Eva Hesse AccessionX-ray of Entombment TriptychSt Martin Cathedral (St Martin Collegiale)

Eva Hesse, Accession, 1967 (Left);; Master of Flemalle, X-ray of Entombment Triptych (Centre); St Martin Cathedral, Ypres, Belgium, Exterior view, detail of World War I bomb damage (Left) Photos: © The Courtauld Institute of Art


Project coordinated by Dr Francesco Lucchini



Issues and Themes


In recent years, the evidence of technical and material analysis has become increasingly important to art-historical interpretation. Beyond their traditional role in informing the restoration of artefacts, technical investigations have greatly contributed to our understanding of how works of art were made. Yet, less critical attention has been paid to the ‘use-life’ of artefacts - that is, to the manipulation, exchange and consumption of artefacts throughout their life histories. Drawing together researchers from different areas of expertise including curators and conservators, this research project aims to explore the material lives of artefacts in a variety of media, encouraging object-based, methodological and theoretical discussions relating to the shifting relationship between artefacts, people and environments throughout the life history of particular objects or classes of objects. Emphasis is placed on works of art as material objects considering the ways in which they are manipulated, re-made and unmade by different individuals, at different times, manifesting different social and cultural practices. Among issues that can be raised are the following:


  • Temporality, authenticity and change
  • Fragmentation and reconstruction
  • Aggregation of artefacts and the status of the object
  • Ritual damage/reparation and pre-modern restorations
  • Material history and conservation of new media
  • Durability, ephemerality and material residuals
  • Recontextualisation/decontextualisation, artefacts in consonant and dissonant environments
  • Confiscation, displacement and repatriation
  • Individual vs. corporate attitudes towards materiality of art
  • Commoditisation and decommoditisation
  • Ownership, market and the value of materiality
  • Historiographic and methodological approaches to the materiality of art
  • The concept of ‘object biography’ and its implications/limitations



The Material Life of Things International Research Group


As part of project, scholars working across the discipline have been selected to join a research group to discuss various topics and address methodological questions within the theme of The Material Life of Things. The aim of the group is to provide a research community in which scholars can develop their individual projects, discuss aspects of the material life of works of art from different periods, clarifying theoretical and methodological issues and advancing our understanding of the subject. The research project will conclude with a two-day conference on Autumn 2011 showcasing the work of the seminar group. A collection of essays is also planned


Christy Anderson (Department of Art, University of Toronto)

Matter into materials: fire, fabrication and Renaissance architecture


Moya Carey (Asian Department, Victoria and Albert Museum)

Bringing it up to date: Qajar brass mounts on Safavid and Chinese ceramics.


Tarnya Cooper (16th Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery)

Aviva Burnstok (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

The re- use, re-cycling and appreciation of panel paintings in sixteenth century England


Francesca Dell'Acqua (Facoltà di Lettere, Università degli Studi di Salerno)

The ‘Framed’ Infinity of His Likeness: the Cultural Context of the Genoa Mandylion


Rebecca Farbstein (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

The social lives and technologies of Magdalenian portable art


Kate Gerry (Department of Medieval Art, The Walters Art Museum)

Show and Tell: Transformation, Medieval Art and the Modern Museum


Jim Harris (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Sculpture and Trauma: Polychromy as a record of disaster and displacement


Hanna Barbara Hölling (Faculty of Humanities, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam)

Between organic media and technology. Unstable materials and contemporary conservation


Sally Korman (Independent)

Destroyer and Preserver: Vasari’s Book of Lost Things


Pip Laurenson (Time-based media conservation, Tate Modern)

As If: identity and loss in the re-framing of contemporary art


Francesco Lucchini (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Getting Things Together: Assemblage and the History of Goldsmith’s Work


Angela Matyssek (Art History Department, Philipps-Universität Marburg)

Metaphors and Practices of “Life”


Luisa Mengoni (Asian Department, Victoria and Albert Museum)

Hybrid Creations: Chinese Ceramics with European Mounts


Susie Nash (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Sculptural fragments: interpretation and display


Scott Nethersole (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

‘richonc[i]are e riducere a l’uso d’ogidì’: The reframing of Florentine altarpieces and the rise of independent panel painting, c. 1450-1501


Sara Pennell (Early modern British history, Roehampton University, London)

‘Cultures of repair in Britain, c. 1600-1800’


Kate Rudy (Department of History of Art, University of St Andrews)

Touched, Rubbed, Handled, Glued, Sewn and Kissed: The Life of Medieval Manuscript Prayer Books


Katie Scott (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Hannah Williams (University of Oxford)

Artists’ Things: A Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century Everyday Life


Nat Silver (The Frick Collection, New York)

Connoisseurship, the art market and the imagined identity of Renaissance paintings


Evgeny Steiner (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)

Hokusai’s Manga: An Art Object or The Ideas for Art?


