Call for papers

Curiosity 2.0: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Contemporary Art

16–17 January 2015, Castle Chapel, Royal Palace Dresden

 “No one wants to return to the deliberate chaos of the Kunstkammer as museums.”

Horst Bredekamp, The Lure of Antiquity, 1993

Since the 1990s there has been a more pronounced interest within contemporary art in exploring the Kunstkammer and the cabinet of curiosities as models; the lure of this theme continues unbroken among researchers, artists and curators. The interdisciplinary conference Curiosity 2.0 will seek an overview of current debates and of artistic and curatorial strategies. It is to be held in conjunction with the exhibition Mark Dion: The Academy of Things, which opens on 24 October 2014 and – marking the 250th anniversary of the Art Academy in Dresden – will stage the college’s collections as a contemporary cabinet of curiosities at the Octagon in the Lipsius Building. The show includes another two interventions: one in the permanent collection at the Albertinum and the other in the Green Vault, once the treasure chamber of the House of Wettin.

The term ‘cabinet of curiosities’ has become almost hackneyed in contemporary art criticism. This conference, therefore, will seek to delineate the concept more precisely and encourage some historical sensitivity. After all, not every idiosyncratic, chaotic or outlandish horde of objects is necessarily a cabinet of curiosities. But Curiosity 2.0 is not concerned with market-oriented self projections by the occasional contemporary collector hoping to acquire princely kudos with the aid of precious or obscene objects.

The aim, rather, is to explore links with things that accompany us in our everyday lives and to examine the interplay between our fascination with curiosities and the rise of the Internet. In this context, the Kunstkammer might be defined as a collective and deliberately amateur project, because in the digital era curiosity, inquiring minds and the thirst for knowledge cannot be tamed, amid the spawning of websites and the computerised collections of the cyberworld.

This contemporary version of the cabinet of curiosities is playful about things and the networks they form. It is a machine for alternative world views. A chamber of wonders allows us to put the primacy of rationality to one side and to focus on models of knowledge rooted in obsession or magic. Besides, the time has come for a critical examination of the Eurocentrism inherent in the field. What – in the light of postcolonial theories and a revision of the category ‘exotic’ – are the curiosities of the 21st century? Who are the freaks, what the monstrosities and where the mirabilia of the digital age? How do artists and curators attune historical vibrations to the present? How do things and materials relate to digital worlds? How does artistic research subvert the epistemologies of official order? What fuzzy fields emerge when these disciplines cross, and what are the politics, ideologies and dynamics of today’s Kunst- and Wunderkammer?

Presentations will be in German and English.

Please send a short abstract of about half a page to Deadline is the 15 October 2014.

Concept of the exhibition and conference: Prof. Dr. Dietmar Rübel, Academy of the Arts, Dresden, Dr. Petra Lange-Berndt, Department of History of Art, University College London

Some thoughts on recipe books and collections

What a treat! Two blog posts in a week! Today I've written about recipe books and collecting over on the blog for the upcoming conference (which you really ought to register for) 'Devouring: Food, Drink and the Written Word, 1800-1945'.

You can read my post, where I try to make sense of my cookery scrapbook, here.

My cookery scrapbook

Association objects and contagion

In October last year I was lucky enough to attend the tenth annual meeting of NAVSA, the North American Victorian Studies Association, in Pasadena, California. Whilst there I was awarded the Sally Ledger Memorial Travel Bursary, on the strength of the abstract I submitted to the conference for my paper 'Association objects and contagion in the nineteenth century museum'. The conference was fantastic - varied, stimulating, well organised - and in scale, beyond anything I have ever attended before! By the time I delivered my paper on the last panel of the final day, my brain was fried. 

Here follows an abridged version of that paper - I do hope you enjoy.

Association objects and contagion in the nineteenth century museum

The subject of my paper today is association objects, but throughout the course of writing this paper I’ve had a bit of a crisis of terminology - I think I might have used the words ‘celebrity objects’ in my abstract, and I’ve also tried out the terms contagious objects, relics, numinous objects, and auratic objects. The kind of objects I’m talking about are often fairly mundane or otherwise unremarkable items that have become hallowed in some way by coming into contact with a famous or celebrated individual, gaining significance through their physical association with that person. We’re talking, for example...Gandhi’s sandals (which sold for £19,000 earlier this year) or Queen Victoria’s stockings, maybe even Justin Bieber’s used beer bottle. In this paper I want to consider how such objects might be perceived, both now and by nineteenth century audiences. Do they provide evidence of historical fact, or something different? Do their apparent emotive qualities undermine their ability to act as evidence?

