Buds, Bugs, and Bird Skulls: Do such Things Perdure:
This lecture explores a number of fundamental questions concerning humans and the tangible things with which they interact. What is the character of the relationship between humans and tangible things? Have human relationships with tangible things ever been fixed? How do humans order their relationships with tangible things?
The argument proceeds by examining, first, the recognition or creation by humans of distinctions among things and parts of things, and, second, the construction of categories of things. The role of museums in these procedures of ordering the world from a human viewpoint underlies much of the discussion.
In particular, this lecture reports on aspects of an experimental use of museum collections at Harvard University. The Harvard project entailed showing how the millions of tangible things in approximate- ly fifty distinct collections at the university have been sorted into six fundamental institutional categories: art, anthropology and archaeology, books and manuscripts, history, natural history, science and medicine. It then demonstrates that there are many things that either defy ready categorization or could be sorted into more than one category. Finally, the Harvard project tested what might happen when a tangible thing is introduced into an existing group of things in relation to which it was apparently anomalous, such as a human bladder stone placed in a geological exhibit. Does such a gesture undermine the category exemplified by the group?
Three case studies of individual things treated in each of these ways form the main part of the lecture. These things are very varied, and include human made and natural things from as varied parts of the world as China, India, and Panama. In conclusion, the lecture suggests that in spite of the volatility and many varying human uses of the same tangible things over time, aspects of them that allow for their human use remain recognizable so that they can be said to perdure.
Mobilizing non-written traces of the past, Gaskell addresses intersections among history, art history, anthropology, and philosophy. As well as writing case studies ranging from seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, Native American baskets, and Congo textiles, he works on underly- ing philosophical questions. While at Cambridge University, he edited the book series Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and the Arts with Salim Kemal. He organized numerous exhibitions at Harvard University, where he taught and curated between 1991 and 2011. At Bard Graduate Center, as well as teaching in the Masters and PhD programs, Gaskell heads the Focus Project, an ongoing series of experimental exhibitions and publications.
Gaskell is the author, editor, or co-editor of twelve books, including The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish Painting (Philips, 1990), and Vermeer’s Wager (Reaktion, 2000). His most recent book (with Laurel Ulrich, Sara Schechner, and Sarah Anne Carter) is Tangible Things: Making History through Objects (Oxford University Press, 2015). He has contributed to numerous scholarly journals and edited volumes in history, art history, anthropology, and philosophy.
Gaskell is Research Associate in Anthropology of both the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and of the American Museum of Natural History, New York. As a Permanent Senior Fellow of the Lichten- berg-Kolleg of the Georg-August University, Göttingen, Gaskell has spent two months each spring in Göttingen since 2014. He also writes contemporary art criticism, contributing regularly to artUS and West 86th.
About the Speaker:
Ivan Gaskell is Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies at Bard Graduate Center, New York City. He was educated at the Universities of Oxford (BA), London (MA), and Cambridge (PhD), and served successively on the faculty of the Warburg Institute (London), Cambridge, and Harvard before moving to Bard Graduate Center in 2012.
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