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.
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.
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.
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