Research groups and projects
the clever object reading group 2007-8
Academic year 2007-08
Thursday 19 June, 14.30 - 16.30, Wellcome Trust, 215 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
Texts: Bruno Latour, “Drawing Things Together,” in Representation in Scientific Practice, eds. M. Lynch and S. Woolgar (London: MIT Press, 1990), 19-68; Christopher Wood, “Riegl’s Mache,” Res 46 (2004): 155-172.
Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Katie Scott, Liz Reissner, Caroline Arscott, Ken Arnold, Sabine Wieber.
As our final scheduled session, the group met at the Wellcome Collection where we were hosted by Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programs. After a brief introduction to the Collection, KA led us on a tour of the temporary exhibition space on the ground level and the displays of permanent collections (in Medicine Man and Medicine Now) on the first floor. He noted how the massive collection of over a million artifacts assembled by American-born pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome has now been scattered through numerous museums worldwide. Thus, what goes on display in the Collection’s galleries is often effectively rediscovered from other museums. Often, KA noted, what museums hide is even more important than what they show, as they allow artifacts to gather the sense of strangeness. We adjourned to a conference room where KA gave a talk entitled “Clever Cabinets,” explaining how he had come to his work at the Wellcome through his research on the history of early collectors cabinets in seventeenth century England. Responding to LR’s question about how he defined his field, KA observed that he understood material culture as objects and things exhibited. He was particularly interested in what happens to objects when they went on display, seeing the collection as part of show business. MH asked if, as Hal Foster had proposed in his reading of Warhol’s “screen tests” in his lecture “Andy Warhol and the Ruptured Image” at the Courtauld in fall 2007, this situation of display ever became an ordeal under which objects “cracked” under the spotlight of exhibition or if, to the contrary, they became surprisingly “exhibitionist.” KA noted that, while his own vocabulary was slightly different (with objects instead slumping or standing tall and proud), this was a major consideration of staging an exhibition. Objects that might appear “showstoppers” in the storage room could become duds once they went public (and vice versa). These considerations opened onto KA’s slide lecture on early modern collections and anatomical “theatres” as spaces of performance. KA noted how the Wellcome has sought to recuperate these dimensions of the collection, calling our attention to an evening of events called “Flesh” (see: http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/News/Media-office/Press-releases)
where surgeons, butchers, bodybuilders and numerous others had been recruited to perform their knowledge on bodies. We were shown numerous incredible photographs of Wellcome, his collections and their shifting installation, as we marveled at images of the “hall of spears” and other objects that might seem only very loosely connected to Wellcome’s guiding concern for human interest in the preservation of health. Gradually, this segued into a conversation in which our assigned reading of Bruno Latour’s “Drawing things Together” figured more prominently. Part of what we tried to explore is how the model of science presented by Latour (in which ever-more economical, mobile and combinable forms of graphic “inscriptions” serve to increase a scientist’s strategic advantage and thus to render more steep the cost of dissenting opinions) might fit with the object-sensitive mode of display practiced at the Wellcome and theorized by our group. Could a productive cleavage be identified here between the way that science treats its objects (as raw material to be reduced into inscriptions) versus the way that various forms of cleverness (i.e. metis, enchantment, etc.) might inhabit objects? Because our engagement with the readings was only preliminary, we agreed to meet for a final “encore” session. This also provide the group with an opportunity to critique pieces by both of the session’s conveners and to discuss future ways in which the project might go.