Of brains, material culture and other cool things…

The YouTube trailer for our Brains exhibition at the Wellcome Collection has recently gone live (see above), so now seems like an appropriate moment for a blog update.  Much of my involvement in this project was in the original planning and sourcing of objects—and the writing of labels for those objects—so I’m very keen to see how the whole show has come together.  It opens on 29 March, and I’ll be hanging around the exhibition quite a bit until its closing on 17 June (so please say hello if you see me!) owing to related research.

I’ve alluded to that research before, but I’m collaborating with the fantastic Dr Richard Wingate, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, on analysing the use of real human tissue (generally human brains and spinal cords) in medical students’ education.  The intent is to tease out—via interviews, focus groups, and associated methods of participant observation—the significance of learning from the ‘real’ thing (human remains themselves) as opposed to other means like models, illustrations, videos, 2D and 3D renderings, etc.  Via engagement with both students and faculty/staff, we’re studying how experts and experts-in-training relate to ‘authentic’ human material, what such authenticity means to their professional and personal identities, and how their access to human remains resonates pedagogically and ethically—e.g., as regards mastery of the subject matter, and relationships to other humans.

This project has implications not only for medicine, but for material culture studies and archaeology, teaching and learning, ethics, philosophies of practice, embodiment, expertise, and anthropology overall.  Richard himself has a long history of negotiating at the intersections of science and the humanities (read more on his blog), and I’ll be contributing to some work that Richard and others are spearheading at Somerset House in London in the upcoming months; namely, the Between project which brings together an incredible and completely inspiring range of scientists and artists for debate, display, discussion and exchange.  The exhibitionary component of Between is previewed here:

Beyond this work, I’ll be out and about in the UK quite a bit in the next couple of months, so I do hope that I run into some of you at the following events where I’ll either be talking, discussing or assisting in some capacity:

One last note that I’ve just finished teaching my Cultural Heritage Management (CHM) MA module, and I have to say that I had the loveliest group of intellectually-engaged and enthusiastic students.  York’s CHM and Digital Heritage courses attract a student body that is diverse both internationally and in terms of academic background.  This makes for a productive and thought-provoking learning environment, and I’m actually quite sad to see the term end.  Thanks to all who made the module such a success, and thanks to my colleagues, friends and family for your continuing support.

Ethics and the display of human and non-human remains

I have been remiss in posting updates recently, as I’m attempting to wrap up various projects whilst enjoying my last few weeks in Southampton. As a recap, in mid-November I participated in the 110th annual American Anthropological Association conference, where I co-chaired our Visual Ethics Roundtable and officially took up my 3-year position on the Society for Visual Anthropology‘s Executive Board. The roundtable was quite successful, something that I feel confident in saying given that Jonathan Marion and I have hosted these events for the past five years straight and thus have been witness to their many highs and lows. We had nearly 50 attendees, including very well-established and emerging scholars and practitioners. Whilst Cordelia Eddy (New School) was unable to contribute due to last minute detractions, Jeffrey Ehrenreich (University of New Orleans), Adam Solomonian (University of British Columbia) & Mabel Sabogal (University of South Florida) gave provocative talks that then culminated in more than 30 mins of group debate.
Screenshot by me of AAA blog post about 2011 meeting in Montreal
The following day Jonathan & I were involved in a special event session on the role of visual anthropology in the AAA’s new draft ethics principles. We’ve fed back a bit of information to the AAA ethics task force which may or may not now have an impact on how visual media and methods are addressed in the final version of the principles. We’ll see. In brief, our primary input includes:

(1) the need to identify visual media as one suite of tools among anthropologists’ many tools which demand ethical consideration in our everyday professional practice; and

(2) the imperative to approach visual media with the same due diligence for academic integrity that anthropologists apply to text.

This ethics-oriented work has especial relevance for the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection that I’m helping to curate alongside a team from the Wellcome itself and Portsmouth University. I’ve mentioned the exhibition elsewhere, but it launches in just a few months’ time (29 March 2012 to 17 June 2012), and its title – Brains: The Mind as Matter – hints at the nature of the material to be displayed; namely human and non-human animal remains in assorted forms, plus associated paraphernalia. The objects include real brains in jars or other containment units; brains on film, in photographs, in illustrations, and as 3D models; brains mediated by artistic intervention; and related representations of how people and animals have been variously probed, preserved and manipulated in the name of ‘culture’ and brain science.

The ethical dimensions of such an exhibition are large and incontrovertible. To this end, I gave a presentation in late September at a half-day workshop organized by the Petrie Museum on the respectful display of human remains. Curators from a variety of major institutions in London (e.g. the Hunterian/Royal College of Surgeons, Natural History Museum, Museum of London, Grant Museum of Zoology) attended and/or delivered their own presentations, and there was a bit of time for concerted discussion of best practice. Certainly, there is a relatively substantial academic literature on this topic, and in fact I saw a fascinating session at the AAA conference attending to some of the same issues. But one point I’ve taken away from the workshop is that there is a developing movement (or at least a sentiment) among exhibitions professionals to reclaim or reassert curatorial authority when it comes to sensitive or controversial display subjects. In other words, such professionals typically have the intellectual tools available to produce conscientious and critical displays, and this expertise should not be completely undermined or dismissed in ever-increasing attempts to democratize the exhibition-making experience. Indeed, a couple of examples presented at the workshop spoke precisely to the problems of attempting to cater to certain audience interests ahead of others, as well as ahead, in some cases, of the judicious opinion of curators themselves.

I would say that, in my experience, the more meaningful displays of ethically-loaded objects are those that are well-contextualised, that use both visuals and text to jar viewers out of simplistic interpretations of the subject matter, that weave displays together into a larger critical narrative; and that attempt to trace – or account for the lack of tracing of – consent from brain/object donors. These are strategies that we are trying to employ within the Brains exhibit.

Another point about the exhibition which makes it so pertinent to me is its total variance from our work at Çatalhöyük where we operate on a shoe-string budget driven by local interests and ad hoc tools.  These exhibitionary environments make for great comparative case studies.

Anyway, I’m about to start a related brain project with Richard Wingate at King’s College London which aims to assess student and professor experiences in handling real brain material. I’ll post about that in the future. Otherwise, I’m busy prepping for the move to York in January (including writing a few new module proposals), and finishing off digital humanities work at Southampton, along with a major study of first-year Humanities students’ experiences at the university.

I’ll hopefully post again before the end of the year – in the meantime, my friends and colleagues Alice Watterson & Cat Cooper are hosting an interesting session on visualisation at the upcoming CAA 2012.  The call for contributions is still open, so consider applying!

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.