wearing at the time, where was I, what were people seeing when they defined me? I then looked for past tourist and ethnographic photographs and imagery that related to these narratives as well as the various ethnic identities that people had assigned to me.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

My original concept was to directly replicate past ethnographic and tourist photographs and film imagery, through dressing myself in similar clothing, in identical poses, with the same lighting, and to ‘age’ the images to make them appear ‘authentic’, then presenting them alongside the original images for comparison. Eventually, I decided to wear my own contemporary clothing and to simulate the body poses and expressions of the tourist and ethnographic images. I also used a film format, in order to more effectively juxtapose textual narratives and visual photographic and film media, as I had done in previous art films (Gibson 2013a; Gibson 2013b).

In the final film, I realised that it was absolutely unnecessary to use the original images and photographs for comparison – so ingrained are past images and associations already in the viewer’s mind, that the viewer finds themselves automatically projecting an objectified identity onto each film image, finding themselves being challenged by the constructedness of their own perceptions. This is the strength, and surprise, of the work, for those who see it.

The underlying visual reference used as a basis for the final film ‘Wish You Were Here’ is a very early ethnographic documentary film of the Inuit – ‘Nanook of the North’ (Robert J Flaherty, 1922) – itself claimed to be partially contrived, as in cut away ‘constructs’ of life in the interior of an igloo, and the replacement of guns with spears to add to the ‘authenticity’. I deliberately parodied the original film by using a black and white silent movie genre, using subtitles and creating an aged grainy ‘flickering’ patina. As I could not film myself, cinematographer and collaborator Gareth Jones filmed me.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones.

The final film consists of different visual ‘installations’ of myself as ‘ethnographic art object’ simulating the different tourist and ethnographic photographs and images I had gathered, juxtaposed with excerpts of narratives and texts related to my being identified as different ethnic ‘types’. The textual inserts – fragments of my own experienced narratives; a quote from Nanook of the North; an excerpt from a children’s 19th century book ‘A Peep at the World’ (n.d.)are presented alongside visual replications of women in martial arts film posters; tourist photographs of East Asian bar girls and geisha; black and white ethnographic photographs of Native Americans, Uzbekistani and Andean women, and a close-up of eyes in a Chinese advertisement for eye surgery to look more ‘Western’.

Using only my own contemporary clothing – a fur hood, a poncho, a necklace and earrings, a dressing gown, a short skirt and makeup – that I wear or have worn, I recreate the poses in the original photographs, in which the body and angle of the camera also play a strong role in suggesting the ethnic stereotype. The props are minimal. A cement back yard with wooden fence and pot plant replaces an expansive windswept wilderness with sparse trees and rocks. A contemporary room interior becomes the background for a geisha, in the simulated pose of lighting a cigar for a seated male tourist – in this case, the same attentive gesture is recreated while stroking a cat. In the latter scene, also, instead of black and white, saturated colour is used to suggest the bright colours of geisha clothing and Japanese painting.

In some images, I am seated on a plinth in an art gallery, in which I become the art ‘object’, as objectified by the viewer, framed in the context of the museological collecting and referencing of an ethnicised past. In another scene, merely leaning against a doorway and looking sideways invokes tourist photographs of Asian bar girls, and draws on the assumed gendered sexual availability projected onto East Asian women. A fur hat is used to reference a mistaken Uzbekistani identity; an athletic stretched pose suggests a martial arts film poster alongside a narrative of being followed by children in Mozambique.

Credit: Jade Gbison / Erin Bosenberg.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Erin Bosenberg.

The text and imagery in the film also form mutilayered connotations and challenge these very stereotypes they invoke. For example, the Japanese Geisha image is deliberately juxtaposed with the story of a market stall holder refusing to serve me because I looked Japanese; and Nanook of the North’s description of inimitable desolate lands and distance is contrasted with myself on a plinth wearing a fur hooded duffel coat and backpack. The gendered passivity often assigned to women perceived as of Asian origin, and the wording of the 1900s children’s book describing Chinese women’s bound feet is also deliberately juxtaposed with myself sitting upright in a jacket and cap that visually suggests and referents a photograph of a uniformed Chinese Communist woman. At the end of the film, I contrast the images of myself as different ‘ethnicities’ around the world with the irony of my more recent experiences of passing through Heathrow airport and clearly not being identified as British. The soundtrack to the film is primarily excerpts of the soundtrack of Nanook of the North’ played backwards as a form of private joke; reversing the soundtrack of time, undoing the impact of the past.

