EVENT: Gavin Francis: The Anatomy of Curiosity

The Anatomy of Curiosity – a personal tour of Edinburgh University’s anatomical collections

The Anatomical Collections of Edinburgh University are immense and varied, gathered over more than five centuries. They vary from anthropological specimens from the colonial era, to early-modern curiosities such as human horns alongside narwhal horns. There are roomfuls of animal specimens, collected in an attempt to conjure order from the commotion of life. There’s the skull of George Buchanan and the skeleton of William Burke. Gavin Francis isn’t a curator, but a doctor and writer who has found inspiration in the collection. His illustrated lecture will be a personal journey around some of the highlights of the collection.

The event is free to attend but please reserve a place via our Eventbrite page.

Gavin Francis practices medicine in Edinburgh and is the author of three books True North, Travels in Arctic Europe (2008, 2010), Empire Antarctica, Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins (2012) which was Scottish Book of the Year 2013 and shortlisted for the Costa, Ondaatje, Banff, & Saltire Prizes, and Adventures in Human Being (2015), which won Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2015, was the Observer’s Science Book of the Year, and was a winner in the BMA Book Awards. His fourth book Shapeshifters: A journey through the changing human body will be published in 2018.

More on Gavin’s writings (including further essays) and work can be found on his website.

The Details

When: 18:00, 18 January 2018.

Where? Kelvin Hall Lecture Theatre, 1445 Argyle Street, Glasgow, G3 8AW.

Cost? It’s free! But please do reserve a place via our Eventbrite page:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/gavin-francis-the-anatomy-of-curiosity-tickets-41115628953?aff=eac2 .

We hope that you will be able to join us for our first Collections event of 2018!


Frankfurt Once? Frankfurt Now! A visit to the Historisches Museum Frankfurt

Mona O’Brien

That is what makes our city unique – the fact that, within this patchwork, the contrasts, the dirt and the beauty, the coldness and lovability are crowded together more densely here than anywhere else in Germany.

Dies macht die Einzigartigkeit dieser Stadt aus, dass in diesem Flickwerk die Kontraste, der Dreck und die Schönheit, Kälte und Liebenswürdigkeit so dicht aneinander gefügt sind wie nirgendwo sonst in Deutschland.

Dieter Bartetzko, Frankfurt journalist, 1991.

IMG_20171104_111437926_HDRFrankfurt am Main (Nov. 2017).

The first time I came to Frankfurt, and still when I return there, I am struck by its contrasts. The skyscrapers, bastions of the modern economic religion, reaching far higher than the tops of the cathedral and the old town. Down on the street there are expensive cars and expensive suits, but also cosy cafés, languages from all over the world, and warm smiles on the walk by the Main river.

IMG_20171106_154713377Altstadt/Old Town, Frankfurt.

And that is just Frankfurt today, as I sit in the archive of the Institut für Stadtgeschichte, poring over the city’s records for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, another world of contrasts (and conflicts) emerges: religious dispute and discrimination, trade and wealth, poverty and begging, all encased within the city walls.

I only know Frankfurt today, and Frankfurt in the years c.1450-1600. A lot has come before these times, very much between them, and looking at the cranes that dot the skyline, a lot more is to come.

No place is static. No place is simple.

Many cities across Germany, indeed across the world, possess a museum for the history of the city, in Frankfurt it is the Historisches Museum. But I have often wondered: how can a single institution hope to tell the history of a place? A place is made of many histories, many identities. Is it possible for a single institution to tell them all? Does any institution want to do that?

Museums are constructs, they work with the collections they possess. Museums are not neutral; they actively decide how they tell their stories. This is why I am sceptical about city history museums which, in my experience, so frequently emphasise the triumphs and treasures of their city without paying any significant attention to daily life in the past or present. This is why I very nearly did not go to the Historisches Museum Frankfurt. But, I reasoned to myself that perhaps I would find something relevant to my PhD research, and promised myself that if it was utterly terrible I would buy a huge slice of cake as compensation for wasted time.

Happily, an afternoon in the Historisches Museum is anything but wasted time.

Having no prior knowledge of the Museum or its exhibitions, the first section that I decided to visit was the Sammlermuseum (the Collector’s Museum) as I thought this sounded quite appropriate given my position on the ‘Collections’ project. Frankfurt contrasts with many other towns and cities as its oldest collections originate not from kings and courts but from private collectors, many of whom bequeathed their collections to the town and (since 1878) the Historisches Museum. The Sammlermuseum consists of twelve rooms dedicated to exhibiting a selection of Frankfurt collectors and donors and the items that they collected, in addition to a thirteenth room ( the 13th Collector) which holds special exhibitions. The first room explores the librarian Johann Martin Waldschmidt (1650-1706), under whom the city library collected not only books but also objects including portraits, coins and globes. The final collector represented is Wilhelm Kratz (1873-1945) who specialised in Frankfurt faience of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Every room has a “collector’s book” with information about the collector, their interests, the objects displayed and the history of the collection. The rooms are very well set out, and contain everything from butterflies to armour to miniature paintings. As an explanation piece in the museum states, the rooms representing the collectors display their ‘individual preferences’. Throughout, there is a clear recognition that collections are the product of their collector’s interests, perceptions and prejudices. Certainly, for anyone interested in the history of collecting practices or the interests of the financial and cultural elites across the early modern to modern periods this is surely a treasure trove.

