On Re-reading Alfred Gell’s Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps

As a result of selecting this as the main first week reading for our MA paper on the Arts of Africa, I have read this paper three times in the last two years. Every time I return to it, I find more there. Over the past twenty years, Gell has largely been associated, at least in student essays, with the reductive notion that ‘objects have agency’, largely due to the title of his posthumously published book Art and Agency (1998). But his writing is lively, complex and multi-layered – it always feels like he is trying to say about five things in any one paper – but the fresh and engaging style with which he writes always carries me along as a willing and enthusiastic reader. 

A Cambridge trained anthropologist who worked largely at LSE, Gell did his initial fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, subsequently also working in India. During his career he wrote about ritual, time and exchange, publishing books in the early 1990s on The Anthropology of Time (Gell, 1992a) and Tattooing in Polynesia (Gell, 1993). However, Alfred Gell really established himself as a key theorist on the anthropology of art during the 1990s with essays such as The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology(Gell, 1992b). Not content to limit himself to generating localised ethnographies, Gell remained wedded to an anthropological enterprise that involved developing categories and forms of analysis that were applicable across cultural contexts.

This essay, published in the very first issue of the Journal of Material Culture in 1996, may be one of the last things Gell published before his premature death in January 1997. According to its abstract, it ‘explores the basis of the distinction commonly made between works of art or art objects and ‘mere’ artefacts, which are useful but not aesthetically interesting or beautiful’ (Gell, 1996, 15). This is Gellian modesty. By substituting one letter, that description becomes much more accurate – it explodes the basis of this distinction.

Replica of a Zande hunting net, rolled and bound for transport as displayed in the exhibition Art/artifact at theCenter of African Art, New York 1988 by Mariana Castillo Deball, 2013: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/mariana-castillo-deball-vogels-net

The main target of the paper is an essay by Arthur Danto (1988) in the catalogue for Susan Vogel’s 1988 exhibition at the Centre of African Art in New York, ART/ARTIFACT. It is worth noting Gell’s generosity in calling it a masterly essay. Nevertheless, one senses that he has real problems, both with Danto’s argument and his way of making it. Danto wants to argue that the Zande hunting next exhibited by Vogel is not a work of art, suggesting that it falls outside a tradition of conceptual art embedded in a system of ideas and interpretation that has developed in the (western) art-historical tradition. Gell points out that this conception is essentially Hegelian (relying on a notion of art motivated by transhistorical Geist), but also that Danto is not consistent in wanting to retain the great works of African sculpture ‘discovered’ by the modernists in the early twentieth century, while rejecting Vogel’s net. In order to make this argument, Danto relies on a rather absurd philosophical thought experiment contrasting ‘pot people’ and ‘basket people’, who produce identical objects but invest cosmological significance in one rather than the other of these two artefacts. Had he engaged with the ethnographic literature, Gell suggests, Danto would have encountered conceptual worlds far more sophisticated and interesting than he was able imagine.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 by Damien Hirst: http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of

Mid-way through the essay, Gell shifts tack, developing a demonstration of how he would approach this problem in the form of a virtual exhibition, consisting of a series of of traps, alongside examples of contemporary art such as Damien Hirst’s shark (introduced through one of Gell’s sketches) and Duchamp’s Trebuchet, to draw out the significance and meaning from each other, demonstrating that traps can’t be straightforwardly dismissed as functional artefacts. This concentration on traps is very deliberate – they are he suggests ‘a master metaphor of deep significance’, ‘a representation of human being-in-the world’ and ‘a working model of a person’ that also embody the tragic sequence of hubris-nemesis-catastrophe.

