Thinking Through Things: Object Encounters in the Medical Humanities

A collaborative project, developed by a team of ECRs from across the NNMHR and funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award.

Thinking Through Things ran from October 2019 to March 2021.

Asking what might be gained by ‘doing’ medical humanities through objects and images, the project supported an innovative programme of activities designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of the Wellcome Collection. By approaching selected objects in the Collection as ‘provocations to thought’ and ‘companions to our emotional lives’ (Turkle, 2011), the programme explored how thinking and feeling ‘through things’ might generate new understandings of health.

Over the course of the project, we delivered one Archival Imaginarium; one team visit to Wellcome; one ECR workshop at Wellcome Collection; one complete rethink of our programme in response to a global pandemic; one online keynote; five online creative workshops; four online reading groups; and one online “Thing Provocations” event. The project also generated an online Archival Imaginarium, a Working Knowledge Project Short “Collaborations between artists and academics”, sixteen articles for The Polyphony, and a short film which was premiered at the NNMHR 4th Annual Congress in April 2021. Finally, our Thinking Through Things ECR Project Support Scheme provided five early career researchers with financial support to complete an existing project or plan for a new one.

The Project Team included: PI Dr Fiona Johnstone (Durham University), and Co-Is Dr Marie Allitt (University of Leeds/University of Oxford); Dr Ashleigh Blackwood (University of Northumbria); Dr Bentley Crudgington (Manchester University); Dr Ilaria Grando (University of York); Dr Katherine Rawling (University of Leeds); Olivia Turner (Newcastle University); and Dr Jacqueline Waldock (University of Liverpool).

Watch our project film:

Project Events and Outputs:

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.

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.

Would you like to know more about the Archival Imaginarium?

Read “Thinking through my dinner with the invisible archivist”, Ilaria Grando’s response to the Archival Imaginarium and “What do you want?”, Marie Allitt’s summary of the points raised during the discussion that followed.

Experience our online Archival Imaginarium at

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

Thinking Through Things with Wellcome ECR training day. Wellcome Collection, London, 12 February 2020.

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

Online programme, Autumn 2020

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 necessitated radically rethinking our approach to our project’s final event, not only because of ongoing restrictions around travel and physical gatherings, but also in recognition of the ways in which the pandemic had changed the very conditions under which researchers engage with archives and collections.

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 redesigned the final phase of Thinking Through Things for online delivery, with particular emphasis on supporting and facilitating a community of early career researchers. 


Allison Morehead, Queen’s University, Canada, “Thinking through, with, to, and against, things: Provoking entanglement for the critical medical humanities“. Thursday 29th October 2020. A recording of Allison Morehead’s keynote can be viewed here (available until March 2021).

Abstract: 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. 


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 2020. Micro-guides to the workshop can be downloaded here and here.

Jane Hartshorn and Gillian Shirreffs drew upon their doctoral research, creative practice and lived experience of chronic illness to deliver a creative writing workshop that explored 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 gave 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 examined the ways in which people and things are depicted in these images and sought to unravel the relationship between object and illness. 

Desiring Objects, Desiring Archives, led by Chase Ledin (University of Edinburgh). 10th November 2020. A micro-guide to this workshop can be downloaded here.

This workshop explored 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 analysed and discussed 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 encouraged 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 worked independently or in small groups to explore “object attachments”. Using creative methods (e.g. drawing or digital design), participants were given an opportunity to (re)create objects using a self-reflexive “desiring” praxis. Participants produced inscriptions and visual annotations that reimagined objects (and thus created new objects) with critical attention paid to how desire is produced and negotiated within archival research. The workshop ended with an opportunity to share these object encounters. It also posed 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 2020.

Taking inspiration from the scrapbooks of Audrey Amiss, held in Wellcome Collection, the workshop centred on aspects of everyday life under lockdown. Participants gathered 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 found 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 showed examples of lockdown zines and demonstrated how to make a folded zine and a stitched zine. I then talked through the design and layout of a zine and offered guidance as participants make their own. 

Material Encounters, led by Ben Skinner (University of Leeds). 27th November 2020.

This workshop drew 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 encouraged participants to curate their own materials library composed of discarded litter and recycled objects. My intention was 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 posted a guidebook and a number of materials to each participant. The guide was designed to facilitate sensory exploration with found objects in the participants’ immediate localities. The intention was to provide a step-by- step interdisciplinary methodology into ways of learning with/through touch. It encouraged physical contact in the form of sculpture-forming, charcoal-drawing, map-making and hands-on sensory exploration.

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

(un)Masking the Wellcome Collection, led by Ilaria Grando and Olivia Turner. 30th November 2020.

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-hospitalised and normalised, it 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. 

This interactive workshop used items from Wellcome Collection to explore the normalisation and depersonalisation surgical face masks have prompted in contemporary culture. Through a playful series of practical and discursive activities, we thought through and used making, gesture and language to critically consider the sensorial, material and theoretical impact surgical face masks have had outside of the medical setting. Each participant received in the post a Materials Pack for the workshop.

(un)Masking the Wellcome Collection, led by Ilaria Grando and Olivia Turner.

Reading Group Workshops

Facilitated by Marie Allitt (University of Leeds / University of Oxford). This series of online reading groups was designed to provide an opportunity to engage with and discuss theoretical scholarship related to material culture, methodologies, and archives. 

Thing Theory and Methodology, Wednesday 4th November 2020. 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 2020. 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 2020. 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 2020. 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) Click here for a PDF of the extracts of text to be discussed.

Closing event: ‘Thing Provocations’ workshop

Led by Allison Morehead. Thursday 3rd December 2020. Taking inspiration from Fluxus and mail art, this informal online event provided a space for delegates to reflect back on the programme and apply their newfound skills to a range of ‘things’ from Wellcome Collection.

Each Thing Provocations participant was mailed a set of instructions, an archival box, a pair of gloves, and a small wrapped gift with a handwritten tag reading ‘For you! Open after 3rd December.’  Following the instructions, participants put on the rubber gloves and opened the archival box to discover a package carefully wrapped with tissue and ribbon and containing postcard reproductions of an item from Wellcome’s holdings. Participants were asked simply to live with the things inside the archival box for a while.  

Two days before the workshop, participants were invited to select something from their immediate environment that they could envisage in relation with the “thing” pictured on the postcards in their box, and to bring it to the workshop. We were clear that they should not spend too long on this task, and that we were primarily interested in serendipity of relations rather than professional or disciplinary ‘expertise’….