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.


International Association of Bioethics 2016

Dominic Reed

Attending conferences is still a new experience for me. The thought of gathering in a pointedly large building with hundreds of people (some known only as a name from the spine of some illustrious tome) remains daunting.  I wonder whether there is valuable research to be done in this area? Perhaps a thoughtful analysis of the relationship between anxiety levels suffered by PhD student and the number of letters succeeding the name of the academic engaged in conversation?


A thought that often occurs when approaching an eminent attendee (name memorised from a University webpage above a sickening number of publications) is what interest can this person possibly have in speaking to me? With the considered observational talents and openness to self-reflection peculiar to all University of Glasgow students, I have come to realise that I myself go through a three stage process in engaging a figure of particular academic renown. With scant reference to modesty I have decided to term this ‘the Reed method’.


Let us begin with the beginning – approach. As words like “eminent”, “trailblazing” and “intellectual-powerhouse” flash before my eyes (snatches from reviews of their most celebrated works), I tend to wonder what interesting new point can I make that they haven’t heard before? What sufficiently clever and incise comment can I usher forth which will lead to an immediate insistence on collaboration, publication and scholarly stardom? This is usually tempered by the second stage – second guess. Nervousness reigns as I picture my comments followed by shaking heads, sneering derision and pointed silences, ears ringing with accusations of “unjustified funding” and “feeble arguments”.  By the turning of besuited shoulders back to exclusive discussions which I, a peon of the academic world cannot be expected to understand. They’ll be dining off tales of my poor research methodology for years! Somehow though, as I materialise in front of them, committed, a manic glint in my eye, the third stage arrives – serene resignation. Mercifully, concerns fade away and as I open my mouth to speak all mental faculties are redirected to simply getting my name right.


The International Association of Bioethics (IaB) conference was for me, notably lacking in scary, unapproachable figures. Set across three days, the itinerary was typically built around a mix of keynote speeches interspersed with the chance to visit individual presentations of research, either verbal or in poster form. Regardless, there was a real opportunity to engage with those individuals presenting their research, not just in formal question sessions but also more informally when the presentations were over. The coffee breaks, lunches and ceilidh dinner fostered a relaxed and friendly atmosphere to approach individuals whose work you admired. It was great to find that they had time not only to listen to what you had to say but also to make suggestions, provide encouragement and requests to keep them updated. This respect for junior researchers was also evident in the number of early career researcher events that took place throughout the conference, dealing with topics like presenting, publishing and funding.


There was a lot of freedom in choosing what kind of talks you wanted to see. Bioethics is a pretty broad church and there were researchers presenting topics from a range of different perspectives. The keynote speeches themselves were well worth attending. Of particular interest to my own research was the address by Baroness Ilora Finlay, consultant palliative care doctor, former BMA President and member of the House of Lords. Finlay’s speech dealt with maintaining and promoting ethical standards both in practice and through implementing legislation. Giving the example of assisted dying, she made a case for caution in discussions of euthanasia, reminding delegates of the human costs in practise of abstract decisions made by legislators.


I was able to find many presentations which faced issues similar to those arising in my own project and there’s far too little space to relate them all here so I’ll just list a couple of favourites. Lisa Schwartz’s work on the difficulty of conducting research in the environment of emergency medicine was very informative. Focussing on the role of substitute decision makers in a paediatric resuscitation study, Schwartz’s presentation highlighted the importance of maintaining appropriate research methods when working in a sensitive environment, giving me ideas for how to approach similar concerns as my own research takes shape. Similarly, the collaborative project on (Neuro)Interventions was fascinating, researchers relating the ethical issues associated with state intervention, by medical means, into the world of criminal justice.


Overall, given the huge and varied program, the friendly presenters and attendees and the excellent food, the Iab Conference was fantastic experience, one that would be well worth repeating in two years in New Delhi! A great deal of thanks is owed to Graeme Laurie and everyone else who helped make the event so worthwhile.

