Historical Social Research

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Anna Maerker: Towards a Comparative History of Touch and Spaces of Display: The Body as Epistemic Object [Abstract]

In European history, natural and artificial bodies and body parts have been put on display in a wide range of contexts – from votive art in churches to effigies in public ceremonies, from dolls in shop windows to anatomical models and specimens in medical schools, museums and fairgrounds. Scholars have argued that the spatial context of such displays shapes and choreographs the encounter between object and visitor. This “museum effect” (Svetlana Alpers) mediates the way people interact with an object, as it is set apart for a particular kind of attentive viewing. However, despite this alleged exclusivity of visual perception, the history of sculpture, education, anatomical models and collections shows that touch continued to be an important element of visitors’ appropriation of the body as an epistemic thing. Even in the context of public museums, visitors continued to touch the bodies, sculptures and models on display, and exhibition makers and anatomical modellers frequently returned to the possibility of touch as a crucial component of knowledge production, adapting models and specimens to be touched and held rather than seen and contemplated. This paper argues that to understand the persistence of touch we need to develop a comparative history of spaces of display. Such comparative analyses can illuminate how different spaces created different sets of expectations and encounters between epistemic object and subject. This analytical perspective also raises the question to what extent such repertoires of behaviour transferred from one spatial context to another. Thus, comparisons offer an opportunity to interrogate critically the concept of the “museum effect”, and to reframe visitors’ actions.

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