This film was created in South Africa, a country I have been living and working in for over thirteen years. This context also presents interesting readings; it deliberately provokes and challenges the perpetuation of perceptions of ethnic divides derived from racially determined and segregated phenotypes created and enforced under apartheid– ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’, based on how people ‘looked’. Today many of these divides, and their subdivisions, are reified as ‘cultural’ identities in the present.

The artwork challenges the notion of people being ethnically typified – and suggests the historically constructed denial of multi-ethnic diversity within individuals, in a world where travel and intermixed relations have always occurred. At their worst, imposed visual ‘racial’ phenotypes are the tools of ethnic genocides. If visual media has constructed persons as ethnic ‘objects’ in the past, and continue to inform perceptions in the present; how then can one reveal, explode and challenge these constructs, through the very means that created them?

The first showing of this film in Greatmore Studios art gallery in Cape Town, also involved a recreation of a photographic studio alongside the playing of the film. Visitors could ‘dress’ me in items of clothing and pose in a photograph (taken by photographer Erin Bosenberg) in their chosen imagined tourist destination, evoking power relations implicit in the construction of tourist and ethnographic photographs. The film also exists as a work in itself, however, and, interestingly, for this conference, has taken the journey without its original material object, myself. Consequently, the image of myself has become yet another ‘object’ to be reinterpreted in different contexts, constructing its own interpretation of place, space, identity and other people’s ‘elsewheres’.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Erin Bosenberg.

Credit: Jade Gibson / Erin Bosenberg.


Gibson, N Jade 2013. Skeletal (In)-Visibilities in the City – ‘Rootless’: A video sculptural response to the disconnected in Cape Town.’

South African Theatre Journal, Vol. 26, No. 02, 1–21, 2013. Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
Gibson, N Jade 2013. Visual Ethnographies of Displacement and Violence: Land(e)scapes in artists’ works at Thupelo Artists’ Workshop, Wellington, South Africa 2012.’ Special issue: Revisiting the ethnographic turn in contemporary art. ‘Critical Arts: South-north cultural and media studies, 27(5) 2013. UNISA Press/ Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Visual References:

‘Nanook of the North’ – early ethnographic film of the Inuit – Robert J Flaherty, 1922.

‘A Peep at the World and a Picture of Some of its Inhabitants’. 19th century children’s book. London. Thos. Dean and Co [n.d.] Children’s Original Toy Books Series. (Source – Horton collection of children’s material, Aberwystwyth University Horton collection, Hugh Owen Library online information).

Various other images drawn from the internet – tourist photographs, ethnographic photographs, martial arts film posters.

Archaeology, love and art in the film “La Nuvola e Issìone”

Pino Casolaro and Corinna Guerra introduce their short film, La Nuvola e Issìone, which was produced by the University of Foggia and will be shown at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition. Casolaro, who directed the film and co-wrote the script, is an experienced actor and director in Italy. Guerra, who co-authored the script, is a post-doctoral researcher at the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria in Naples and is also affiliated to UCL and Bari.

In Pompeii, the ancient town destroyed by a huge volcanic eruption in 79 AD, the impression of a young woman’s breast appeared in 1772 at the “Villa of Diomede”: one of the lives interrupted by the Mount Vesuvius disaster. In the successive century, it became a famous cast all over Europe, but then this fascinating archaeological find suddenly disappeared.

"View of the Villa of M. Arrius Diomedes" in Pompeii by T.Bradley, 1846. Credit: Ancestry Images.

“View of the Villa of M. Arrius Diomedes” in Pompeii by T.Bradley, 1846. Credit: Ancestry Images.

