A few months ago, I gave a small talk at an internal seminar here at Museion where I presented some thoughts about how to further our engagement with objects and how to take materiality more seriously. Here is the talk:
Not just a museum with things, but a museum about thingness – possible strategies for a deepened engagement with materiality
At the “It’s Not What You Think”-workshop, we sat an eclectic mix of 40 museum professionals, philosophers, artists, historians, STS scholars, social scientists, science communicators and much more, down at 4 tables with 4 groups of objects – a collection of human remains, the Carlsberg collection, a group of various metal objects and selected objects from the blind historical collections. We gave them only the most minimal of prompts: What would you do with these objects?
Practically before we had stopped talking, they converged on the objects. They talked and laughed and were frightened and took the things apart and played with them and came up with innovative exhibition design ideas and wild science fiction plans for future exhibitions and talked about digital labels that would change in front of the visitors and about surgical exhibitions that you could only see while carrying either a scalpel in your hand or a delicate flesh-like object and they talked about the origins and uses of the objects, where they were designed, who used them, their ethical implications, they talked about how to make the visitor feel what it would be like to use them and have them used upon oneself, they wondered if they were dangerous and what they tasted like, they tasted some of them, they got saddened by them, they shared personal stories, they took pictures of them; and many more reactions, thoughts, affects, emotions, all stirred up by engaging the objects.
A lot of them work with things often, even every day; they still got absorbed by them. Some knew almost all of the things uses and histories, others had no clue about most of them; they all engaged with them. They all shared an experience. The session did not have a specific end to it – the groups did not have to present anything, they did not have to work anything out in particular. But they all, I believe, felt something, something they will probably remember more clearly than any of the academic talks that were given during the two days.
Why do I say this? What is the point of it? The point is that objects are powerful. Engaging with them has the potential of opening up our emotions, our imaginations and our ideas. They open up parts of us that are otherwise difficult to tap into. Their effects upon us are unruly and we respond to them in unexpected and opaque ways. They have presence. At Museion, we already have experience with this particular agenda:
Our exhibitions are of high quality, intellectually refined and have a high sensibility towards aesthetics and the use of objects in exhibition design.
Our web activities are outstanding and are strengthened by the continual focus on and use of objects.
Our events have a strong material emphasis and we have done enough experimentation to know that the more things we give to people, the better they work.
Our academic research gives us a vantage point from which to tackle questions about objects and materiality from philosophical, historical, science communication and many other academic contexts.
From this starting point, I think there is a foundation for pushing the material envelope even further; for developing a museum that takes the surprising, evocative, imagination stirring and affective qualities of objects as the core of its activities, in all stages of the design and execution of its various projects. For thinking things first and representations second in everything that takes place under its roof. This is not a way of excising stories, narratives and representations; quite the contrary – it is a way of opening up them up in unexpected ways, of providing them with an affective push that museums sometimes lack. It is taking seriously that things stir our imagination, particularly if we get close to them. It is taking seriously that the cabinet is a powerfully neutralizing force and that this force needs to be counterbalanced in new ways.
What might such a pushing of the material envelope mean in the context of our various activities?
All exhibitions could experiment with multi-sensory stimulation and give the visitor things to touch and experiment with. Put straight jackets in the psychiatry exhibition and scarificators in Balance and Metabolism – that click sound brings home the reality of blood letting in extremely visceral ways, deepening the texts. Invite the visitors to swallow pills while hearing about the chemical body. Let visitors bite down on a rubber mouth piece while hearing about electroshock therapy. Give them gene chips and laboratory equipment. Take seriously that medicine is performed on the body and experienced by it. This might only be possible with guides, in smaller groups – but lets develop these things alongside a more traditional exhibition structure.
All speakers should bring objects or use objects from the museum. All events should taste, smell and touch of something; they should have a particular feel, literally and atmospherically. Objects change the dynamics of events, they change the relationship between the audience members individually and between the speakers/presenters and the audience; this should be utilized pervasively.
Continue what we already do: Work with and experiment on how to transmit material effects online – take things apart, detail them, take pictures, show them off. But also experiment with non-representational digital communication – use poetry, distorted images, case files, music, to invoke affect and the black noise of objects even when they are not materially present.
All research should ideally not just be about materiality in the abstract; rather it should feature objects; descriptions of them, images, uses, contexts. No things, no paper, so to speak – in the sense of a form of attention to material aspects whatever tradition you work in and whatever the specific details of the research project. It is not a way of standardizing a particular set of theories or a specific normative agenda; rather, it envokes a particular sensibility towards stuff and embodiement. It should take material dimensions seriously and experiment with formats and ways of writing. It should work to develop a vocabulary and a set of tools for becoming better at writing and talking about things and materiality; we are good with stories and discourses, less so with stuff – but often the best writing is that which gets closest to things.
A dual agenda:
In the end, such a possible material medical museum should have a dual agenda: It should be about medicine, past, present and future; but it should also be about the materiality of the world around and our embeddedness in it. It should be about medical things, their histories and uses; but it should also be about how things affect us; it should explore and bring into the light how we relate to objects around us. Daniel Miller writes of the “…unexpected capacity of objects to fade out of focus and remain peripheral to our vision and yet determinant of our behaviour and identity…” – this is what the museum would be: an intervention and bringing into the light the exterior medical environment that habituates and prompts us. And this requires letting people feel some thing.