IMG_20171107_141639398 Stairs in the Sammlermuseum.

A great complement to the Sammlermuseum was the current special exhibition (7 October 2017 – 15 July 2018): Ein neues Museum für FrankfurtThe Making of the HMF. The exhibition charts the HMF’s physical development from the demolition of the concrete building in 1972 to the creation of the new sections that just opened this year. It also charts the museum’s conceptual development and how it deals with its collections and exhibitions. The photos combined with the statistics posted on the wall give a very striking insight into the logistics involved in building, and rebuilding a home for the Museum’s sizeable collection. There was also a great video installation on the themes of ‘objects’, ‘milestones’ and ‘models’, which provides a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes goings on of a museum.

IMG_20171107_143936912 Ein neues Museum für Frankfurt – The Making of the HMF, Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

IMG_20171107_144012963 Ein neues Museum für Frankfurt – The Making of the HMF, Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

My favourite sections of the museum were two of the permanent exhibitions: Frankfurt Einst? and Frankfrut Jetzt! I was immediately endeared to Frankfurt Einst? (Frankfurt Once?) because of the use of the question mark in the exhibition’s title as, for me, this reflects the many questions surrounding how “knowable” the past is, and how it is deeply contingent on individual or institutional interpretations.

The exhibition is not chronological, but instead ‘is separated according to the characteristics that defined Frankfurt in the past and continue to define it today’, and the exhibits in certain sections are regularly changed. There is something very relieving about it not being chronological, you don’t feel that you are getting the entire history of the universe (well, Frankfurt) in condensed format. The themes are quite broad and join epochs together well. There is also the 100 x Frankfurt section which gives an overview of the city’s history in everything from gold goblets, umbrellas, and a uniform from a concentration camp. There is no claim that the exhibition covers every aspect of the city’s history, but there is a very genuine attempt to cover the city’s spectrum from great achievements, to daily life, to its darkest and more shameful moments.

It is also in Frankfurt Einst? that I found my favourite display in the museum, One of Each by the Frankfurt artist Karten Bott. Bott collects everyday objects, and in this particular piece one finds an object-inventory of everyday life in central Europe over the past 50 years. There is nothing exclusive about this piece, it is not some delicate ancient object that was only ever possessed by a few. The items are arranged by theme and the artist has sought to create a display that prompts memories and a questioning of what items belong in the Museum. As someone more interested in the everyday than the elite, I loved this piece because it incorporates what is routine, the mundane things that comprise so much of our lives. For me it is a statement on the importance of little things, and the beauty of the everyday.

IMG_20171107_144835248Karten Bott, One of Each. An artistic inventory of everyday things, Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

The permanent Frankfurt Jetzt! (Frankfurt Now!) exhibition was the first time I have encountered an attempt to represent the present in any “historical” museum that I have visited. The 1,000 m2 space is lined with portraits of the city’s population, each capturing something of the lives of the groups and individuals represented. For a non-Frankfurter it provided a fascinating insight into how the people see their own city. This is achieved particularly through the model of the city built by the artist Herman Helle. This huge construction is based on the opinions provided by 1,166 Frankfurters, and built with all kinds of materials and incorporating sound and video, it aims to represent the peoples’ – often contrasting and contradictory – perceptions of their Frankfurt. There is a very good brief film of the city and the model that captures it available here.

The Frankfurt Jetzt! space is more than an archive of the present too, it is also a home for the Stadlabor (City Lab), a project that has been going since 2010 which routinely ventures out beyond the confines of the Museum to engage with the Frankfurters and create exhibitions and events based on this interaction. Perhaps it is initiatives such as this, the Museum’s very active involvement with its context, that makes this feel like a living place, a place that reminds us that history is not over, but being made, and made by us, the everyday people, not just governments, banks or militaries.

Frankfurt (on the left you can see the green top of the Paulskirche where the capital of Germany was decided after WWII; in the centre the spire of the Cathedral; to the centre right the European Central Bank; in the foreground: everyday life).

No institution can ever tell the entire history or the entire present reality of its city, yet in the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, I believe we find a sincere attempt to represent Frankfurt then and now realistically and from many angles. It privileges the everyday alongside the extraordinary (both good and bad) and it actively engages with its context. This is a place that is so much more than an assemblage of display cases, this is a place that is alive and openly recognises that it will change with factors including curation, collecting, and – most importantly – its city. This is a Museum that has made me rethink the purpose and potential of city history museums.

IMG_20171107_125741146 I still had my cake… not as compensation, but celebration (Cafe Sugar Mama, Frankfurt).


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.