The trap for Gell represents a materialised nexus of intentionalities, and as such is an exemplary kind of art object. He suggests that every work of art works like ‘a trap or snare that impedes passage’, and that art galleries are ‘a place of capture’ set with ‘“thought-traps” which hold their victims for a time, in suspension’ (Gell, 1996, 37). Most exemplary of all is Pierre Lemonnier’s Anga eel trap -which through the eels they actually catch form images of living ancestral power ‘that actually accomplish work, actually nourish those who make them, and so achieve a goal that has always eluded our artists, waylaid as they have been by the need for realistic representation of (surface) forms’ (Gell, 1996, 34).

When you reach the conclusion, it becomes clear that Gell’s paper is not simply an exposition of Vogel’s net, a refutation of Danto’s arguments about it, or even an imaginative thought exhibition, but is fundamentally an argument against ‘the continuing hold of the “aesthetic” notion of artworks over the anthropological mind’ (Gell, 1996, 35). Gell suggests that this ‘reactionary… middle brow’ definition of art has ‘little or noting to do with the kinds of objects (installation, performances) that are characteristically circulated as ‘art’ in the late 20th century’ (Gell, 1996, 35). For Gell , ‘the “anthropology of art” ought to be about… the provision of a critical context that would enfranchise “artefacts” and allow for their circulation as artworks, displaying them as embodiments or residues of complex intentionalities’ (1996, 37). 

It would be wonderful to be able to report that in the decade and a half since I used Gell’s argument about artworks as traps as the basis of a pitch for my first curatorial job at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, that this project of artifactual enfranchisement had been successfully accomplished. There have definitely been plenty of examples of art museums incorporating and displaying collections of artefacts previously known as ‘ethnography’. But the thought that keeps arising when I reflect on this, is that museums and art galleries are themselves massive traps, capable of capturing and redirecting curatorial intentionalities along their own complex webs of ancestral intentionality. If the Anga eel trap is an image of ancestral eel power that actually accomplishes work, is the museum or gallery not an even more powerful living image of institutionalised ancestral power?


DANTO, A. 1988. Artifact and Art. ART/ARTIFACT: African Art in Anthropology Collections. New York: Center for African Art and Prestel Verlag.

GELL, A. 1992a. The anthropology of time : cultural constructions of temporal maps and images. Oxford, Berg.

GELL, A. 1992b. The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology. In: COOTE, J. & SHELTON, A. (eds.) Anthropology, art and aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1993. Wrapping in images: tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

GELL, A. 1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1, 15-38.

GELL, A. 1998. Art and agency : an anthropological theory. Oxford, Clarendon Press.Art

On Doing Decolonial Education

I’ve recently been writing an essay for my MA in Higher Education Practice at UEA, and since it relates to a series of ongoing conversations, have decided to make it available here:

#RhodesMustFall Protesters at UCT. From The africanisation and decolonisation of higher education: Progress and challenges by Veli Mbele: https://www.pambazuka.org/pan-africanism/africanisation-and-decolonisation-higher-education-progress-and-challenges

The #RhodesMustFall movement in 2015 found its focus in the call for the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its commanding place on the campus at the University of Cape Town (Kamanzi, 2015). As statues continue to fall around the globe, it is increasingly clear that this movement provided the spark that ignited a global wave of youth activism. I have written elsewhere about decolonial iconoclasm, what I want to consider here is another demand made by the movement – for ‘free, quality decolonial education’ (Gegana, 2016). Taking down statues is, relatively speaking, the easy bit. As student calls for ‘decolonisation’ echo around University campuses across the world, including at UEA where the Faculty of Arts and Humanities has recently launched a ‘Decolonising working party’ in response, initial meetings of which I have attended, how can we, as academics and educators, respond to these increasingly urgent student demands?

In the first instance, I feel like I need to provide an account of some of the ways in which my life has been implicated with these issues. Born in apartheid South Africa during the late 1970s, the early years of my life were shaped by travelling between Johannesburg’s northern suburbs and Soweto where my mother worked at a school for disabled children. When P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency, my parents felt that the country was on a path towards all out civil war, and with three white male children, they faced the prospect of enduring compulsory conscription of their children for a total of six years, into an army increasingly deployed within the country of which they were citizens. In 1986 my parents made the decision to leave the land where they had both been born, and applied for Irish citizenship, on the basis that my paternal grandfather, my only non-South African grandparent, had been born in County Kerry, a decade before the Easter rising.

