Human Constellations: Collecting Collections in the 21st Century

A brief review of our first public event.*


Collections, from archives, to medical data, to peaks bagged by mountaineers, range widely in form and method of accumulation, and raise infinite possibilities and questions. The Leverhulme Trust-funded Human Constellations project is being undertaken by the Collections Research Group working across the humanities and social sciences. Through collaboration the group seeks to develop interdisciplinary methodologies and produce new insights into theories of collections and collecting.

On 19 October 2016 the group held their first public event at Kelvin Hall. The evening was led by a lecture from Professor Hayden Lorimer on ‘Finders, Keepers’: Possession and the Nature of Collections. This explored the diverse types of collections we can encounter, from pet graveyards to the summits of munros, and the meanings that these collections can have for those who form and research them.

The Leverhulme Scholars who began their PhDs in 2015 also delivered two collaborative presentations. Using gift exchange theory Alicia and Michelle illustrated how theoretical links can be drawn between their vastly different research projects into William Hunter’s collection of anatomical drawings and issues of consent in collection of genetic data.


Mona and Dominic, who both work extensively with early modern and modern legal sources, presented a paper examining how bodies, particularly injured or sick bodies, constitute collections and how these bodies are treated as individual cases and symptoms of societal problems within legal systems.


The evening provided a fascinating insight into how the theme of collections can produce new approaches and new areas for collaborative research. The points and questions raised during the evening made it an extremely productive and exciting event, and the group wishes to extend its thanks to all who attended.

* Item first appeared in the University of Glasgow College of Arts Newsletter, February 2017.


Upcoming Event on Collecting Collections

L0034203 (Detail) Constellation of Draco
L0034203 (Detail) Constellation of Draco Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Please join us on 19 October, 6-8pm at Kelvinhall for our first public event Collecting Collections in the 21st Century. The event will include a lecture from Professor Hayden Lorimer (University of Glasgow) on ‘Finders Keepers’: Possession and the Nature of Collections. Followed by Q&A and then refreshments. After the break Alicia, Dominic, Michelle and Mona will present papers mapping the connections between their diverse research topics. We will be drawing connections between problems in modern medical disclosure and 4oo year old syphilis, collections of anatomical drawings and the ethics of consent in collecting genetic data.

Places are limited, so please do book a ticket here.

We look forward to welcoming you to what promises to be an evening of exciting papers and discussion.


Intention versus Interpretation: Curating Personal Identities from Silk Gowns to Facebook

Mona O’Brien

A case displaying seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fabrics from India, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

During our recent Human Constellations group trip to London, I found myself standing in front of the above display of garments in the V&A. On first glance it seems like a nice display, visually interesting but not overwhelming. Yet I walked away from it with a head full of questions and a gnawing sense of existential doubt.

The central dress was sewn from Indian silk embroidered cotton in eighteenth-century England. The red man’s robe (banyan), to the left, is made of fabric dyed and printed in South-East India; it was made up in Europe, in a style influenced by the Japanese kimono. These clothes, passive objects, have multiple identities, based on their materials, styles, and how they are displayed. Are they art objects? Historical objects? Ornaments for a body? Displays of wealth? Are they British, Indian, European, Japanese? They are all of these things to differing degrees, and the weighting is entirely dependent on the individual viewer.

A museum may display these garments with the intention of telling a particular story, or making a specific point, but much the same way as we often kill the author when we read, we come with our own minds, backgrounds, and ideas. Something as mundane as an old kettle, simply intended to show the development of technology, might have a particular emotional resonance for a viewer who identifies it with a similar one that used to live in their grandparents’ kitchen. Thus, a display intended to provoke thoughts about technology might instead prompt musings on family histories.

Display of kettles and coffee makers, Science Museum, London

The display and interpretation of passive objects is no easy thing. But what about active agents (animals, historical actors, AI, you and I)? Humans have always taken an active role in curating their identities, from how we dress (Anne Boleyn wearing yellow on the death of Catherine of Aragon) to how we perform emotions. The advent of the internet has further expanded our curating horizons, now we can each have our own virtual museums courtesy of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Collections are never neutral, all archives and museums have a focus such as local history, fashion, etc. Things are always omitted sometimes out of practicality, sometimes because of more sinister motivations. Similarly, our online displays seek to portray a particular image of ourselves, to show that we are happy, fashionable, globetrotters, deep-thinkers, charitable, hard-workers, fraught with philosophical doubt, politically engaged, and good cooks. It’s beyond obvious to state that most of us never give unbridled insights into our lives online (at least where we are identifiable, the realms of anonymity have been seen to bring out horrifying honest opinions). There is always more that could be said, or some ignored underlying tensions, thoughts, or emotions.

A brief analysis of my tweets: lots of medical history, and a fixation with Barry’s Tea.

But who is to say that our Twitter profiles, etc. are interpreted the way we would like them to be? For instance, if I tweet a photo of my current read and a cup of tea, with a caption like ‘The Lonely City: Beautiful, thoughtful book from Olivia Laing. Read it!’, I would intend this to show my appreciation for this book and hopefully prompt others to consider reading it. But someone else, Viewer A, might read the tweet and think that I am being terribly pretentious, and trying to show-off or look erudite. Viewer B might argue my tweet was motivated by the desire to show off an aesthetically pleasing picture I took with an artistically placed cup of tea. Unless Viewer A or B questions me about the tweet they will pass on from this cabinet in my virtual museum, and the next time they see a tweet from my account it may contribute to the overall image they are constructing of me (‘Oh, another pretentious book tweet!’; ‘She likes photographing pretty cups of tea’). I will be curated in their memories, and our images of me may drift farther and farther apart.

What are the consequences of the distance that develops when my intention is not discovered by the viewers’ interpretations? Is my identity my own possession? Do I share it with my viewers (both real and virtual)? Is it an external construct? Or is it a dual thing consisting of separate private/internal and public/external parts? If so, although my intention is significant, is my identity ultimately defined by me or by the external world?

In a museum we cannot have a question and answer session with the objects or the displays beyond what appears on the display boards (unless there is a guide or curator present).  And, to me, the beauty of museums is that they do not (usually) try to tell you what to think. But, based on my questions about personal identity, I am curious to discover if there are tensions between intent and interpretation in collections, particularly in galleries and museums. Is there ever a ‘wrong’ way to understand a collection? What discourses (in the Foucauldian sense) are at play when we interact with collections? What is the relationship between the curator and the viewer, and how is this transmitted through the curated objects? What are the relative positions of intention and interpretation?

This seems like rather a lot of questions for the end of a blog post, but it is my intention to devise answers for them over my time as a member of this project. Interpret that as you will.


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.