The breast was not just a material object for archeological investigation; on the contrary, it changed its nature and meaning according to the era or the context in which it was considered. From antiquity to the present day novelists, scientists, archeologists and others have written about it in very different ways.

The Frenchman Théophile Gautier was inspired by it to write a novel entitled Arria Marcella in 1852, an example of the fantastic Pompeian trend in literature. In Gautier’s pages we meet the past in the form of Arria, a woman who lived in ancient Pompeii, and the present in Octavien, a modern man who travelled to Italy. In fact, during his visit to the Pompeii excavations Octavien lives out a love story with the “woman of the breast” in a dreamlike atmosphere.

The short documentary movie La Nuvola e Issìone is a product of the project “L’antiquité face à face. Il Grand Tour, il Mezzogiorno d’Italia e l’esperienza del classico”. The project was directed by Professor Giovanni Cipriani at the Department of Humanities of the University of Foggia (Italy) and financed by Fondazione Caripuglia. As actors worked on Mount Vesuvius and at the Pompeii excavations, it was approved by MIBACT, Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia.

The movie attempts to put together different views of the Pompeii cast by merging a solid documentary approach with the tools of fiction. The outcome is a hybrid film, written by a historian of science and an actor with the supervision of researchers in Latin literature.

The screenplay by Corinna Guerra and Pino Casolaro, the latter of whom is also the filmmaker, consists of an original plot merged with literary quotations – mainly from French productions (to quote some of them: F. R. de Chateaubriand, Viaggio in Italia; Th. Gautier, Arria Marcella; A. Dumas, Corricolo). Particular attention was paid to the soundtrack, which is based on the famous opera “L’ultimo giorno di Pompei” (The last day of Pompeii) by the composer Giovanni  Pacini.

The movie offers a mixture of antiquity and modernity, with all of the complications of shooting in a modern summertime Pompeii full of tourists from all over the world. Thanks to the recent reopening of the “Villa degli Amorini Dorati”, the movie crew could work in one of the most beautiful locations there. The plot is a brave attempt to put together the history of archaeology in the Pompeii ruins, travel literature including mainly Grand Tour writings, Italian opera, cinematic fiction and documentary.

The newly-reopened Casa degli Amorini Dorati in Pompeii. Credit: OpenPompeii.

The newly-reopened Casa degli Amorini Dorati in Pompeii. Credit: OpenPompeii.

As a consequence of the rich interdisciplinarity of the work, we wish to give the audience the opportunity to reflect on many different topics, not least:

  • How a love for art (and/or the past) can enliven lifeless objects as in the myth of Pygmalion;
  • How love for art (and/or the past) can erase our sense of time. (In Pompeii, a 19th-century man from a novel can coexist with a modern cinema crew or with a young woman from Roman antiquity with no real contradictions.);
  • That a dreamlike experience cannot continue forever, so an unnatural love like that of Octavien’s must end (The novel concludes with the homecoming of “Arria” to a ruined Pompeii.);
  • That love for the past can occasions our rebirth. (In the movie, the relationship between the actor and his wife gains new life through the love born between Arria Marcella and the dreamer Octavien.)

While the project “L’antiquité face à face” expected a multimedia product such as a DVD with literary texts read by an actor, we were excited by the idea of a short documentary film shot in Pompeii with an original screenplay, and have found it useful for a wider audience.

Moving artworks, living museums

Dr. Elsje van Kessel is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of St. Andrews. She will be discussing “Temporary exhibitions as object movers in early modern Italy” at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Art exhibitions move objects. The invisible transportation of artworks, sometimes even across continents, is a necessity for almost any exhibition. Exhibitions also move people. From the couriers who accompany tapestries, porcelain bowls, paintings, jewels, drawings or sculptures from their own galleries to their new, temporary homes to the thousands of visitors who come to see the show: the movement of objects caused by temporary art exhibitions would not be possible, nor would it make any sense without moving people.

