For the final session of the year, we had a stellar line up to consider the body as object of desire, disgust and display, with a specially invited respondent, and a stimulating discussion session.

Dr. Faramerz Dabhoiwala opened the session for us, discussing how people thought about the body in the eighteenth century, coming out of his recent book The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution. He considered how attitudes to bodily passion and ownership altered in the period, and the contradictions that remained inherent in these changes. Ideas on bodily passion changed from an emphasis on sexual pleasure, especially lust, as sinful and a sign of human corruption, to being a natural appetite, part of the human right to happiness. Attitudes to bodily ownership changed from the body as belonging to god, merely a vessel for the soul, to being each man’s (or woman’s, but read on …) property and therefore something over the use which they had a choice. Fara emphasised for us, however, how much these changes were negotiated around concepts of public and private action, and how contested this boundary was. Most actors in his story are white, middle-class, heterosexual men, such that the female, working class and/or homosexual body remained eminently problematic.

This formed one of many interesting connections into Dr. Sam Alberti’s discussion of the dissected human remains that form the Hunterian collection at the Royal College of Surgeons. He discussed the eighteenth-century changes in who used and collected human remains that form the context for the foundation of the collection, considering how these moved around within the ‘museum economy,’ the different ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ contexts within which they were displayed, and how the original Hunterian museum formed a liminal space between Hunter’s fashionable salon, and his dissecting school. His discussion came out of his recent book Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Sam then focused on one object, a carcinoma of the oesophagus from 1783, that had been part of a patient known only as ‘Mrs P.’ He used this to talk fascinatingly about the changing status of this specimen, both physically and conceptually, as it moved from body to jar, and the problems of preserving both the tissue and narratives associated with it. Much like the problematic working-class, female or homosexual bodies within Fara’s discourse, Sam considered the role of such diseased bodies as the means of situating the idea of what was healthy.

In her response, and the extended discussion, Jane Munro considered the importance of power and process in how the body becomes an object. She particularly considered the role of the artist’s mannequin and the role of the artist in transforming the body into an object, as part of her work on the forthcoming exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Silent partners: Artists and the mannequin from function to fetish. The tension between life-like and life-less in the mannequin highlighted the importance of ‘otherness’ in both Fara and Sam’s discussions of differently objectified bodies. Do you agree? Have a listen.