How do you work with a Collection when you can’t visit it? How can we create a community when we need to stay apart?

The Thinking Through Things project was designed to support ECRs from across the Northern Network and beyond to engage critically and creatively with Wellcome Collection’s holdings.  Our programme project was originally due to conclude with a two-day Object Provocations workshop in summer 2020, co-facilitated by Allison Morehead (Queen’s University, Ontario), and co-hosted by Manchester University. Taking its cue from Professor Morehead’s experimental workshop ‘Doing Medical Humanities with Art, Non-Art, Objects and Things’ (Oslo, June 2019), this event’s innovative format was designed to utilise objects, images and artworks from Wellcome Collection’s holdings to prompt interdisciplinary dialogue and debate among ECRs of all disciplines working in the medical humanities.

The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated radically rethinking our approach to our project’s final event, not only because of ongoing restrictions around travel and physical gatherings, but because the pandemic has changed the very conditions that shape how researchers engage with archives and collections. The lengthy lockdown has also exacerbated the very real challenges faced by ECRs: job opportunities are scarce, precarity is endemic, and the closures of campuses, libraries and archives mean that many ECRs risk feeling increasingly isolated and disengaged from a wider community of researchers. 

Inspired by Latour and Weibel’s definition of the thing as “an archaic assembly” that “bind[s] all of us” and “gathers around itself a different assembly of relations” (Latour and Weibel 2005), we have redesigned the final phase of Thinking Through Things for online delivery, with particular emphasis on supporting and facilitating a community of early career researchers. 

Programme

Keynote 

Allison Morehead, Queen’s University, Canada, “Thinking through, with, to, and against, things: Provoking entanglement for the critical medical humanities“.

Thursday 29th October 2020, 3.30-5.00pm GMT, online via Zoom (booking link coming soon).

How do we ‘do’ a critical medical humanities that is, as scholars such as Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard have recommended, more entangled? Taking the call for entanglement seriously, I consider the possibilities of using things – both art things and non-art things – to provoke interdisciplinary conversations and to thicken relationalities among and via people and things. I provide some artistic, theoretical, and practical touchstones for the Thinking Through Things project, ranging from avant-garde art practices such as Dada and Fluxus, which emphasize chance and the radical possibilities of play, to thing theories that foreground how things can bring and bind people together around “matters of concern” and “matters of care,” to Tingenes metode, a curatorial project for “making things public” developed at the Teknisk Museum in Norway under the leadership of Henrik Treimo, to my pedagogical strategies used in both art and non-art museums, to the workshop that I organized in Oslo in 2019, “Doing Medical Humanities with Art, Non-Art, Objects, and Things.” With attentiveness to the structures and challenges of organizing and the precariousness of academia, in particular for Early Career Researchers, I consider the awkwardness and affective labour of entanglement, its failures and serendipities. Given the virtual nature of the project, I will also ask what this virtuality, as necessitated by a pandemic experienced differentially, might enable and disable for an impetus towards entanglement.

Speaker biography

Allison Morehead, Associate Professor of Art History and in the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, Canada, works at the intersection of art history, museum studies, the history of medicine, and the critical medical humanities. In relation to a major exhibition focused on the work of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch and the medicalization of modern life, Morehead has been developing research exercises and curatorial strategies aimed at new ways of doing critical medical humanities research. These new strategies turn on “thing provocations,” interdisciplinary conversations centred on art and non-art things taking place in art and non-art museums, the first of which took place at the Nasjonalt Medisinsk Museum at Norsk Teknisk Museum and the Munch Museum in Oslo in 2019. 

This is an online keynote address followed by a moderated Q&A. The talk will be recorded and made available online for a limited period after the live event. 

Workshops

All workshops are facilitated by members of the wider Thinking Through Things cohort. Workshops are limited to between 6-10 participants to encourage quality interaction and advance booking is essential. All online via Zoom – booking links coming soon.

Making Space for the Patient Voice: a creative writing workshop, led by Jane Hartshorn (University of Kent) and Gillian Shirreffs (University of Glasgow). 2nd November 3.30 to 5.30pm. 

