Miranda Laurence, University of Reading Arts Development Officer
It’s quite difficult to describe the frisson that went around the room as everyone realised that, in front of them, to look at and indeed touch, were original copies of some of the most famous books in medical history.
Full of painstaking engravings illustrating the very minute details of the human body in all its layerings, the copies of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica and Bidloo’s Anatomia Hvmani Corporis provided a huge source of fascination for the artists and scholars gathered for an afternoon’s workshop, jointly organised by the Health Humanities Research Network, and the Arts Development Officer as part of the University’s arts strategy activity.
We invited four artists from different disciplines, with an interest in medical humanities, to join the Director of the Health Humanities Research Network, Andrew Mangham, University Art Collections Curator, Naomi Lebens, Research Officer at the Cole Collection, Verity Burke, and Arts Development Officer, Miranda Laurence. The artists were Simon Hall, doctor, visual artist and dental trainee whose work explores art and medicine collaboration; Fiona Millward, a dancer, teacher and choreographer and Rolfing practitioner; Kelley Swain, a writer of science poetry and literature reviews, and teacher of medical humanities; and Eleanor Crook, a sculptor with a special interest in mortality, anatomy and pathology who exhibits internationally in fine art and medical and science museum contexts.
Naomi Lebens and Verity Burke began the session by introducing us to chosen items from the University Art and the Cole collection, respectively; the theme of ‘movement and stillness’ underpinned their choices. Our discussion ranged from the different visual and haptic interactions experienced when dissecting preserved body parts as opposed to conducting an operation on a live person; to how the illustrations of dissected bodies in the two anatomical text books varied from classical to grotesque, and what effect that had on the viewer; to how sketches of performing dancers related to a drawing of a woman on her death bed, and a woman mid- conversation.
These eclectic conversations led us to an exploration of how each of us might unlock an unfamiliar object – whether that might be a work of art, a book, or anything else – from our different discipline perspective. Eleanor wrote: “these responses ranged from it being a kind of physical empathy, to it being a teasing out of stories, to it being a relationship to the hand and the haptic, to it being , in my case, a kind of séance.”
The different disciplines in which everyone worked might have given each person a different starting point, but as conversation flowed, the approaches described by one person drew sparks of responding imagination from another. For Fiona it was illuminating “to recognise the mutuality within our approaches of opening oneself up to the making process, but also the diversity bred of our different forms and so how the steps beyond that spiral out into different directions.”
We are hoping to be able to follow up this stimulating workshop with more opportunities for scholars and artists to exchange knowledge and processes, and indeed be collective in their un-knowing curiosity. As Kelley said, “it was a rare treat to be invited to get together to think about a collection, with artists and academics, all of whom have related points of interest.”
We feel that this is a delicious opportunity to approach the University’s amazing collections in a new and unchartered way. Naomi speaks for us all in saying that the workshop gave her “renewed belief in the power of collections as a tool for opening up dialogues between academics and creative practitioners on an equal footing; helping them to understand one another’s processes and, in turn, to incorporate new ideas and ways of thinking into their work. Fostering true interdisciplinarity.”