Human Constellations: Mapping Meanings

Mona O’Brien

Constellations are human constructions created in mankind’s attempt to understand our environment, to develop our knowledge, and to make a seemingly infinite universe comprehensible to the human brain. There is nothing in nature, apart from a level of relative physical proximity, to suggest that these stars are in any way connected. Constellations exist because we mapped them out, like the chart of Orion below.

V0024712 Astronomy: a chart of the constellation Orion. Engraving.

Chart of the constellation Orion, engraving. Wellcome Images.

Collections, like constellations, are an attempt to find or create meaning, to map out human knowledge. They draw links and make connections. Collections, archives or genetic databanks for example, reflect a particular topic, requirement, perspective on history or, sometimes, simply the proclivities of a particular collector (like the Collections of William Hunter here in Glasgow). ‘Collections’ is also the unifying theme of our Leverhulme-funded research group. We are all working with pre-existing collections, in archives, museums, and records; across textual, visual and oral mediums. At the same time, you could also say that we are building new collections, or constellations, each project bringing together different elements (you could say ‘stars’) that haven’t been considered side by side before, in an attempt to configure new understandings of human bodies, minds and communities.

Into the early modern period it was believed that the stars had a significant impact on human life, in the broadsheet below the Renaissance physician Theodericus Ulsenius (Dirk van Ulsen) claimed that an astrological conjunction in 1484 was responsible for the onset of pandemic morbus gallicus (the French disease, syphilis) in 1495. Perhaps even more crucially, the astrological configurations under which you were born were believed to influence your personality and your destiny, thus Shakespeare described Romeo and Juliet as ‘star-crossed’ lovers.

L0014503 Broadsheet: text and wood cut of a syphilitic.

Broadsheet on morbus gallicus with text by Ulsenius and woodcut ascribed to Dürer. Wellcome Images.

As the stars were once thought to impact on human life, collections continue to impact on the work of anyone engaged in research, regardless of discipline. We need to be constantly aware of how, why, and by whom a collection was constructed. What connections were they drawing? Or not drawing? Where human subjects were involved, as in genetic data collection, was their consent obtained (and, if so, how)?  How did these subjects impact on the shape of the collection and the results it can produce? Like their astrological counterparts, collections are complex configurations.

L0073701 Illustration of Constellation Pleiadum

From: Petri Gassendi, Institutio astronomica (London, 1683). Wellcome Images.

‘Human constellations’ does not only denote the idea that collections are created by humans, it also refers to the idea of communities, of constellations of humans. This includes the wide variety of social groups which we are investigating, such as modern and pre-modern patients, early anatomists, religious and ethnic minorities. However, the term also refers to our own constellation, our research group, as well as the others, (museums, hospitals, research centres) which we interact with both within academia and beyond it. Yet, looking at our Collections group, what possible connection can there be between research into medical confidentiality and domestic violence in the twenty first century and a project on the emotional history of sixteenth-century syphilis? Similarly, how could a project on the collection of genetic data and a researcher looking at a collection of eighteenth-century anatomical art ever find a common ground to build on together?

On closer consideration the common threads begin to appear between some of the projects including medical humanities, ethics, and legal practice. Nonetheless, the most striking thing about our group remains its diversity, the differences between our projects. And it is this difference that is our greatest asset. By sitting down together and discussing our separate research projects we are attempting to map out new constellations on the themes of collections and collecting, as well as on the other themes that we share. Alongside this we are working to exchange and develop our methodologies and perspectives. Talk to someone outside of your research area and you can obtain a whole new perspective on your topic. Someone who looks at current legal practice might ask a question of early modern law that you might never have considered.

On first glance, we’re an unlikely constellation. But humans have drawn lines in the sky and connected seemingly random dots before, and these constellations have helped travellers find their way through the ages. We are exploring what and how humans collect, and how we analyse the results of these processes. Through these investigations we hope to draw out useful maps, new insights into these questions. Here we are trying to grow a constellation that belongs, and contributes, to a bigger astronomy.

L0034203 (Detail) Constellation of Draco

Constellation of Draco (detail), Persian MS 373 (f.12 recto), Wellcome Library London. Wellcome Images.

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