Experiencing most of my education in England, like many immigrants from the former British Empire, I was struck by Britain’s lack of recognition for its Imperial past. I had to use opportunities outside the formal curriculum to discover accounts of the world in which I recognised myself and my family history. A school project on the Anglo-Boer war, in which three of my four great-grandfathers were combatants, was supplemented by reading novels by Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee and Alan Paton, and listening to the music of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim and Lucky Dube. I remember watching the Free Nelson Mandela concert live on TV in 1988, Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, going to hear him speak at Trafalgar Square in 1996, as well as earnestly reading Long Walk to Freedom from cover to cover.

Studying Archaeology and Anthropology at university was a way for me, finally, to put Africa at the centre of my education. But the 1990s were a time when Anthropology especially, was grappling with its colonial history, and encountering Johannes Fabian’s (1983) Time and the Other, alongside work by George Marcus and James Clifford (1986), made it increasingly uncomfortable to pursue anthropological fieldwork in the manner expected by some who taught me. Despite completing a research masters, I backed away from a doctorate in Anthropology at Oxford. Finding myself recruited for a PhD in Canberra, at the height of Australia’s (Taylor, 2016) culture wars around Aboriginal history, reinforced my sense that I in particular, and perhaps Anthropology in general, couldn’t assume a right to intrude on people’s lives in other parts of the world in the name of research. What encounters with Aboriginal people in both Arnhem Land and Melbourne taught me was that their personal and family histories, like my own, had been deeply impacted by colonial histories, and in particular by missionary institutions through which the Australian government administered Aboriginal groups.

Back in the UK, I applied for and was appointed to a curatorship at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Responsible for non-European collections, I discovered the material counterpart to the colonial, and particular missionary pasts I had learned about in Australia and Botswana – items presented by returning missionaries. This provided the spark for a part-time PhD on the museum of the London Missionary Society, which I undertook while working for a time on a research project on Englishness and English collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum. My overwhelming sense at the time, was that Salman Rushdie (1988) hit the nail squarely on the head when he had Mr S.S. ‘Whisky’ Sisodia’s stutter that ‘The trouble with the English is that their hiss-hiss-history happened overseas, so they do-do- don’t know what it means.’

My own experience of secondary education was deeply colonial in all sorts of ways, in large part through the exclusion of British colonial history. Since then, the school curriculum has increasingly been framed around an island story (Flett, 2013), dominated by encounters with despotic continental leaders, from the Pope to Napoleon and Hitler. It not only excludes the colonial pasts my ancestors were engaged in, from South Africa to India, North America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, but includes next to nothing about pasts involving my Irish ancestors, or indeed about the other languages, Welsh and Gallic, that are indigenous to the island in question.

In contrast to the school curriculum, some have argued that by placing non-European lives at the centre of their concerns, Anthropology and Archaeology can be regarded as counter-hegemonic, even decolonising disciplines. But what this fails to recognise are the multiple ways in which as disciplines they were framed, and continue to be framed by the colonial worlds in which they have taken shape (Pels, 2018). One of the points that the ‘Born Frees’, the generation of students born after the fall of apartheid in 1994 most active in #RhodesMustFall, were keen to make was that neither apartheid nor colonialism are really over. The implication is that we need to grapple with the ways in which they continue to shape not only our lives, but also our modes of education and thinking.

