RESPONSE #2 Elin Jones
Our recent meeting, with D. Graham Burnett and Sal Randolph, asked the members of the project to consider how we could use objects if we offer them our ‘sustained attention’. Coming from backgrounds in history of science, art theory, and performative art, Burnett and Randolph demonstrated the uses of focusing exclusively on the object in question for an extended period of time. The four stages with which we undertook (encounter, attend, negate, and realize) addressed the ten-pound note in different ways, and required us to detach ourselves from the object, whilst simultaneously becoming attached to its physicality. This attachment was manifest in many of the group’s responses after the session, in which they discussed that they wanted ‘their’ ten-pound note back after it was taken back between stages.
Perhaps as a result of finding this peculiar affinity with a material object, others and myself found ‘negating’ to be the most difficult stage. Negating asked of us what historians are rarely called upon to do, to strip the object bare of its socio-cultural padding, and to divest it of its human associations. However, as I waited for the train home, I realised that my chosen object, the nineteenth-century album, had itself been involuntarily negated. Although it belongs to the UCL Art Museum collection, no one seems to know how the photographs and finished album came to the UK, how or when it came to sit on the shelves of the museum, nor who compiled it and for what purpose. It is the last of these questions which seems to beleaguer those who come into contact with it in a professional capacity. Indeed the blog written on the album by an intern in 2012 ends with the words, ‘I only wish I could give him or her credit by name’, whilst Krisztina Lackoi (museum assistant) has referred to her involvement with the album as a mystery that needs to be solved. Through talking to staff, and trying to understand how I approach the object myself, it seems that the intrinsic worth (and perhaps simultaneous unworth) of this object lies in its pages being littered with images of anonymous men and women, the presence of the hidden photographer, and the phantasmal presence of the ordering hand.
The photographs encourage a Barthesian sense of disconnect from intended meaning and context, and thus place the album as a material object in an uneasy relationship with the rest of UCL’s collections, as evidenced by the failure to display it thus far in it’s history. In photography especially, where human touch, voice, feeling, seem to bubble just below the surface of the object, but also I think in all objects appropriated by men and women at some point in their lives, there is an overwhelming need to know ‘who’ and ‘why’. When the answers to these questions are muted or silent, and the object is thus negated, how can institutions such as the UCL Art Museum interact with the object in question? It is catalogued as a ‘Travel Album’, but even this wisp of contextual padding may in reality be a misnomer. Indeed, it is difficult as a historian of material culture not to be frustrated by this. I hope however, that by drawing on such feelings toward the object, and through repeated visits, that the absence of knowledge can enable a discussion over how we interact with remnants of the material past.