I think the range of terminology reflects the impossibility of classifying these objects because their meaning isn’t embedded in the object - it floats somewhere between the matter itself and the person who perceives that material. There’s no physical register on the object that it’s special, so you have to know, and believe in, the accompanying narrative to make sense of the object’s significance. Association objects can also be a huge range of things, so they defy our usual categories of classification. They’re closely related to, and not always distinct from, relics of the body, like hair or teeth, which were frequently worked into Victorian jewellery and other tokens of affect. But the objects I’m talking about don’t necessarily come from the body - they might have just had a fleeting moment of contact with it. And association objects are also slightly different from personal souvenirs, like a shell you picked up on the beach on holiday; and family heirlooms, like the pipe your Grandmother used to smoke. They don’t so much evoke personal memory as relate to events and people that might be spatially or temporally remote from us, that we might not have ever witnessed or come into contact with ourselves.

I’m going to talk about some quite particular examples of these association objects, and they come from the collection of Richard and Henry Cuming, a father and son who lived in Southwark, an area of London, throughout the nineteenth century. They were antiquarians and collectors whose private collection, after their deaths, was bequeathed to the local council and was housed in a public museum from 1906. The Cumings never fully documented their collection - there is a manuscript catalogue that seems to have been started by Richard, and continued later by Henry, but it doesn’t come close to covering the hundreds of thousands of objects that they accumulated. Many things that are mentioned in the catalogue can no longer be found in the collection. Add to this a bombing during the blitz, some generous lending practices in the mid 20th century, and a devastating fire back in March 2013, and you begin to get a picture of the challenge that researching this collection presents. It does, however, contain several fascinating association objects.

Fig. 1. Slippers said to have belonged to Queen Anne. Image from Southwark Collections online.

Fig. 2. Label reads: ‘Balsam. One of the flowers thrown before the Princess of Wales & on which she stepped after witnessing a Supper at Christ’s Hospital, March 11th 1875 (picked up by H.S.C)’. Image from Southwark Collections online.

Figure 1 shows slippers said to have belonged to Queen Anne, and in figure 2 you can see a flower trodden on by Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII. Listed in the manuscript catalogue, we find the following entries;
C5571 - Cut glass chandelier-drop which was struck off by Bonaparte's Coffin upon its removal from Longwood for interment in his Tomb at St. Helena, on the day of the funeral, May the 9th 1821: and picked up at the moment of its fall by John Watts of the Honble East India Company's Ship, Thomas Grenvil, who was invited to be a spectator of the ceremony. The point is splintered off by the fall. Presented by Richard Watts Esq.
C9830. Portion of an iron cramp from the tomb of Chaucer in Westminster Abbey. Erected 1556. Presented by J.J.A. Fillinham, August 25th 1850.
These quotations come from a page in the catalogue entitled ‘memorials of events’, which also lists my personal favourites, two items which commemorate an enormous storm which occurred in the local area. 
C5007. Piece of glass struck out of a window pane at 3 Dean's Row, by a Hail-Stone, during the Great Storm at Walworth. August 1st 1846. 
C5008. Marble 1" 5/56" diameter, size of the hail-stone: some of them were very much larger
I’m not sure if these objects still exist - if they weren’t well labelled I can imagine they might well have gone in the bin. That’s part of what makes the objects so interesting - it’s not that you need a trained eye to understand their significance - you need to be party to their narrative, which, as we’ve seen, can so easily become detached form the object.

By putting these objects together under the heading ‘memorials’, Henry’s seeing them on a kind of continuum - memorials of events in his own history, of events from the distant past, and of famous individuals, relics of the body. They’re all closely related, all material registers of brief human lives, fleeting moments of triumph or absurdity. 

In an 1881 letter, Henry talks about the objects he has which are associated with Queen Caroline (wife of George IV), such as a piece of the shroud which covered her casket (fig. 3). He writes that ‘the relics in my own cabinet are few in number and mere trifles in the eyes of most people, but they are dear to me’. Why does he feel this kind of emotional attachment to these things? Why does he have any of these objects at all?