Beyond Decolonising the Curriculum

Decolonise T-shirts. From Is decolonizing the new black? A collaboration among Left of Brown, Sisters of Resistance and Jenny Rodriguez: https://www.leftofbrown.com/single-post/2018/07/12/Is-decolonising-the-new-black

One fairly straightforward response that is increasingly installed as an operational answer to this demand is to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. In practice, what this frequently comes to mean is the diversification of reading lists, with the inclusion of more non- European voices and authors of colour, alongside potentially the inclusion of a few more non-Europe focused optional papers (Muldoon, 2019). While most reading lists could do with refreshing and the structure of degrees should be reframed in less Eurocentric terms, it seems unlikely that this approach alone will be sufficient in meeting the demand for ‘free,quality decolonial education’ (Feris, 2017), even if it does fulfil Fanon’s (1967, 27) definition of decolonisation in a straightforward sense, ‘as quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men.’

One issue that arises is the precise verb form used in relation to decolonisation. Is it important to be ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, to have a ‘decolonised’ curriculum, or to have a ‘decolonial’ curriculum? In some quarters there is definitely an impatience around the project of decolonisation, which manifests as a demand for a past-tense decolonised curriculum (Swain, 2019), but this potentially risks a superficial or hurried approach that potentially fails to recognise the magnitude of the task. ‘Decolonising’ on the other hand adopts the present participle to place the focus on the process itself, whether pursued through faculty working groups, student-led projects or administratively driven projects. There is a risk of a slip into the gerund, so that ‘decolonising’ becomes an activity to pursue in its own right, the fashionableness of which has prompted some (Rodriguez, 2018) to ask whether Decolonising has become the new black, at least in academic circles. But, I want to suggest that ‘free, quality decolonial education’, a slogan of the #FeesMustFall movement that followed #RhodesMustFall, means something slightly different – that education itself should become decolonial, and this, I think, is a more ambitious, if perhaps less obvious goal.

A. Khaym Ahmed (2017, 8) who completed at PhD on #RhodesMustFall at Columbia has suggested that the movement found its theoretical inspirations in Steve Biko’s (1978) ideas of black consciousness, Frantz Fanon’s (1967) decolonisation thesis and Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1991) intersectionality theory, and framed the struggle as a resistance to the dehumanisation of black people, which they argued was ‘a violence extracted only against black people by a system that privileges whiteness’. However, in the call for ‘decolonial’ education specifically, I think it is also possible to detect the influence of the Argentine scholar, Walter Mignolo, who with other Americanists has been central to developing ideas around ‘decoloniality’ in recent decadesMignolo has been a key reference point for Nick Shepherd, who until recently was based at the Centre for African Studies at UCT, so it is not hard to see how these ideas would find their way into South African student thinking.

Mignolo has been keen to draw a distinction between ‘decolonisation’ as a political state-level project, ‘Decoloniality’ as an epistemic project, and the more familiar theories associated with ’Postcolonialism’, suggesting that:

Briefly stated: post-colonialism and decoloniality have the history of Western colonialism in common. But while post-colonialism is based on the Indian and Palestinian experiences, they both are consequences of the enlightenment in 18th century Europe. While for us, the historical experiences are the colonization of America and the European Renaissance. That is what concerns the historical differences between the ‘post-’ and the ‘de-’.

Conceptually, the ‘post’ keeps you trapped in unipolar time conceptions. As far as for Western (since the Renaissance) cosmology “time” is one, singular and universal, you have no way out: you are trapped in a universal time that is owned by a particular civilization. Therefore, what comes after X has to be conceptualized as post-X. Decoloniality instead opens up to the multiple times of cultures and civilizations upon which Western Civilization imposes its conceptualization of time.

The ‘de-’indicates above all the need and the goal of the re-: epistemic reconstitutions, re-emergence, resurgence, re-existence. That is, neither new nor post.