Jane Hartshorn and Gillian Shirreffs will draw upon their doctoral research, creative practice and lived experience of chronic illness to deliver a creative writing workshop that will explore ways to make space for the patient voice. Within medical notes, the patient is often reduced to a list of symptoms and their identity is erased as the lines between medical subject and medical object become blurred. This workshop will give participants the opportunity to use images from the collection to interrogate the experience of patients in medical places and spaces. Using a mixture of poetry and fiction writing, participants will examine the ways in which people and things are depicted in these images and will seek to unravel the relationship between object and illness. 

Exercise 1 – Jane: Ekphrasis. I will choose a selection of images from Wellcome Collection that are a projection of the ‘male gaze’ and depict their female subjects as ‘medical objects’. I will then counter this by reading a series of poems that reinstate the patient voice, and are ‘embodied retellings’ of the patient experience. I will present the participants with an image and fragments of text, and ask them to write a creative response to this, from the point of view of the patient, or a family member/friend. 

Exercise 2 – Gillian. In a short series of fiction writing exercises that give voice to both medical objects and medical subjects, participants will interrogate the relationship between object and illness. These exercises will also allow participants to explore the potential fiction writing has as a means to communicate the lived experience of illness, creatively making space for the voice of the patient. 

Desiring Objects, Desiring Archives, led by Chase Ledin (University of Edinburgh). 10th November 3.30 to 5pm. 

This workshop will explore a central question: How is desire produced and negotiated in archival research? Beginning with small-group explorations of several items in Wellcome’s collections, participants will analyse and discuss the role of affect in encountering historical objects related to sexual desire and intimacy. Driven by the analytical framework of “object orientation(s)” (Ahmed 2006, 2010), the workshop will encourage participants to think about the multiple investments that shape objects not only in history but also in archival and research practices. In the second half, participants will work independently or in small groups to explore “object attachments”. Using creative methods (e.g. drawing or digital design), participants will have an opportunity to (re)create objects using a self-reflexive “desiring” praxis. Participants will produce inscriptions and visual annotations that reimagine objects (and thus create new objects) with critical attention paid to how desire is produced and negotiated within archival research. The workshop will end with an opportunity to share these object encounters. It will also pose some questions to help participants consider how transforming objects – through attention to “desiring orientations” – can tell us more about how historical objects function as mediary or “transitional” sites that lend to the development of new knowledge about sex and desire for the future. 

Lockdown Life Zine Workshop, Led by Dawn Woolley (Leeds Arts University). 17th November 3.30 to 5pm. 

Taking inspiration from the scrapbooks of Audrey Amiss, held in Wellcome Collection, the workshop will centre on aspects of everyday life under lockdown. Participants will gather together ephemera from their daily lives to produce one or two zines. The zines could focus on an hour, a day, a week, month or the whole of lockdown, or aim to record a particular aspect of life that has changed, is missing, or has become more important due to social distancing, working from home and other effects of the pandemic. For example, during lockdown I started paying more attention to the single-use things that I use, in order to find ways to use them less or reuse them. I also embarked on a collaborative project about gender performances in lockdown. I find myself using particular phrases repeatedly such as, ‘these are strange times’, and ‘it is what it is’. Each of these could be the inspiration for a zine. During the workshop I will show examples of lockdown zines and then demonstrate how to make a folded zine and a stitched zine. I will then talk through the design and layout of a zine and offer guidance as participants make their own. 

Material Encounters, led by Ben Skinner (University of Leeds). 27th November 3.30 to 5.30pm. 

This workshop draws together the (currently) invisible catalogues of Audrey Amiss, held by Wellcome Collection, with the ever-visible rubbish that we accumulate in everyday life. The workshop will encourage participants to curate their own materials library composed of discarded litter and recycled objects. My intension is to share ways in which we, as sentient organisms, might perceive our surroundings differently in order to cultivate a more empathetic way of interacting with materials and the materiality of our physical form. Amiss documented food and drink packaging creating catalogues of habitually discarded objects. My practice draws from this methodology and asks participants to spend time investigating in what ways they ‘read’ the materiality of the discarded objects around them. 