Fig. 3. Label reads: 'Velvet used in covering the Coffin of Queen Caroline, August 1821.' Image from Southwark Collections online.

They’re not really telling us anything about the world or the history of civilization, they’re not of interest in terms of design or even aesthetically pleasing. They’re not even really curiosities, in terms of the kind of medical anomalies and freaks of nature that were common in the wunderkammer. These objects are pretty mundane, they’re not even necessarily significant actors in history’s events, as, say, Austen’s writing desk might be, or, perhaps Fred Astaire’s shoes. At best they’re tangental to the events of history. 

The closest corollary is religious relics, and there are some definite similarities - it’s true, for example, that touch, and the contact of bodies, is of great significance in both instances. Henry does use the term relic to refer to some of the items - usually the ones which relate to a royal figure. But the relics in Henry’s collection are definitely secular. 

Perhaps to better understand these items and their power we can employ late Victorian folklorist James Frazer’s conception of ‘contagion’. Frazer’s massive work The Golden Bough was first published in 2 volumes in 1890, and is a synthesis and analysis of other anthropologists’ work observing customs and folklore around the world. Like we have with a lot of Victorian ethnologists and anthropologists, we’ve abandoned most of Frazer’s conclusions about other cultures as founded on some decidedly imperialist principles, but his delineation of the principles of magic remains useful.

Reviewing the available research, Frazer suggested that there existed two mechanisms by which ‘sympathetic magic’ (which he saw as common to many disparate communities) operated; contagion and imitation. In a crude example, we could say that I want misfortune to befall my neighbour, so I could either negatively manipulate a strand of their hair, perhaps a necklace of theirs (that would be the rule of contact or contagion), or an effigy of them (the rule of imitation). 

Frazer says that the magics of contagion and imitation often work together, which is why he brings them both in under this larger term, sympathetic magic. 
Both assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether
In imitative magic the transmission seems to operate through a kind of synecdoche (Frazer gives examples where a person’s fingernail cuttings might be manipulated in order to affect the person) or mimesis, as when, for example, a magician simulates the act of birth with a large rock wrapped in cloth, in order to help a woman in labour.

But in contagious magic, there IS no metaphor. Objects do not ‘stand in’ for people, rather, the touch of the person is embedded in the object, enabling the object to act and be acted upon in various magical ways. Frazer tells us that contagious magic 
proceeds upon the notion that things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dissevered from each other...its physical a material medium of some sort assumed to unite distant objects and to convey impressions from one to the other. 
The physical trace of the individual is embedded in the object, and it ‘conveys impressions’. The objects don’t stand in for the person, as a substitute for presence, but rather, they are conjoined with the person - once in contact, always in contact. 

These ideas have provided fruitful ground for inquiry in the field of consumer research, and there are plenty of examples of studies out there which provide an interesting insight into how the concept of contagion, far from merely operating in what Frazer calls the ‘crude intelligence of the savage’, and the minds of ‘ignorant and dull-witted people everywhere’, is actually very common throughout what we might think of as a rational, ‘Western’ mindset.

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, George Newman, Gil Diesendruck and Paul Bloom found that the main motivating factor in purchases of objects once owned by celebrity figures was ‘contagion’. This was over and above two other factors - market demands (which would indicate a financial benefit to the purchase) and ‘mere associations’. The key difference between ‘mere association’ and ‘contagion’, was the belief that the celebrity had come into actual physical contact with the item now for sale, and they found that ‘manipulating the degree of physical contact that a celebrity has with an object dramatically influences consumers’ willingness to purchase it’. These conclusions were echoed by research conducted by Thomas O’Guinn into the central midwest Barry Manilow fan club, which makes for very fascinating reading. O’Guinn’s study found that quite frequently, the most treasured things in fans’ collections were ‘the things actually touched by Barry’ because they ‘somehow prove that Barry exists for them, through this person-to-object to-person connection’. O’Guinn suggests that the objects are ‘physical evidence of a personal relationship’.

Fig. 4. Barry.
So the research appears to confirm what we might assume - association objects have no functional, financial or aesthetic benefit over and above similar things which haven’t passed through the hands of celebrities. It suggests that there’s some other invisible, intangible benefit, there’s something gained by owning this stuff that is beyond the realm of the material and yet depends on the material for its transmission. A person who encounters association objects is getting a feeling from them, a sense of the original, a connection to the person they’ve touched. Jan Geisbuch has called relics ‘touch made permanent’ - and that’s the essence of Frazer’s ‘contagion’. He used the word ‘sympathetic’ - things acting on each other through a ‘secret sympathy’. That transmission of emotion is something I want to continue to examine, particularly in relation to the 19th century.