(Hoffman, 2017)

Postcolonial education, then, would acknowledge and recognise colonial histories and the ways in which they have shaped contemporary conditions and systems of thought, without proposing any means of escape. But decolonial education would seek to challenge and unpick the assumptions and frameworks upon which colonial forms of knowledge have been built, primarily through re-introducing alternative perspectives, suppressed through the ‘coloniality of power’. This concept was developed by Anibal Quijano (2000) to describe forms of racial, political and social hierarchy and discrimination that have outlived formal colonialism, but which are nevertheless constitutive of modernity and the capitalist world system. Indeed, Mignolo (2011) has suggested that coloniality can be understood as the darker side of modernity, relying on a logic of extraction and accumulation by dispossession. Race emerges from this conceptualisation as a naturalisation of the colonial relations between Europeans and non-Europeans, assigning knowledge production to Europeans, while disqualifying other forms of knowledge through recategorising them as ‘tradition’. For Mignolo (2007), decolonial praxis involves delinking from dominant and universalizing Western epistemologies that centre narratives of European modernity, civilisation or development, through acts of epistemic disobedience. These should ideally attempt to conceive and create institutional organisations that are at the service of life, rather than putting people at the service of institutions (Mignolo and Walsh, 2018, 127).

Doing Education ‘Otherwise’

For Mignolo (2018, 113), decoloniality is not a concept or theory that can be readily assimilated into existing disciplinary conversations , but is rather a practice of ‘thinking and doing otherwise’. What would it mean, then, to think or do education ‘otherwise’? For #FeesMustFall protesters, it was clear that neoliberal models of marketised higher education were marked by an inherent coloniality – mining them and their future lives to support and sustain Universities as institutions. As a member of the very last cohort of students to receive a fee free higher education in the UK, I am intensely conscious of the ways in which the introduction of ever higher student fees has transformed student experiences of education. But doing education ‘otherwise’ doesn’t simply involve removing fees.

My thinking about how to do education ‘otherwise’ has been significantly shaped by two short books, one by the British anthropologist Tim Ingold, published in 2018, Anthropology and/as Education and the other published by the Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Ingold’s book developed from a series of lectures given in honour of John Dewey, so engages explicitly with the educational ideas of the American pragmatist philosopher, without citing Freire directly. Freire’s book also emerges out of dialogue, but in his case with Frantz Fanon’s argument in the Wretched of the Earth on the centrality of violence to decolonial liberation. A number of scholars have drawn attention to commonalities between Freire and Dewey’s ideas, as I propose with those of Ingold.

Freire criticises what he calls the “banking” concept of education, where students are understood as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, while Ingold attacks the widespread assumption that education is about the transmission of information. Ingold argues that instead, education is a practice of attending to the world, while Freire suggests that it involves cultivating a critical consciousness to reflect on reality. Ingold (2018, 4) draws on Dewey to develop a notion of education as ‘commoning’, a mutual participation in each others’s varied lives through attending to a mutual environment, in which senior and junior parties share a stake in the outcome – the absence of which marks training, rather than education. Education, Ingold (2018, 17) suggests ‘is what allows us humans to collectively make ourselves, each in his or her way’ – a process of human becoming.

For Freire, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is also marked by communication through dialogue, even dialectic, as a means of overcoming the dehumanisation that results from violence in both the oppressed and their oppressors. He suggests that:

Dehumanisation, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human.

(Freire, 2017 [1970], 18)

For Freire (2017 [1970], 18), education can be a practice of liberation and freedom, but he suggests that the ‘great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed’ is to liberate themselves as well as their oppressors, since only the power that springs from weakness is strong enough to free both. Attempts to ’soften’ their power by the oppressor manifest as paternalism, a form of false generosity, which perpetuates injustice, since according to Freire, freedom is acquired by conquest, rather than by gift, and must be pursued constantly and responsibly. In contrast to Fanon’s ideas about the liberating effects of violence, Freire (2017 [1970], 30) suggests that it only an act of love can oppose the lovelessness which lies at the heart of the oppressors’ violence, and while now not unchallenged, I think one can see the impact of Freire’s ideas on Mandela’s approach to reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa.

