Assembling Bodies

This is a review of an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge which was written for the Journal of Museum Ethnography. However, as it looks like it will be published after the exhibition closes, it seemed like it might be worth putting up here while the exhibition can still be viewed:

Assembling Bodies: Art, Science & Imagination, at Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge, from 10 March 2009 to November 2010.

For further information see:

Atomised – Jim Bond, 2005

Finding your way into the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge means entering a gated archway. Passing through this creates a sense of leaving the public space of the town and entering an arena that belongs to the university. As a ‘townie’ growing up in Cambridge, I had the sense that all the exciting things that ever seemed to happen in the city took place behind such gates. Once inside, you are confronted with a courtyard dominated by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, which appears to have landed in the middle of the lawn. Out of sight and tucked away in one corner is the door behind which lies the museum. The museum’s ground floor archaeology gallery is lit up by the orange and green hessian lining its cases, and there is little here to suggest much of the art, science or imagination of this exhibition’s subtitle. However Assembling bodies is displayed in the museum’s second floor gallery, and getting there means leaving this space and climbing a staircase. As you climb, you glimpse people entering and leaving passages and doorways, and on the second floor landing, opposite the entrance to the gallery, you can make out the massed volumes of a department library behind the glass of a door.

This is very definitely a university museum, and you can’t enter it without being aware that it exists alongside and in relation to the university as a site of teaching, learning and research. Rather than attempting to dumb down for a contemporary public, bloated on a diet of celebrity news and reality TV, Assembling Bodies embraces this position and catapults its visitors into the midst of a conversation between people living and working across the departments, colleges, hospitals and artists’ studios of this city. In the Foreword to the exhibition’s catalogue the museum’s director Nicholas Thomas notes that this is the most ambitious exhibition it has ever attempted, and suggests that it ‘exemplifies what university museums do best… a visual and sensory feast that we hope will excite everyone, but is also above all a research-driven, question-raising exhibition.’ The exhibition has been timed to coincide with both the Museum’s 125th anniversary and the University’s 800th. Most of the city’s other exhibition spaces seem to be dominated by marking another anniversary, the 150th since Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species and the 200th since his birth. Rather than dwell on the achievements of one of the University’s more famous alumni, who is also claimed by a large number of other places, Assembling Bodies positions itself firmly within Cambridge’s present. It could even be argued that this exhibition forges a path into the future.

Much of the work underlying the exhibition has taken place during a recent cross- disciplinary research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust on ‘Changing Beliefs of the Human Body’ and this is perhaps why the exhibition creates such a sense of ongoing and unfolding exploration. Like Darwin’s explorations and experiments on the Beagle, this experiment in exploratory exhibition-making also feels like it may continue to generate insights for a while to come. This is no bad thing since the exhibition will be in place for a period of around twenty months. The research interests of the exhibition’s three curators Anita Herle, Rebecca Empson and Mark Elliott are made prominent in the exhibition through the use they make of Haddon’s Torres Straits photographs, a household chest from Mongolia, as well as an array of Indian sculptural busts made by the sculptor Marguerite Milward. As well as collaborating to produce the text of the exhibition, website and catalogue, each of the curators has contributed an individually authored essay to the catalogue. These are joined by other essays written by archaeologists, anthropologists, classicists, artists, and sociologists who were involved in the research project, most of whom work for the University of Cambridge. While this journal now has separate review sections for exhibitions, books and electronic media, in this case the relationship between all three is so close, that it seems sensible to regard them as different parts of the same overall body of work. A visit to the exhibition in Cambridge feels like a ‘first contact’ which can be developed through further engagements with the website as well as with the more reflective essays in the catalogue.


According to the website, the exhibition ‘explores some of the different ways that bodies are imagined, understood and transformed in the arts, social and bio-medical sciences.’ Entering the exhibition-space one is faced with a kinetic sculpture, Atomised, which assembles and then disassembles the steel outline of a human body as visitors pass in and out of the exhibition. This contemporary artwork forms part of an introductory installation which brings together a plaster cast of the nude female Aphrodite of Knidos, a French anatomical model and a New Ireland malangan sculpture all from the nineteenth century with a model of the DNA double helix, a shaman’s costume from Manchuria, and an ancestral effigy from Vanuatu from the twentieth century, as well as a middle Bronze Age funerary urn from Cambridgeshire and a print of a South African acrylic painting produced in 2003. That the curators choose to describe this as an installation is significant, since it seems that they understand their role in assembling this exhibition as simultaneously artists, scientists and imaginaries. Displayed on the wall above the entrance are a number of texts relating to the laws governing the treatment of human bodies in contemporary Britain, and these flag up another sense in which the curators intend the title of the exhibition to be taken – drawing attention to the assembly as a gathering for a common purpose as in the case of a legislative ‘body’. Each of the bodies on display in the museum is simultaneously the product of and the reason for a process of material assembly, but also for an assembling of humans, whether they be scientists, classicists, South African AIDS activists or mourners from New Ireland, Malekula, or Bronze Age Cambridgeshire. The bodies on display assemble a body of humans around them, but are also an assembly of such a body. This is a fractal exhibition in which the sense of the terms Assembling and Bodies recur and resonate at many different levels and scales of meaning.

