‘IN GALTON’S HOME’ – Liz Haines

RESPONSE #5 Liz Haines

We had paper plates, plastic cups of wine and sticks of celery in hand, and a growing sense of familiarity between us. Sitting in and amongst us was Simon’s antique (or at least retro) microscope, with its own more domestic lineage. The personal and the informal were certainly more materially interwoven in this evening’s meeting than in our previous ones.

This sat well with our discussions about the flow of stuff that makes up and moves through spaces, the smells and tastes of food, the sensory requirements of scientific investigation, and how these experiences are marshalled and framed by objects that in turn submit to dissolution.

Simon’s paper had opened up a lot of new avenues for thinking about the slides. It had redoubled my resolve to think about their role in Galton’s household. To think of his study as a site with its own materiality and imperatives- how it fit in with his interests, his family, his neighbours*- whether this was in the rise of amateur photography, of industrial tourism, or as the curator Subhadra recounted, his domestically oriented investigations into slicing cake and making the perfect cup of tea.**

But it also made me suddenly very aware of what these slides are not- not handmade, or even bespoke (they are commodities that happen to have been consumed to ‘scientific ends’). They are stored in mass-made boxes that pre-empted an archival impulse- the material resistance to dissolution and decay.

This focus, this intent, in their production has shrunk the scope for an after-life with an adapted functionality. Simon’s microscope (in common with many of the survey instruments I look at) has become something of an elaborate doorstop, its weight and solidity becoming a defining feature. What alternatives could the slides offer less careful owners than the UCL Collections? Brittle bookmarks? Patchwork pieces for a glass window that would rapidly lose its pattern to the rays of the sun? Easier to imagine them literally recycled- melted down into a new glassy being that erased all trace of their shape and edges entirely.

Francis Galton's home, 42 Rutland Gate, Kensington (Image posted from geograph.org.uk (http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/386128)

Francis Galton’s home, 42 Rutland Gate, Kensington (Image posted from geograph.org.uk http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/386128)

Meanwhile, at no. 42 Rutland Gate, Kensington, the social structures and architecture that contained fifty years of Galton’s life remain more or less intact.*** Our meeting overloaded office chairs, paper plates and plastic cups into the room of a building not unlike it.

*These apparently being “merchants, bankers, lawyers, politicians, civil servants, senior army and naval officers, rentiers and others of independent means; a small proportion were members of the aristocracy” British History Online account of Rutland Gate http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45932.

** This gleaned from one of his biographies- for now you’ll need to check with her which one

*** Image posted from geograph.org.uk (http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3861285)

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