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.