Two weeks prior to our 90-minute online session I propose to post a guidebook and a number of materials to each participant. The guide will be designed to facilitate sensory exploration with found objects in the participants’ immediate localities. The intention will be to provide a step-by- step interdisciplinary methodology into ways of learning with/through touch. It will encourage physical contact in the form of sculpture-forming, charcoal-drawing, map-making and hands-on sensory exploration. [The implications of Covid-19 may affect the willingness of participants to physically touch items of rubbish but the tasks will be designed with this in mind]. 

Our online 90-minute session will be an opportunity to critically analysis some of the perspectives found through working in this way. Participants will continue to test their haptic dexterity and sensitivity as they bring objects to life within the frame of proposed tasks. I will facilitate a space for tactile learning, illuminating the potency of sensory information absorbed through the skin. Together we will question what belongs/blends/ stands out in the world around us as we creatively transfer our experience of it from one medium to another. 

(un)Masking the Wellcome Collection, led by Ilaria Grando and Olivia Turner. 30th November 3.30 to 5.00pm.

Once an object restricted to a medical setting, the surgical face mask is one of the most looked for, discussed, and questioned objects of 2020. De-hospitalized and normalized, the surgical face mask has become a necessity, a symbol of crisis, a monument, a document, a creative tool of self-expression, and in some cases even an artwork. 

By thinking through making, this interactive workshop will use items from the Wellcome Collection to explore the role surgical face masks have acquired in contemporary culture. Through a playful series of practical and discursive activities, we will critically consider the sensorial, material and theoretical impact the normalization and depersonalisation of masks has had outside of the medical setting.

Each participant will receive in the post a Materials Pack for the workshop.

Reading Group Workshops

Facilitated by Marie Allitt (University of Leeds / University of York)

There will be a series of online reading groups designed to provide an opportunity to engage with and discuss theoretical scholarship related to material culture, methodologies, and archives. Pre-circulated extracts will prompt discussions on object encounters both in how it relates to medical humanities research and material culture more broadly.  This is an opportunity to engage with material that may or may not already be familiar to you, and to put them into dialogue with the variety of specialisms covered by the cohort, and questions that have arisen in your research. We hope you will find these helpful, inclusive, and supportive opportunities to speak with one another, share perspectives, offer questions, and develop ideas. To encourage valuable conversations, we intend to keep these groups small, approximately 5 or 6 people. If there is more interest in some of the workshops, we may be able to add in some further sessions.  

Thing Theory and Methodology, Wednesday 4th November, 5-6.30pm
Extracts from Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28.1, (2001), and Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public’, (2005). Click here for a PDF of the extracts of text to be discussed.

Touch, Affect, and Decay, Monday 9th November, 5-6.30pm
Extracts from Emily Robinson, ‘Touching the void: Affective history and the impossible’, Rethinking History, 14.4, (2010), and Liam Buckley, ‘Objects of Love and Decay: Colonial Photographs in a Postcolonial Archive’, Cultural Anthropology, 20.2, (2005). Click here for a PDF of the extracts of text to be discussed.

Gatekeeping and Accessing the Archive, Wednesday 18th November, 5-6.30pm
Extracts from Jennifer Bajorek, ‘Decolonising the Archive: The View from West Africa’, Aperture, (2013), and Achille Mbembe, ‘The Power of the Archive and its Limits’ from Refiguring the Archive, (2002). Click here for a PDF of the extracts of text to be discussed.

Decolonising the Archive, Monday 23rd November, 5-6.30pm 
Extracts from Achille Mbembe, ‘The Power of the Archive and its Limits’ from Refiguring the Archive, (2002), and Jennifer Bajorek, ‘Decolonising the Archive: The View from West Africa’, Aperture, (2013) www.decolonisingthearchive.com. Click here for a PDF of the extracts of text to be discussed.

The programme will conclude with an online ‘object provocations’ workshop

Led by Allison Morehead. Thursday 3rd December, 6pm to 7.30pm. Taking inspiration from Fluxus and mail art, participants will receive in the post a series of postcards and a set of instructions…. This informal online event will provide a space for delegates to reflect back on the programme and apply their newfound skills to a range of objects and images from Wellcome Collection. Online via Zoom. Advance registration required to allow for postage.