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Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition

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Material objects are produced within specific contexts – geographical, cultural, and temporal. This is true for things as diverse as a fifteenth-century brass astrolabe produced in France, a wooden ceremonial mask carved in Nigeria four centuries later, or a mobile phone made in China during the twenty-first century. But what happens when objects such as these transition into other contexts? How are differences in use and meaning negotiated? Sometimes later reinterpretations and reincarnations (including ‘fakes’ and reproductions) incorporate elements of the objects’ original use and meaning, and other times they diverge entirely.

The negotiation between different contexts is sometimes mainly practical, for example when actors use technology on the move or in different locations – geographical and also sometimes cultural transitioning. Today the variability of technology use worldwide often centres on local infrastructure. Users of pre-modern technology faced far greater challenges as they tried to operate non-standardised instruments, especially in changeable and distant environments such as at sea or on expeditions. How did individuals and institutions react to such challenges? How did non-standardisation of use and experience affect the knowledge embodied in and found with such objects?

In other instances the transitions undergone by material goods are mostly cultural and temporal in nature, as with many objects embodying spiritual knowledge or aesthetic values. For example, art and architectural elements are sometimes reinterpreted and repurposed across centuries or even millennia. Examples include the Classical antiquities revered in early modern and Victorian Europe, and ancient masterpieces such as the Cyrus Cylinder and the Antikythera mechanism which have become modern cultural touchstones. How much remained of these objects’ original meanings and uses in any given era? How have they been reinterpreted and often incorporated into new aesthetic, historical, and national narratives?

The conference will bring together scholars and curators from a variety of locations, disciplines, and periods of study to examine these and other issues surrounding material objects in transition. This discussion will be complemented by creative responses to the theme including artwork to be displayed in the Alison Richard Building, and by events at local museums. The subjects discussed will range in time from antiquity to the present day, and in geography across multiple continents and oceans. This breadth of speakers and topics will help to shed light on the nature of dynamics which are central to the human experience, and on different disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to studying them. These dynamics remain highly relevant today despite the growth of multinational corporations, global communication, and increasing standardisation.

This talk is part of the CRASSH series.

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