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Curious Specimens

Curious Specimens: Enlightenment Objects, Collections, Narratives

Victoria & Albert Museum, 15-17 April, 2010

Curious Specimens Tickets: https://transactions.vam.ac.uk/peo/search_results.asp?txtSource=FastSearch

Organized by Luisa Calè (l.cale@bbk.ac.uk)
in conjunction with the Lewis Walpole Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, Yale Center for British Art

This conference will explore Enlightenment objects and practices of collecting, asking how they might resist frames of interpretation and question the classifications, narratives, identities and disciplines generated around them. Drawing on semiotic and poststructuralist approaches, recent work in museum studies has analyzed the rhetoric of exhibitions and museum displays. Anthropology has helped rethink exhibits in terms of the migration and “lives of objects.” Personal, local, national, colonial histories have emphasized how objects are shaped by different regimes of viewing. What happens if we suspend our notions of the place of objects in today’s disciplines and we try instead to recuperate what they meant in long eighteenth-century collecting contexts? How might a predisciplinary approach revive the stories of objects in Enlightenment collections? Systems of classification define processes of attribution, deattribution, deaccessioning of objects then and now. What alternative or previous possibilities do such systematic impulses obscure? What happens to objects once they are declared fakes? How do objects change identity from one context or owner to the next? We are hoping that a predisciplinary approach might illuminate alternative dimensions of objects, which current disciplinary approaches fail to capture.

This conference takes its starting point from two major exhibitions on enlightenment collecting: Walpole and Strawberry Hill (YCBA & V&A 2009-10) and Mrs Delany’s Circle and the Art of Natural History (YCBA & John Soane’s Museum, 2009-10). The fresh finds emerging from these two major curatorial projects will inform new ways of thinking about eighteenth-century practices of collecting. Conference delegates will enjoy the unique opportunity to visit these two exhibitions as part of the conference. There will also be an open call for papers on collecting in the long eighteenth century.

Speakers include: Malcolm Baker (University of California Riverside), Stephen Bann (Bristol), George Haggerty (University of California Riverside), Lucy Peltz (National Portrait Gallery), Pamela Smith (Columbia), as well as curators Cynthia Roman (Lewis Walpole Library, Yale) and Michael Snowdin (V&A), who co-curated Walpole and Strawberry Hill and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts (YCBA), co-curator of Mrs Delany’s Circle.