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Yet another stimulating session at ‘Things’ this week, considering medals and amulets with Melanie Vandenbrouck from the National Maritime Museum and Ben Carpenter from the University of Wolverhampton. Both speakers emphasised the importance of haptic experience in our understanding of medals as objects, not something we’re normally used to considering in a museum setting, or even in a Things seminar. You can read the storify of the live tweets from the session here, and listen to the podcast here.

Melanie started off for us talking about ‘Putting the finger on the rise and fall of the absolutist monarchy: medals of the Sun King and the French Revolution.’ She argued that the changing production and dissemination of medals between Louis XIV’s reign and the French Revolution can only fully be understood with an appreciation of these medals through touch. They are miniature sculptures, perfect for disseminating ideas. Excitingly, she brought four example medals with her, kindly loaned by the Simmons Gallery. Melanie showed us examples from medals included in the series Histoire Métallique de Louis Le Grand, designed and produced under the aegis of the Académie des Inscriptions, including an evocative series showing the ageing Louis on the obverse. The reverse designs bore carefully constructed allegorical and political messages about his reign. By contrast, medals produced during the French Revolution were created to commemorate specific events, showing crowded historical scenes. Some, amazingly, were even cast from the melted-down iron bars of the Bastille. Talk about meaning in matter! Melanie also emphasised how different medals showed attitudes and uses. Those disseminated by the Académie des Inscriptions often remaining shiny and protected in expensive cabinets, while one commemorating Marat had been re-engraved on the back and showed intense wear caused by being worn against the owner’s chest. She emphasised how we need to allow for handling in our understanding of the past, especially in the ‘enlightenment’ world which itself saw touch as the primary sense.

Ben followed by relating these ideas into both contemporary medallic art and nineteenth-century amulet collections, ‘This Living Hand: The medal as a tangible made object.’ He highlighted for us the complex relationship between the hand of the artist – associated so closely with questions of talent, authority, and authenticity – and the hand of the viewer/holder in experiencing held art. He emphasised how medals exist on the debated boundary between art and craft, and so overlap both with anthropological objects like amulets, and with ‘high art’ sculpture. This status is what draws many contemporary artists to medals. Ben showed us works by Cathie Pilkington, such as Jumping Jack, which relate to toys, both in their evocation of over-used and broken things, and in the ways that they need to be played with and moved to see their meaning. The title work of his talk, This Living Hand by Chloe Shaw, combines Keat’s handwriting with thermochromic paint which changes when held, bringing the hand of the author and holder together in one object. Finally, Ben showed Felicity Powell’s work with wax on mirror backs which were a response to the Lovett collection of amulets now at the Pitt Rivers Museum, but once at the Wellcome Collection. Both the amulets and Powell’s works were shown in the Wellcome’s beautiful show Charmed Life in 2011-12. Ben evoked for us how both object groups make relationships between materials and the owner/maker’s skin, between the owner’s material well being and the material matter of the medal or amulet. He ended by mesmerising us with one of Powell’s films of her hands at work.

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