As the It’s Not What You Think: Communicating Medical Materialities workshop in March, we experimented with different formats – from quick-fire intro presentations to break the interdisciplinary ice, to a hands-on object investigation session.
In the object session (video here), participants were sorted into four groups, and entered an empty exhibition room to find one table per group, covered with acid-free tissue on which perched groups of objects selected from Museion’s collections. The four groups had been curated under the themes ‘metal’, ‘chemical’, ‘bodily’, and ‘seeing/touching’, purposefully generic monikers intended to leave the investigations as open as possible.
Participants were led through two activities, aiming to make their encounters with objects slower, and a little stranger. Lucy Lyons asked people to wield pencils and their senses, and David Pantalony invited the groups to consider possible material, form, function, and origin. David and Lucy have written some reflections below.
We were delighted (and relieved) that everyone joined in – we were asking people to spend valuable time doing something experimental, not obviously instrumental, and perhaps a little embarrassing. David and Lucy’s conviction was essential to allowing participants to clear the hurdle of self-consciousness, and respond to the potency of the objects on their paper islands. I also think that the room – an expansive space currently stripped of its usual wallpaper-skin, ready for renovation – communicated a liminality that echoed perfectly our urge to step outside of the rush of everyday, and the bustle of conference temporality.
After the activities, each object group’s curator finally revealed its origin, and answered any burning questions – focusing on materialities had its comfort limit. Later in the day, we reassembled in our groups for a more creative, playful exploration of how the objects might be used – in research, exhibition, artworks, or any other form people cared to consider. Each of the object group curators has also written some short reflections below on how their particular artefacts were encountered in the sessions – often not in the way that was expected…
Described by Adam Bencard:
“The objects on the metal table – amputation saws, surgical knives, obstetric tools, scarificators, surgical forceps and more – were selected because of their material qualities more than their specific historical or medical contexts; they were all handheld tool-like metal objects, used upon the body in a very direct way. The participants touched and manipulated the objects continuously as they speculated about their use, they took them apart, waived them around, cut the air with them, felt them in their hands, imagined (with varying degrees of horror) what it would be like to have them used upon them, they got saddened by them, they shared personal stories, they took pictures of them, they came up with innovative exhibition design ideas and plans for surgical exhibitions that you could only see while carrying a scalpel in one hand and a delicate flesh-like object in the other, they talked about how to make the visitor feel something of what it would be like to use them and have them used upon oneself; the material qualities of the objects opened up a series of unexpected and imaginative responses to the meeting of flesh and metal.”
Described by Emma Peterson:
“The conversations and different theories concerning the provenance of, and the link between, the objects from the Blind-historical collection were intriguing to listen in on, and it was a challenge not to give away to much information and thereby influence the discussions but to let the objects stand for themselves. The objects gave the participants some creative and mind bending associations such as ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ and science fiction. At the table there were, among other things, a bust of a baby’s head, a small copy in porcelain of the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen’s baptismal font – a kneeling angel holding a seashell in its hands, large-scale insect- and plant-models, spectacles with thick and rounded glass, and a plaster tile in relief.”
Described by Thomas Söderqvist:
“At the chemical object table we investigated a collection of glass bottles and vials with chemical substances. We inspected the forms and sizes of the bottles, the labels and their mostly unintelligible inscriptions, the colour of the contents, etc. However, it wasn’t always easy to keep the focus on the phenomenological description of the sensory and material qualities of the objects — most participants spontaneously slipped into asking questions about the historical context of the collection: where the obects came from, what they had been used for, when and by whom, and how the collection had been acquired. The hunger for historical meaning was eventually satisfied when the curator of the collection told that the specimens were part of a large collection of amino acids, peptides and other chemicals used in protein chemical research at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen in the 1920s through 1950s. Only then did some of the participants begin to pay more detailed attention to the sensuous and material aspects of the things.”
Described by Karin Tybjerg:
“The table with human remains was like a magnet in the investigation room both attracting and repelling participants. I led an investigation of the stirring objects. There were siamese twins, organs, a tumored mouse and a crotch from a castrated male in formaldehyde, as well as bones from a teaching collection and a basin of teeth. We discussed the boundary between nature and artifact in the specimens that both represent what they are, but are also severed and preserved and thus removed from once living bodies. We also tried to analyze the affect caused by the objects, how they relate to modern tissue biopsies and how they might be exhibited in Museion’s upcoming exhibition on human remains.”
Described by David Pantalony:
“I lead each group through a few basic questions that helped keep focus on the objects themselves and away from generalized discussions about that kind of thing in history, e.g. what features do you like? can you guess its date? why? how was it made? can you list the materials? what is functional? what is decorative? What is its function? Does it have just one function? More questions can be found in my Flickr post for the object session”
Described by Lucy Lyons:
“Participants were confronted with tables laden with a wide range of medical objects. I wanted to challenge their expectations and offer ways of getting to know them in a way that would broaden their understanding of them as material objects. These experiences were translated through the tips of their pencils and recorded as drawings, doodles, marks and visual memories.
Beautiful surgical tools, aesthetically crafted and seductive to the eye, were hidden from view and experienced by touch alone. This allowed participants to think of their material, construction, temperature and weight and the experience of the surgeons’ hands.
Chemicals were felt, fingertips rubbed in granular material, triggering imaginations as to what these textures reminded participants of. The beauty of bottles with intricate labels visually stimulated their interest whilst engaging with the separating grains of powders.
The blind collection, made to be touched, were the only objects I chose not to allow participants to touch. Or draw for a while. Instead, a period of silent looking was required. Then turning their backs on them, participants drew them from memory, how they felt they looked.
At the table with specimens of human remains participants looked at one object but felt another, a dish of teeth, and drew what they felt and saw. To counter expectations and assumptions about human remains, participants were asked to draw not a thing that was in a jar, but the jar and the space around the object contained. Everything, except the object.
Drawing what was experienced through vision, touch, sensation, imagination and memory complemented the wealth of information given on their historical contexts and to thinking of them in terms of functionality, date and material qualities.”
Many thanks to Ion Meyer, Head of Collections at Medical Museion, for his instrumental role in curating, gathering and preparing the objects, and to his team of Collections Students. Thanks also to David Pantalony and to Frederik Peterson for allowing us to use the photographs shown here.