While art exhibitions are an important part of the contemporary cultural landscape, they also have a long history, and my paper will address the genesis of the art exhibition as it took place in the course of several centuries in Italy. Often coinciding with important saints’ days, early art exhibitions would bring together modern and old works of art, the latter given on loan by a community’s wealthiest families. I will argue that these events were connected to a variety of other practices involving the movement of objects, such as processions and ceremonial entries. What all such operations had in common is that they involved transporting objects – paintings, relics, liturgical silverware, miraculous images – temporarily into another context, in which they were given new meanings.

An eighteenth-century art exhibition in Venice, by Michele Marieschi. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum.

An eighteenth-century art exhibition in Venice, by Michele Marieschi. Credit: Trustees of the British Museum.

My fascination with early art exhibitions and the ways they moved objects and people originates in a broader interest in interactions between works of art and their users in early modern Europe. One question that steers my research is how the new art museums founded in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries influenced these interactions. Studying the debates surrounding the new institution in the Romantic period, I found that various influential thinkers were weary of its impact, seeing it as a place where stagnation would reign in deadly silence. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a fervent participant in such debates, formulates a more nuanced critique when he argues for the importance of movement:

Old armories, galleries and museums to which nothing is added are like mausoleums haunted by ghosts. Such a limited circle of art limits our thinking. We get accustomed to regarding such collections as complete, instead of being reminded through ever new additions that in art, as in life, we have nothing that remains finished and at rest, but rather something infinite in constant motion.[1]

Where there is movement, there is life. Through mobility, works of art keep their relevance or acquire a new one. Temporary exhibitions are one way in which such mobility is and was achieved. Studying historical exhibition practises means enhancing our understanding of an essential part of the lives of artworks.

[1] Quoted from Astrida Orle Tantillo, The Will to Create: Goethe’s Philosophy of Nature (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), 102.

The (extra)ordinary, the personal and the universal in material culture

Dr. Alexi Baker is the convenor of the conference Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition and a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

When going through the difficult process of paring down the paper proposals for Objects in Motion to just three days’ worth, I chose subjects which would be of interest to a wider audience as well as to me  and aimed for diversity of topics, speakers and methodologies. The conference’s theme is of importance across all manner of fields worldwide, both as a focus in and of itself and as a tool for exploration and expression. Conducting a dialogue across this great diversity of arenas will allow academics, curators and artists to consider and possibly to learn from their fellows’ approaches and knowledge sets – in addition to being fascinating.

Despite aiming for diversity of topics and speakers, many resonances also arose among the paper proposals and my final selections. Some were between papers looking at similar topics from different angles: for example John P. McCarthy speaking about historic African American cemeteries and Dana E. Byrd discussing the Civil War plantation piano, or Emma Martin on colonial transformations of Tibetan book covers and Katharina Nordhofen on Byzantine ivories being turned into Ottonian book covers.

13th-century wooden Tibetan book cover depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni on the night of his enlightenment. Credit: Wikimedia / Walters Art Museum.

13th-century wooden Tibetan book cover depicting the Buddha Shakyamuni on the night of his enlightenment. Credit: Wikimedia / Walters Art Museum.

Other resonances reflect trends across material culture studies. Textiles and clothing made a strong showing among both the proposed and selected papers and artwork. This reflects the importance of textiles across cultures in both utilitarian and symbolic senses, as well as how in many cases they tie into the study of the everyday or of women’s work. Over time, textiles and clothing styles can easily adopt changing meanings within the context of cultural heritage and/or politics and nationalism as well. At the conference, Katie Hickerson will be discussing the Mahdist Jibba, Stephanie Bunn felt textiles in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, and Christina Williamson an Inuit parka.

19th-century cotton and wool tunic known as a Jibba, associated with the Mahdi of Sudan. Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum.

19th-century cotton and wool tunic known as a Jibba, associated with the Mahdi of Sudan. Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum.

