Network launch: Objects

Thinking through Objects: A Workshop at the University of Birmingham

Part of the Wellcome Trust Network: ‘Senses and Health/care Environments: Exploring interdisciplinary and international opportunities’

New materialism and spatial studies emphasise that space/place are co-produced by humans and non-humans, and are therefore not simply sites of human perception. Bringing these ways of thinking into sensory studies, we must consider not only people’s sensory experience but also sensory interactions between humans and objects; ‘things’, tools and technologies are also changed by sensory interactions and have sensory worlds beyond those given meaning by human perception. Thinking through objects encourages us to explore sensory environments in new ways, beyond cultural history approaches and questions of human meaning-making. Some really interesting work is emerging in relation to objects, assemblages and health, including the extensive work of Deborah Lupton in this area on digital health and self-monitoring devices. In my own recent work I have started to explore what thinking about materials, ‘assemblages’ and actor-network theory might bring to a sensory study of hospital environments.

In line with some of these questions, the ‘Senses and Health/care Environments’ network launched on 27 August 2019 with a workshop on Objects. This workshop was part of a collaboration with the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health (EAHMH) Conference on the theme of ‘Sense and Nonsense’. Bringing together medical historians from around the world with this Wellcome Trust network’s members – from artists to scholars of semiotics – we kicked off with a workshop on senses, objects and healthcare environments.

In order to facilitate ‘thinking through objects’, we created a multi-sensory marketplace full of the smells, sounds, images and tactility of healthcare environments.

Professor Jonathan Reinarz and Dr Henry Connor (University of Birmingham) then offered an interactive display of medical objects from the Birmingham Medical & Dental Collection. Thinking about the Birmingham collection, we considered what we can do with such archives and how these objects help us to understand the senses in healthcare and care environments. Workshop attendees discussed:

• Are objects and technologies as important in the sensory making of space as the built environment? Why, or why not?

• What do we gain from handling / looking at objects, as opposed to reading about them or looking at photographs? Or do we actually lose something by taking them out of context?

• What objects or material culture are important in your research, in relation to the senses and health, if any?

• Do all of these objects survive, in order to be archived or studied? What is missing and why?

This network is thinking about the sensory environment of spaces of healthcare and care at a range of scales. We started with objects in order to explore the sensory aspects of material culture and the role that they play in the making of space and place. We will build towards a big international conference in 2021 that will focus on the built environment and will bring together histories of design, architecture, sensory history and the social history of medicine. In 2020 a group of core collaborators will be focusing on writing retreats for what we hope will be an exciting and creative interdisciplinary output from the network. More details to follow soon!

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