FIRST ENCOUNTERS – Sarah Longair

RESPONSE #1 – Sarah Longair

Dodo Bones, Grant Museum of Zoology

Dodo Bones, Grant Museum of Zoology

The challenge laid down by Ludovic Coupaye during the first 100 Hours project meeting was to explore how one object can tell one hundred histories.

I soon began to wonder if one hundred was a little unambitious…  Within minutes of the revelation of the group object – a £10 note – an abundance of interdisciplinary possibilities and insights emerged.  Methods of analysis varied as did terminology and classificatory categories.  I frantically attempted to make notes to help recall some of the avenues I hope to investigate: ‘forensic’, ‘defacement’, ‘disease’, ‘fractal’, ‘discipline’, ‘absence’, ‘possession’, ‘reproduction’, ‘misuse’, ‘texture’.    The list goes on.

Being surrounded by the specimens and models of the Grant Museum continually reminded me of the need to apply these methodological approaches to my selected objects – a set of dodo bones.

It was ‘absence’ that most resonated in my mind during this first session when thinking about the bones – most obviously of the flesh and feathers of the original bird.  The casts of the dodo head and foot, lying next to one another in the case, brought this point home.  There was also the temporary absence of a set of bones from the Grant display and the apocryphal story of a whole dodo specimen in Oxford which disappeared up in flames.  In the museum display, it is the absence of dodos – their extinction – which foregrounds the narrative of the case, as these specimens are displayed alongside other extinct species.   The bones allude to all these absences.

The remains of the dodo carry weighty cultural baggage – the bird has become the icon of the extinct and the exotic.  However, my first task is to examine closely the bones themselves – their shape, weight, patina, colour, density, anatomical function as well as markings or damage.  Ludovic’s analysis of the £10 note reminded us all of the need to undertake a visual investigation of the objects devoid of any pre-existing associations.  I will rely upon the expertise of the Grant Museum staff with my limited knowledge of dodo anatomy.

In our discussion, the shifting values of things emerged several times, unsurprising, given the practical function of the £10 note, yet each discussion offered new ways of interpreting and contextualising value.  Mark Carnall, the Grant curator, mentioned that the dodo bones were acquired from a business-minded collector who sold them to various institutions – a very literal value in the museum market of the era – I hope to pursue this theme further in different geographical and cultural contexts.

Finally, a recurring theme during the meeting was the way in which objects transform us, and how we, as a group, will transform our object – the £10 note – by removing it from its natural habitat of pockets, wallets, cash machines and tills, so breaking its cycle of circulation.  In the case of the dodo bones, while human intervention tragically determined the history of the species, the objects themselves have transformed the institutions in which they are housed, commanding special status within their collections and displays.

2 responses to “FIRST ENCOUNTERS – Sarah Longair

  1. I love your list of words Sarah. ‘Fractal’ seems quite apt to me in terms of how our different approaches might bring us each to look at our objects. But I also think your focus on ‘absence’ is really useful. That could be something to think about in terms of how our objects are displayed and interpreted too? I.e. What is left out? My printing plates are from the Galton collection so there are some interesting absences there too.

  2. I love your list of words Sarah. ‘Fractal’ seems quite apt to me in terms of how our different approaches might bring us each to look at our objects. But I also think your focus on ‘absence’ is really useful. That could be something to think about in terms of how our objects are displayed and interpreted too? I.e. What is left out? My printing plates are from the Galton collection so there are some interesting absences there too.

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