Fa`a fafine: in the manner of a woman – Shigeyuki Kihara, 2005

After this introductory section, the exhibition consists of six further thematic zones located around the circular balcony gallery. The curators declare that there are many pathways through these, describing the groupings as overlapping ‘clusters’ that draw on the comparative method to ‘throw differences into relief, to identify similarities between diverse materials and to make the familiar appear strange and open to investigation.’ The website lists these clusters in one order and the catalogue in another, neither of which was that in which I encountered the exhibition. Body & Landscape suggests ways in which bodies can relate to the landscapes in which they live by displaying a number of archaeological materials as well as a model Haida totem pole and a print by Jo Stockham which suggests an analogy between human body and the globe, as microcosm and macrocosm. A video installation shows, in accelerated time, the process by which a number of living bodies unearthed a dead one during an archaeological excavation during summer 2007. Genealogies & Genomes brings together a number of forms for reckoning the relationships between bodies, including twelfth and seventeenth century European diagrams, an aboriginal bark painting from Arnhem land, a Maori cloak, a Chinese spirit tablet and a Tibetan rebirth mural. Alongside these is displayed a volume of the printed version of the DNA sequence published by the human genome project in 2005. This anonymous coded text sits in counterpoint to a portrait by Marc Quinn of the geneticist John Sulston who led the project, which includes his photograph alongside a sample of DNA in a bar of agar jelly. Alongside this is an installation of bilum string bags and pearl shells which explore Melanesian modes of relatedness, outlined further in a catalogue essay by one of their most important interpreters, Cambridge’s recently retired Professor of Anthropology, Marilyn Strathern. Extending and Distributing includes interesting sections on votive body parts, relics & memorials, prosthetics and organ transplants. The Body Multiple includes four further ‘body maps’ produced by the Bambanani Women’s Group in South Africa, which document the lives of a number of women with HIV who have had access to antiretroviral therapies. The maps began with an outline of each woman’s body, but layers of interpretation are built up around these detailing the multiple ways in which each woman thinks about her body. Measuring and Classifying includes display sections on Instruments & Analogies, Typologies, The Body & Its Capacities, Phrenology, Brain Imaging and Anthropology & Photography. The last of these draws heavily on the museum’s own history and collection and becomes a self-reflexive installation by the museum’s curators. Art & Anatomy includes the Milward portraits, a set of Roman busts, a Mende mask, a number of anatomical diagrams and devices as well as a display on sounding bodies that includes a number of stethoscopes. Alongside these is the striking photographic triptych Fa’a fafine: in the manner of a woman by Shigeyuki Kihara, which was also exhibited in the last exhibition to be shown in this space: Pasifika styles.

The re-presentation of this artwork made me think of the ways in which a part of one body may become reconfigured as part of another, suggesting permeability and leakage between bodily formations. The central space of the gallery is filled by a sculpture commissioned from Jim Bond who also made Atomised with which the exhibition begins. From most angles in the gallery Anamorphism appears as a number of disconnected steel pieces, but when viewed from one end these come together to give the outline of a human form. The photograph of this in the catalogue shows it against a black background, but in the gallery the museum’s large totem pole, appears to be looming up behind it, another whole formed from many parts. The curators use the hollowed out reverse of the totem pole as a convenient place to mount an interactive monitor showing images of brain scans, but it is not the only object from the museum’s collection which permeates into the space of this exhibition without being given a label. Hanging from the roof is a canoe which suggests itself as both an extension to the human body and a way in which bodies relate to their environment. Because bodies touch and are touched by so many things, I found myself struggling to think of an object that could not have found a place somewhere in this exhibition. As a result, it is not only the boundaries between this exhibition and the rest of the museum that are permeable and the objects displayed in the exhibition come from the collections of other Cambridge museums, college collections and even the National Portrait Gallery and the Science Museum in London. The interchangeability of bodies means that many of the objects displayed in this exhibition would have worked equally well in a number of the exhibition’s other thematic clusters.

The Head of the Blue Chip II – Dianne Harris, 2009

The exhibition’s introductory panel asks its visitors ‘How does the encounter with these different human forms influence the way you think about your own body?’ This question occurred to me on three occasions while visiting the exhibition. The first was
when I caught sight of my own reflection in one of the glass case fronts. The second was as I encountered the lifelike gaze projected by Head of the Blue Chip II by the artist Dianne Harris. The third occurred on leaving, when rather than looking at the doorways that led off the staircase, I was faced with my own reflection in the mirror of the lift. My body, unlike those I had been looking at is alive and its actions, such as entering by the stairs and leaving by the lift, are not uniform enough to be predicted by the laws governing the movements of other kinds of bodies. Isaac Newton famously assembled these laws of motion in Cambridge, and his presence in the exhibition is marked by his death mask, which features in the exhibition’s display of relics. The body responsible for assembling this exhibition, Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, is in many ways more like my body than those it has assembled, since it is hard to predict what it will do next.