With these ideas in mind I want to return to the Cumings for a moment and to a particular instance of association-object collecting, a rare one where we have not only the objects, but also some record of the Cumings’ thoughts on them as well. These are objects associated with King Charles I.

Fig. 5. Label reads: 'Portion of a Silk Waistcoat of King Charles I'.   Image from Southwark Collections online.

There's a piece of Charles’ waistcoat, now framed including a little sort of object biography at the bottom which tells us where it came from and who owned it before it fell into Henry’s hands (fig. 5). Also in the Cuming collection is a locket with some hair work in it, said to be from the head of Charles (fig. 6).
Fig. 6. Locket containing the woven hair of King Charles I and a model skeleton, which Henry says 'has been in my family's possession since time immemorial'. Image from Southwark Collections online.

Henry writes a couple of papers for the BAA about what he calls the ‘relics’ of Charles, and he delivers these at meetings, where he and fellow members also exhibit the items, before they’re later published in the association’s journal.

Henry’s style is usually quite dry and he does spend a lot of time simply describing the physical properties of various objects such as Charles’s comb, sword-belt, gloves, and scent case. He also fastidiously recounts the object biographies, when they are available to him, beginning with the moment they leave Charles’ body or possession (that’s the magical moment for Henry, the life of the object before that doesn’t really matter). So he presents the objects in the meetings alongside their narratives, and vouches for their provenance, keeping their associations alive. The belief in their authenticity is necessary for the object to be inscribed with contagion, because there is no physical register. And that belief can only be sustained by the repetition of the story.

But there are also some passages where he speaks about the power of these items.
They lead us step by step through many a sad and trying scene…They awaken the recollection of many a restless spirit of that restless age. Prince and plebeian, friend and foe, the gay cavalier, the gloomy roundhead, seem to be resuscitated
These things, such as hankies dipped in the blood of Charles, or the prayer book he used on the scaffold, evoke not just the individual with whom they had contact, but a whole train of associations that Henry calls ‘recollections’ - and this isn’t limited to the objects related to Charles’ execution - he gets a similar reaction talking about things from Charles’ childhood:
The only reputed relic of 'baby Charles' I have to produce is a left mitten of point-lace,- a rare and beautiful memorial of infancy…Whether this ever covered the tiny hand which at life's latest moment was thrust out as a signal to let fall the deadly axe, must ever remain uncertain.
So the objects are leading Henry toward a kind of emotive speculation. They seem to allow him access to a kind of cultural memory - they inspire an imaginative journey. Perhaps we can think about Henry collecting and treasuring these objects as keeping open the channels by which impressions can be conveyed.

One of my favourite Charles relics in the Cuming collection is a stone, a fragment of the windowsill at Carisbrooke castle on the Isle of Wight, where Charles was imprisoned after his defeat in the English civil war (fig. 7). It’s just a lump of rock. But the thought that Charles might have scrambled over it in his more desperate moments lends it huge significance for Henry. We don’t need the fragment to verify the tale, and it tells us little, if anything about the historical events. But if we value emotional response, the generation of mythologies, stories about belief, and ways to forge an emotional connection with the past, then the lump of stone becomes very valuable indeed.

Fig. 7. Label reads: ‘Part of the Sill of the Window of Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, from which Charles I attempted to escape, 1647. Obtained August 27th, 18??’. Image from Southwark Collections online.

Materials seems imbued by the contagious branch of sympathetic magic - once in contact with Charles, matter is always in contact, and Henry’s able to invoke that connection by simply looking upon or touching these objects. We can’t use exactly, O’Guinn’s terms from the Barry Manilow study, that the objects are ‘physical evidence of a personal relationship’, but I think that’s a useful way to think about them. These objects provide a way to imagine a connection with a person or people. They provide an access point into ‘sympathy’, to use Frazer’s term. A way to experience a feeling of connectedness to cultural memory, a sense of community with an imagined past. They present a challenge to historical objectivity, and suggest that we’re not so different at all from James Frazer’s ‘ignorant savage’.