Maria Elena Versari (Getty Research Institute/Duquesne University, Pittsburgh)

Sculpture and mixed media at the beginning of the 20th century. (Un-)castability, canonized persistence and the ephemeral definition of modern sculpture


Elizabeth I Watkins (Department of Drama: Theatre, Film, Television, University of Bristol)

A Cinematographic Document. Film Material and The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924)


pdf icon Download Abstracts and Biographies

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The Material Life of Things Symposia, workshops and Lectures


Group members participate, alongside invited speackers, in symposia, workshop and public lectures to take place during the time span of the project. See below for information on past and future events


The Material Life of THings: Symposium
Objects Making History: New Approaches to Material Evidence in Medieval Studies

Friday 9 July 2010

14.30 - 18.30, Research Forum South Room

Reliquary from Shrine of St Oda holding cross, in silver and gold
Reliquary from Shrine of St Oda, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, ac. no. 57.519. Photo: © Image Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

Speaker(s): Martina Bagnoli (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore), Nikolas Drosos (The Graduate Center, City University of New York), Kate Gerry (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore), Francesco Lucchini (The Courtauld Institute of Art), Theo Riches (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster), Kathryn Rudy (The Courtauld Institute of Art)

Organised by: Dr Francesco Lucchini (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Dr Kate Gerry (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)


Throughout the Middle Ages, manuscripts, buildings, and many portable objects, serving both secular and liturgical functions, were made to be used, and to be used for a long time. As these works continued to be used, and valued, through the centuries, they were necessarily subjected to wear, changes and adaptations – repaired as they were damaged, updated for new owners and new uses, and sometimes intentionally modified to aggrandise, or obscure, their own histories. Approaching medieval works of art and other documents with this in mind leads us to a more nuanced appreciation of the roles objects can play in shaping our perceptions of the past, and the degree to which our understanding of history is shaped by the physical structures of objects. As the papers in this symposium will show, production techniques and later physical manipulation could influence the network of practices, actions and beliefs occurring in the vicinity of objects in complex and sometimes unpredictable ways. A thorough awareness of the material histories of objects – the lives they have led since their creation – can offer a better understanding of the role played by medieval objects in producing knowledge and shaping historical narrative.


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The Material Life of THings: Symposium

Hands On: Seven Perspectives on the Material Transformation of Art

Friday, 5 November 2010
15.00 - 18.45, Research Forum South Room

blue and white ewer - a hybrid of different styles, periods and cultures
Ewer painted in Kraak style, with silver gilt mount China, Jingdezhen kilns, Wanli reign period (1573-1619); mounts: England: ca. 1610-20. Given by Dr Louis C.G. Clarke, V&A museum number: M.220–1916

Speaker(s): Moya Carey (V&A); Francesca Dell'Acqua (Università degli Studi di Salerno); Rebecca Farbstein (independent); Sally Korman (independent); Luisa Mengoni (V&A); Nat Silver (UCL/ The Frick Collection); Maria Elena Versari (Duquesne University, Pittsburgh)

Organised by: Dr Francesco Lucchini

Drawing together scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, this workshop will offer a range of views and interpretations on the material transformation of art, from Paleolithic to Modernism, via seventeen-century China and nineteenth–century Iran. It considers the ways in which works of art as material objects are manipulated, re-made and unmade by different individuals, at different times, manifesting different social and cultural practices, shaping markets and demand, and influencing historical narratives.

pdf icon Programme

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material life of things: seminar

Weighing the Evidence

Friday, 28 January 2011

17.30, Research Forum South Room

minimal image in pastel and graphite of taupe and grey marks
Robert Ryman (American, born 1930), Untitled, 1976. Pastel and graphite on plexiglass with steel, 49 5/8 x 49 5/8" (126.1 x 126.1 cm). Gift of UBS. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2010 Robert Ryman

Speaker(s): Jim Coddington (Research Forum Visiting Conservator, The Courtauld Institute of Art and Agnes Gund Chief Conservator, Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Organised by: Drs Aviva Burnstock and Francesco Lucchini

Modern art has embraced many different means of and materials for creating art. In recent decades this impulse has developed at an increasingly frenetic pace. If we are to attempt to understand these diverse works from a material point of view how do we determine the priority of that material evidence? Can we refer to classic approaches to the technical study of art as a methodological guide? Does the historical narrative of art history and criticism bear upon our interpretation of the material evidence? Specific examples of restored and unrestored works that propose these questions will be presented for examination of the evidence in each case and how these larger questions might influence the weighing of that evidence.

