One of our new conveners, Michelle Wallis, summarises the conference sessions for us. The link to the video of Ludmilla Jordanova’s lecture is below, the audios are available here (unfortunately due to technical issues the first session was not recorded).
The Storify of tweets from the conference is here.
After Ludmilla Jordinova’s wonderfully wide-ranging keynote lecture ‘Talking about Things‘ on the night of the 27th, was opened up to all interested parties for a full day of papers from both established and early career scholars.
After a brief introduction from the convenors, Sophie Waring and Katy Barrett, who explained the background of the seminar series and of the collaboration with the University of California Riverside, the day got off to a fine start with the panel addressing a particular interest of mine, ‘Written Things’. Sarah Kareem’s thought-provoking paper ‘Romantic Bubbles, Fictional Worlds’, explored the way in which bubbles were used as a ‘load bearing concept’ to enable the conceptualisation of fictional worlds by their lending their characteristics of physical, temporal and spatial liminality to the worlds described. These bubbles of imagination entered the rhetoric and imagery of scientific discourse as representations of thought, the mind as an ‘idea pot’, an allusion extended by the image of Newton watching the action of soap bubbles, an action childish on the surface, but concealing hidden depths of thought. Leanna McLaughlin then brought a different kind of evanescence to the discussion, with her paper “A Lampoon Put on his Door”: Poetry and Politics, 1678-1689 which dealt with rare manuscript ephemera. She urged us to consider the materiality of political poems, manuscripts she described being literally pinned or nailed to the door of the lampooned recipient, the action driving home the challenge to the authority of the individual or institution. For me, the discussion of these papers drove home this theme of ephemerality, as the respondents questioned whether ‘things’ can ever speak for themselves across historical time, or whether we are inevitably reduced to talking about people talking about things.
For the panel on ‘Familiar Things’, Sara Pennell opened her discussion of ‘‘Everyday’ Objects and ‘Small Things Forgotten’’ by inviting us to unfamiliarise the familiar, and look on apparently prosaic domestic objects with new eyes. She then presented us with such a re-conceptualisation of the pin; a miniscule, familiar item given great power through its use in withcraft, as a protective object concealed in houses, and through the providential readings given to it. These pins have agency and are imbued with meaning – they can injure or attack, but also secure and keep safe. Melanie Keene’s paper on ‘Learning Things’ spoke again of familiar objects rendered unfamiliar – this time, not by the passage of time, but by their use as teaching tools to introduce children to new ideas. Thus an orange becomes a planet in an explanation of the solar system, and a see-saw is transformed into an apparatus for teaching basic physics.
From things familiar, to things displaced and exotic, we came to Mary Terrall’s paper on natural history collections for the ‘Travelling Things’ panel. Once again, we saw the ephemeral nature of historical ‘things’ in the form of specimens intended to last, which succumbed to the ravages of time, as she reconstructed the international friendship network of natural philosopher René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur through the letters and catalogues that make these lost ‘things’ visible. Adriana Craciun then took up the theme of natural historical ‘things’ lost and destroyed with her account of the symbolic value of Banksia seeds salvaged from the wreck of the voyage of La Pérouse, and then destroyed completely during the unsuccessful attempt to regenerate them.
The day closed with a session on ‘Gendered Things’, a classification immediately questioned by Catherine Eagleton’s paper on money and medals, and a ‘Collection of Scraps’, through which Sarah Sophia Banks emerged as a complex character who defied simple categorisation as a ‘lady collector’. Her coin collecting activities are of particular interest and through these objects and the accompanying ‘scraps’ we saw her engagement with vast social networks in order to complete her collection, and in the selective omissions and inclusions of the resulting collection we saw not an idle hobby but an effort to collect, order, and catalogue the political world. As her catalogue shows, this formidable lady then stored her microcosm of this ostensibly masculine sphere within her bedroom. In the final paper of the day, Mary Brooks situated us firmly in the exclusively female world of elaborate embroidered ‘Curiosities’, a performative form of needlework valued more for the laudable industry required to create them than for the finished object. Confined to female spaces and subject only to the female gaze, these works are not visible in seventeenth century depictions of interiors, leave little trace in diaries and letters, and disappeared almost completely during the eighteenth century; what is left to us is the ‘thingness’ of these things, as radiography allows us to explore their hidden natures, the concealed threads, subsumed pins, and even a bird’s skull fleshed out with elaborate embroidery.