Freire might agree with Fanon that decolonisation consists of the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men’, but in his case he wants to achieve this through transformation of both oppressors and oppressed into new kinds of person, since the immediate model of humanity for many of the oppressed remains becoming like their oppressors. Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed as a form of decolonial education attempts to overcome the dialectical contradiction between oppressors and oppressed through the humanisation of all.

While oriented in different directions, both Ingold and Freire agree that education is not something we do ‘to’ other people, but, as a process of ‘humanisation’ or ‘human becoming’, is something we do ’with’ them – in the process turning othering into what Ingold (2018, 66) calls ‘togethering’. This proceeds through response-ability and paying close attention to our shared world, and in Freire’s case to the nature of forms of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which can be transformed through praxis; reflection and action upon the world.

The inherent danger for those of us located in Universities is the trap outlined by Freire, where awareness of the conditions of oppression, and our ongoing participation in them, leads to rationalisaion of guilt through paternalistic treatment that maintains the dependence of the oppressed. Decolonial education is clearly not something we can do ‘to’ others, but is something we must do ‘with’ them – paying attention together to the conditions of coloniality and oppression in our world, being prepared to be personally transformed by the process, and as a consequence working towards a world that enhances human flourishing – affirming life, growth and movement.

Both Ingold and Freire make a distinction between two types of education. For Freire (2017 [1970], 28) it is between systemic education, which can only be changed by political power, and educational projects carried out with the oppressed. For Ingold (2018, 37), the distinction is between education in the major key, the education of the school which immunises and provides security through knowledge, and education in the minor key, a practice of disarmament, enabling us to break out of the security of our defensive positions in the pursuit of wisdom. It is this latter form, Ingold suggests, that fulfils the etymological meaning of education as ex-ducere – leading out. Anxious, unsettling and inquisitive, education in the minor key is an act of care, a gift, that nevertheless exposes us all to significant risk.

While Ingold’s book in part emerges as a reaction to and critique of the contemporary University – following the campaign at Aberdeen ‘Reclaiming our University’ in which he played a prominent part – it is striking that the book finds its focus in a final chapter on ‘Anthropology, Art and the University’. Ingold (2018, 58) argues for Anthropology (but also Art) as a form of Education, defined as ‘a generous, open-ended, comparative and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and potentials of human life in the one world we all inhabit.’ What is striking, however, is that he suggests that this is true whether considering anthropology in the classroom or in the field – both involve close attention to the world in co-respondence with others. 

Personally, I have grappled with doing research in Africa in the wake of challenges such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (2012 [1999]) Decolonizing Methodologies, which suggested that ‘from the vantage point of the colonised… the term “research” is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism’. But recognising time spent with others in Africa as a significant element in my decolonial education has felt transformative. Over the past five years, as the consequences of #RhodesMustFall have unfolded globally, I have been involved in setting up what Freire might call an educational project – Recollecting the Missionary Road – with colleagues at Sol Plaatje University, established in 2014 in South Africa’s Northern Cape.

Through field schools at the Moffat Mission in Kuruman, a London Missionary Society station established in independent African territory in 1824, and subsequently colonised, we have been attending together, to the landscape as a means of understanding how the processes of oppression involved in coloniality transformed coloniser and the colonised alike. The conditions of a temporarily constituted field school, like the transient Bogwera and Bogale initiation schools, have been ideal ‘other’ places in which to pursue education in the minor key – attending together to the circumstances under which South Africa was simultaneously racialised and tribalised through missionary, colonial and apartheid projects.

The challenge ahead for decolonial education, as I see it, involves translating experiments in decolonial education onto University campuses in both South Africa and the UK. Will it be possible to do decolonial education ‘otherwise’ in the more formal and hierarchical institutional settings of the institution?


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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: http://maa.cam.ac.uk/assemblingbodies/

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.

See: http://maa.cam.ac.uk/assemblingbodies/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.