Jim Coddington is a Graduate of Reed College and a Masters in conservation from the University of Delaware. Prior to his appointment at MoMA, he was a Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum. Research has included the theory and practice of conserving contemporary art, structural restoration of paintings, new imaging technologies for art and studies of the materials and techniques of Cezanne, Pissarro, Miro, Pollock and de Kooning. Co-editor with Maryan Ainsworth of summer 1996 Art Journal on Conservation and Art History.



material life of things: lecture

What is a Fragment? Forms of the Material, the Cultural, & the Interdisciplinary

Thursday, 17 March 2011

18.30 - 20.00, Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre

view through a fence of a bit of a building site
Ground Zero, July 2009

Speaker(s): Dr Dan Hicks FSA (University of Oxford); Respondent: Daniel Miller (Professor of Material Culture, Department of Anthropology, University College London)

Ticket/entry details: Open to all, free admission

Organised by: Dr Francesco Lucchini

This paper reflects upon the idea of 'the fragment' and its status in contemporary interdisciplinary material culture studies. In doing so, it uses anthropological thinking to interrogate how we comprehend the forms that the material, the cultural, and the interdisciplinary can take in the study of things.

Dr Dan Hicks FSA is University Lecturer and Curator in the Modern Period at the Pitt Rivers Museum/School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, Lecturer in Archaeology and Anthropology at St John's College, Oxford, and Research Fellow in Archaeology and Anthropology at Boston University. Dan's most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies (OUP 2010, edited with Mary C. Beaudry). He publishes some of his writing on a blog at http://weweremodern.blogspot.com




material life of things: symposium

Materiality and Life Metaphors: Three Dialogues

Friday, 18 March 2011

15.00 - 18.30, Research Forum South Room

Speaker(s): Tarnya Cooper (National Portrait Gallery) and Pip Laurenson (Tate); Hanna Barbara Hölling (University of Amsterdam)and Angela Matyssek (Philipps-Universität Marburg); Katie Scott (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Hannah Williams (St John's College Oxford)

Organised by: Dr Francesco Lucchini and Dr Kathryn Gerry

Bringing together the work of art historians, conservators, and curators, the papers presented in this symposium explored the relationships between what we call ‘art’ and the material substances by which it is transmitted. In a series of paired papers presented in conversation with one other, the speakers discussed issues of conservation of works in traditional and time-based media, and the relationship of medium to value; the study of things owned and used by artists in the past, with attention to questions raised by the role of now-lost objects in material culture studies; and the continuing development of individual works of art after their initial creation, with a focus on two works of contemporary art.

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symposium: the national gallery in association with material life of things

Taking Shape: Italian Altarpieces before 1500

Friday 8 July 2011

10.00 – 16.30, Research Forum South Room and The National Gallery

Francesco BotticiniFrancesco Botticini, Detail from The Assumption of the Virgin Altarpiece, probably about 1475-6, tempera on wood, National Gallery, London

Speaker(s): Caroline Campbell, The Courtauld Gallery, Joanna Cannon (The Courtauld Institute of Art), Caroline Elam (independent scholar), Christa Gardner von Teuffel (University of Warwick), Dillian Gordon (formerly The National Gallery, London), Jim Harris (The Courtauld Institute of Art), Amanda Lillie (University of York), Scott Nethersole (The Courtauld Institute of Art), Nathaniel Silver (UCL/Frick Collection), Alison Wright (UCL)

Organised by Amanda Lillie (University of York), Francesco Lucchini (The Courtauld Institute of Art/University of Warwick), Scott Nethersole (The Courtauld Institute of Art), Jennifer Sliwka (The National Gallery, London) and Alison Wright (UCL)

To mark the opening of the exhibition Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500, the Renaissance Consortium and the Material Life of Things Project of the Courtauld Institute of Art Research Forum, in collaboration with the National Gallery, UCL and the University of York, hosted an informal study day and symposium dedicated to the subject of late medieval and renaissance Italian altarpieces. The morning was given over to papers on the subject of ‘Altarpieces and Fragments’, while discussion and talks in the afternoon, led by Dr Scott Nethersole, curator of Devotion by Design , focused on a single work, Francesco Botticini’s altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin painted for Matteo Palmieri.

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