Another common theme which emerged among proposals and papers was everyday material culture, as in the case of some textiles. In many instances, this theme focused on the transformation from “ordinary” to “extraordinary” through transitions of time, place and/or context. Sometimes the transition occurred through the European ethnographic collection of everyday (as well as ceremonial and tourist trade) objects from outside Europe. This is referenced in a number of the conference talks and in the art of Chris McHugh and the film by Jade Gibson. In other instances, the everyday became the unique through its survival (as with the simple ash impression from Pompeii addressed in the film La Nuvola e Issìone) or was used as fodder for creating objects of unique importance (as with the everyday objects among John McCarthy’s African American grave goods – much like early modern Foundling and love tokens).

Early modern identification tokens left with children at the Foundling Hospital in London, transformed from everyday objects such as coins and thimbles. Credit: Foundling Museum.

Early modern identification tokens left with children at the Foundling Hospital in London, transformed from everyday objects such as coins and thimbles. Credit: Foundling Museum.

Material culture ranges from these most intensely personal of objects to the civic and communal. There are the personal treasures memorialized by Jane Watt’s Cabinet of Curiositiesand the characterful family doodles dramatized by Danny Braverman in Wot? No Fish!!. At the other other end of the spectrum, there are objects and entire environments which have broader communal identities and existences as well as a multitude of personal significances and uses.

This encompasses all aspects of the built environment, including its incorporation of objects from other contexts – as with Gabriella Cirucci‘s Roman reuse of Greek gravestones, or the adoption of historical and non-European objects and architecture into Tim Knox‘s country houses. It also encompasses the diverse material elements which make up entire buildings or cities, and how those assemblages as a whole can transition. Examples include Nazneen Ahmed‘s Church of St Thomas the Apostle and Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Hindu Temple in London, and Barbara Garrie and Rosie Ibbotson‘s discussion of post-earthquake Christchurch in New Zealand.

Festival at Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple in Ealing, London. Credit: Tamil Guardian.

Festival at Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple in Ealing, London. Credit: Tamil Guardian.

Similarly, there can be collisions between the intended meanings of material culture and its actual uses and interpretations, as it transitions between contexts. This is a frequent element of the material culture of historical and modern science, medicine and technology. Technologies and treatments, plus their associated ideas and techniques, may have been invented with one use or type of performance in mind. However, “universality” is almost always derailed by either the challenges of different cultural and environmental contexts (as with Dora Vargha‘s discussion of global polio vaccination) or by individual user applications (as with Claire Sabel’s nineteenth-century “colorimeters”).

1955 newspaper headlines about Jonas Salk's breakthrough with the first successful inactivated polio vaccine. Credit: Wikipedia.

1955 newspaper headlines about Jonas Salk’s breakthrough with the first successful inactivated polio vaccine. Credit: Wikipedia.

As you can see, convening Objects has meant an embarrassment of riches: I received so many interesting proposals from diverse academic and artistic genres, that I only wished I could stage a week-long conference!

Art, drama and “Objects in Motion”

Dr. Alexi Baker is the convenor of the conference Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition and a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

Art is a key arena for the reinterpretation and transformation of material culture – whether as commentary on objects and collections, in response to associated issues and events, or for the conception of something entirely new. Art can employ and react to objects which belong(ed) to other people, as with the Joseph Cornell dioramas about to go on display in London or with the work of our conference artists. Or it can employ the most personal of belongings, as with Tracey Emin‘s best-known installations or our Danny Braverman’s incorporation of family drawings into his one-man play Wot? No Fish!!.

In recognition of art’s frequent contributions to and commentary on material transitions, Objects in Motion will exhibit visual, ceramic and film art and present talks about art and theater. Artist Jane Watt, a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at University Campus Suffolk, brings her Cabinet of Curiosities project to record Cambridge inhabitants’ valued possessions. The objects were transformed into cyanotypes, which will hang in the Alison Richard Building, and into audio and video recollections which can be viewed in a mobile art studio along with further cyanotypes and a short documentary film.

Cabinet 1

Credit: Jane Watt.