My First Conference as a PhD scholar: The 13th World Congress of Bioethics

M McGachie
Informed consent and genetic collections

In June of this year, Edinburgh played host to 700 delegates at this year’s International Association of Bioethics World conference.  The Conference was a fantastic success with inspiring keynote speakers including bioethics reigning Queen (all hail), Baroness Onora O’Neil. The team from Edinburgh University put together fantastic social events including the HeLa play and the Ceilidh which was held in the beautiful newly refurbished Edinburgh assembly rooms; it was a rip-roaring night of dancing, whiskey, and of course, haggis, neeps, and tatties.


A view of Stormy Edinburgh as I headed to the EICC


For me, the week was dominated by talks on informed consent and data. Whether it was my shuttered focus on the topic or the ethical ‘sexiness’ of the subject within academia at this time, it seemed as though everyone was talking about consent in some form: whether it was consent for vulnerable individuals (Mangadan-Konath); or arguing for the removal of consent for the use of secondary data (Ballantyne).

The use of genetic data also proliferated throughout the conference. Some of the highlights were hearing Cunningham-Burley talk about public engagement with large data collections, Labude giving a much-debated paper on relationships between donor and researcher, and talks on the conference theme of data as a ‘public good’ (noun) and for the public good (verb) which weighed in on debates on genetic data collection.


Parallel Session on Relational Ethics
Parallel session on Health research Resources


A personal highlight was meeting Jane Kaye, director at HELEX in Oxford and hearing her speak about the concept of dynamic consent. Dynamic consent has a structure that covers both the complicated ethical and legal requirements for biobank data collection and the added bonus of integrated participant involvement. I believe the dynamic consent Jane and her team are proliferating is paving the way for a future unified consent model.

The fantastic thing about my first conference was how eager every person was to talk about each other’s research. Everyone was very enthusiastic, and it was extremely infectious.

“I left the end of the week absolutely shattered, not just from listening and contributing, but from coming down off an academic high.”

The debates and topics pushed me to consider possibilities I hadn’t realised and discover the excellent work being done in bioethics across the globe. All the delegates were from vastly diverse backgrounds; from the very practical (doctors, lawyers) to the theoretical (philosophers, concept academics) the combination of the two was interesting and at times tense which only added to the engaging atmosphere.


Fellow Leverhulme Collections blogger Dominic pretending to read


Now to the important stuff…

The food: yes the food was great, some highlights were the mini croissants, the haggis in a bowl and the pack lunches, which I think everyone will agree, were fantastic. They not only brought feelings of nostalgia from school lunches but also added to the fun of feeling like we were all on a giant school trip. Nothing quite tickles me more than seeing distinguished academics comparing crisps and sandwiches from mystery brown bags.

The Drink: but forget the food – beverage wise the event was stocked with booze, booze, booze; and more coffee and tea than you could shake a stick at. Although my preference for a milky hot chocolate went unsatisfied I won’t complain; I’m still too much of a child to handle coffee and tea feels like I’m playing into a British cliché.

The Ceilidh: swinging round my poor colleague Dominic until he was about to pass out was a great way to relieve some of the conference fog. I had the pleasure of discussing Guinness with Baroness Onora O’Neil for a short time and was truly flustered from the encounter – what an inspiring lady. Relaxing by the ceilidh dance floor I spotted a true Scotsman in the dance troupe, let’s just say I was sitting at the wrong height when he passed by, kilt fluttering in his wake….

At the end of the conference I felt inspired, I felt pumped; I was ready to write my thesis in a week and march into my viva voce within the month! However, I had a strange case of what my colleague terms ‘post-conference flu’ which incapacitated me for the following few days… so maybe the viva can wait a couple of years.

Until next time IAB, see you in New Delhi, 2018!

Big thanks to Graeme Laurie and his team for making it such a tremendous experience.  

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.