Archival Imaginarium: Thinking Through Things project launch 

NNMHR Annual Congress, University of Sheffield, 23-24 January 2020. 

Our Archival Imaginarium took Wellcome’s digital collection as its starting point, asking how the digital encounter influences the way medical humanities research is conducted. Researchers frequently describe experiences of a collection through notions of chance, in ‘happening upon’ or ‘discovering’ items.  However, the organisational framework placed on the material is masked through catalogues, hierarchies and search terms. This invisible framework limits and governs the stories told by implicitly shaping the responses that researchers then formulate.

Our provocations used Brian Eno’s (1975) ‘Oblique Strategies’ as a serendipitous model for engaging with Wellcome’s digital Collection and ask how we might reimagine the archival experience with chance as our guide. By displacing the organisational framework, there is the potential to expose choices, exclusions, and gaps that are inevitable, but often invisible, in any collection.

Archival Imaginarium: Thinking Through Things, NNMHR Annual Congress 2020.

An interdisciplinary panel of ECRs each created a response to the same object, ‘Combined knife and fork’ (1914-1918), chosen at random using an Oblique Strategy as a non-hierarchical digital collection search tool. Each provocation used an Oblique Strategy as both title and prompt, and drew upon the participant’s particular disciplinary expertise. This highlighted the diversity of potential modes of experiencing and understanding the archival medical object, and suggested ways in which multiple modalities of approach might shape original perspectives on health and its associated concepts.

This panel event was programmed as part of the NNMHR 2020 Annual Congress. 

Thinking Through Things ECR training day

Wellcome Collection, London, 12 February 2020, 11-5

This training day, hosted by Wellcome Collection in collaboration with the project Thinking Through Things, aimed to equip ECRs with the skills necessary for working with objects, images and artworks for research, teaching or engagement in the medical humanities.

Designed to maximise interactivity between participants and objects, the day included a conservator-led session on object-handling; practical training in catalogue use; the opportunity to meet Wellcome archivists and to engage with a selection of archival materials from the Collection; and short presentations from ECR academics who had previously worked with the Collection.

In addition to developing practical skills, the day sought to address a number of theoretical and methodological questions in relation to the Collection and beyond. How can objects, images and artworks be used as ‘things to think with’ (Turkle, 2011), feel with, and imagine with, in order to address health-related topics in original and innovative ways? What is the affective potential of the archival encounter in health-related research? What is gained by handling archival objects directly, rather than reading about them or encountering them through facsimile? How does an archive (re)contextualise an object, image or artwork? What does it mean to categorise an object as ‘art’, and what are the consequences of assembling an art collection around subject matter rather than ‘aesthetic’ or ‘cultural’ value? 

To see a copy of the programme click here

To see a list of participants click here

A selection of short texts and creative responses produced by delegates at this event were published on a dedicated project column on The Polyphony