Wellcome Collection exhibition

Circulation of the blood (human). Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, images.wellcome.ac.uk. Etching By: DefehrtEncyclopedie ... receuil de planches Diderot, Denis and d'Alembert, J le R, 1762. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons.

Life post-PhD is a busy affair…my visions of relaxation and calm have been interrupted by a lot of exciting – but relentless – research.  I’m currently involved in seven major projects, some of which I’ve blogged about in the past, and some of which I’m just embarking on.  Amongst the latter is a part-time post as a research assistant with Dr Marius Kwint (Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture, Portsmouth University) at the amazing Wellcome Collection in London.  The position involves helping with the implementation of a Wellcome exhibition on the human brain, scheduled for launch in Spring 2012. The Wellcome will likely be known to many archaeologists for its foundation by Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), an avid collector and influential financier of archaeological excavations and institutions (not to mention a pioneering pharmaceutical entrepreneur).  There have been some fascinating recent studies of Wellcome’s collection, including Frances Larson‘s (2009) book, An Infinity of Things; and her article (2010) The things about Henry Wellcome. Journal of Material Culture 15(1): 83-104.  (As an aside, Larson’s earlier work on Pitt Rivers’s collections at Oxford University had a huge influence on my PhD: (2008) Anthropological Landscaping: General Pitt Rivers, the Ashmolean, the University Museum, and the shaping of an Oxford discipline. Journal of the History of Collections 20(1): 85-100.) The Wellcome’s exhibitions are often very provocative and critically engaged, so I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute to the development of one.

I’m keen to take up my post, not only because it allows me to build on some of the exhibition/museological design experience that I’ve been pursuing over the past few years, but also because it intersects deeply with archaeological concerns over the collecting of human remains and the ethics of display (see my earlier discussion on visual ethics).  Indeed, a component of our intellectual output for the project is also likely to touch on the materiality and people’s handling of matter like brains – i.e., how we learn from and make knowledge through interaction with this kind of material culture.  Given the amount of research that’s being generated in the wider humanities and social sciences on  ‘material culture’ / ‘matter’ / ‘things’ / etc., and the appropriation of concepts and terminology (not uncommonly in the absence of any penetrative contribution from archaeologists themselves), I’m looking forward to being part of an interdisciplinary enquiry into these topics.

I’m heading up on Wednesday to meet the principal curators at the Wellcome, and – fascinatingly – to attend a brain sectioning session with undergraduate students at a London teaching hospital.  I’m particularly interested to hear from others who’ve worked on potentially controversial public exhibitions, so please do get in touch to share your experiences.

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