Cabinet 2

Credit: Jane Watt

Chris McHugh, Ceramic Artist in Residence at the National Glass Centre at the University of Sunderland, will exhibit his George Brown Series in the Alison Richard Building. These ceramic vessels were a response to the George Brown Collection – more than 3000 ethnographic specimens collected while Brown was a missionary in Oceania between 1860 and 1907 and “one of the most mobile collections in the world” – and to the material culture of both colonizers and colonized.

George Brown 1

Artist/anthropologist Jade Gibson of the Wits City Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, will install her short silent film (in collaboration with cinematographer Gareth Jones) Wish You Were Here in the Alison Richard Building and at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The film draws upon the material culture of early European ethnography but also turns Gibson into an “ethnographic art object” herself, assuming 19th- and early 20th-century imagery in order to explore and explode reactions to her own half-British and half-Filipino ancestry.

Jade Gibson

Credit: Jade Gibson / Gareth Jones

There will also be a showing of the short documentary film La Nuvola e Issìone – produced by the University of Foggia, directed by Pino Casolaro, and written by Casolaro and Corinna Guerra. Shot on location, the film explores the story of a cast of a woman’s breast made from the ash at Pompeii during the eighteenth century, which became famous across Europe and has been interpreted differently by different actors and eras. Casolaro is an actor, director, and professor of Fine Arts at the University of Foggia while Guerra is an Honorary Fellow in History of Science at the Università degli Studi di Bari.


Credit: Pino Casolaro / University of Foggia

In addition to these art and film installations, there will be a number of talks at the conference on art. This includes art both historical (as with Elsje van Kessel on temporary exhibitions in early modern Italy) and modern (as with Braverman’s play, and  Simon Kaner and Liliana Janik discussing modern artists’ reengagement with ancient Japanese pots).

Setting “Objects” in Motion

Dr. Alexi Baker is the convenor of the conference Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition and a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

The conference Objects in Motion has emerged from my dedication to material culture and interdisciplinarity, as well as a lifelong interest in diverse subjects. My career trajectory has spanned the hard sciences and archaeology, writing and communicating about those subjects, and now academic history and museums.

Interdisciplinarity and material culture were inevitable elements of my academic research – coming from a background which encompassed and valued diverse subjects and tools, and intending to go into both public-facing museums and historical research. For the past twelve years, I have largely focused on the trade in and many uses of the pervasive early modern technologies known as optical, mathematical and philosophical instruments.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It was natural with this subject, to delve into the surviving material culture as well as archival manuscripts, and to draw upon the tools and approaches of specializations beyond just history of science. These included the full spectrum of historical and material topics as well as museum and archival practice, but also subjects such as geography and historical geography – which introduced me to the highly useful tool of and theories regarding digital mapping.

The theme of Objects in Motion was initially prompted by my research into the difficulties of using early modern instruments in different locations, begun while participating in a project on the British Board of Longitude. Unpredictable and changeable environments often made it more challenging to use technologies, and movement and changing conditions such as temperature and humidity frequently misaligned or broke them. This was as true in familiar and domestic settings as it was in the unfamiliar, but the effect was often magnified at sea and on expedition.

There were also complications from instruments’ being used within different institutional and philosophical frameworks – such as the sometimes-competing shipboard cultures of navigators and sailors, expeditionary scientists, and naval or mercantile officers. European instruments could be reinterpreted by non-European cultures as well, such as during the British scientific-imperial expeditions to the Pacific in the eighteenth century under the command of Captain James Cook and others.

Credit: Wikimedia and Museo dell'Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

Credit: Wikimedia and Museo dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure.

This research set me to thinking about the broader theme of all types of objects in cultural, temporal and geographical transition. The desire to organize a conference on the subject was further fueled by all of the rich investigations into and events and publications on material culture in recent years following “material turns” across many disciplines – for example, the fascinating Lives of Objects conference which inaugurated the Oxford Centre for Life-writing.

I have been overjoyed by the positive international and interdisciplinary response to an event on material culture in transition – from across academia, museums and cultural heritage, and the visual and performing arts. The subject is both a central part of all human experience and of the diverse fields which study and interpret it, and a lens through which to better understand and to explore issues and dynamics from ancient to modern times.