Krasis is a unique, museum-based, interdisciplinary teaching and learning programme, which began life at the Ashmolean in 2017, devised by classicist (and historian of ancient Boeotia) Dr Sam Gartland and Teaching Curator Dr Jim Harris. In 2018, the programme won a University of Oxford Humanities Division Teaching Excellence Award. Michaelmas term 2022 was its 15th iteration.
Each term Krasis gathers eight early career researchers from the University of Oxford (the Ashmolean Junior Teaching Fellows or AJTFs) and 16 current Oxford undergraduates and taught-postgraduates (the Krasis Scholars) for a series of object-centred symposia, devised and delivered by the teaching fellows, who each address a shared theme from the standpoint of their own discipline and their own research.
For the Krasis Scholars, the programme offers first-hand insight into what an academic pathway might look like and provides a rare opportunity to learn directly from researchers outside their own subject, whilst contributing from within their degree specialism. For the AJTFs, it offers a forum for interdisciplinary dialogue and a ready, able team of students and colleagues to explore creative, imaginative approaches to collaborative, collections-based teaching.
Over the past five years, Krasis has seen series on Power, the Body, Absence, Presence, Performance, Devotion, Imitation, Voices in Conflict, Movement/Transition, Play, Danger, Identity, Constraint, Opening, Becoming, Belonging, Re-Use and Container. We have used objects ranging from kimonos, musical scores and Tibetan musical instruments to Renaissance bronzes, newspaper advertisements, palaeolithic handaxes. and ancient Egyptian magic wands.
Our Teaching Fellows and Scholars have come from Classics, English, History, Economics, Fine Art, Chemistry, Archaeology, Anthropology, Egyptology, Assyriology, Russian, Japanese Studies, German, Earth Sciences, Engineering, Politics, French, Portuguese, History of Art, Arabic, Physics, Statistics, Islamic Studies, Development Studies, Geography, Music, South Asian Studies, Philosophy, Linguistics, Theology, Women’s Studies, Experimental Psychology and Law, and from almost every college of the University.
Competition to join Krasis is fierce, and the growing number of former Scholars returning as Teaching Fellows testifies to its impact on participants. But the question of what actually happens each week has remained mysterious outside the walls of the Museum.
This blog, written by programme participants, aims to shed some overdue light on the enigma.
Welcome to Krasis.
Week 1 was devised and led by AJTF and former Krasis Scholar Dylan Price, a DPhil researcher in music at Worcester College, informed by his work in music theory, political geography and the visual and aural landscapes of 19th century nationalism.
Becoming a Hero
This blog post starts where we finished, with a text produced by one of the scholars’ breakout groups thinking about ‘heroism’ as expressed in objects from the collections of the Ashmolean Museum. This blog hopes to show how these became our finale.
The texts we wrote were focused on three objects that each spoke in different ways to the idea of heroism as an expression of colonial identity. One arose from the ‘sentence game’ whereby each member of the group wrote a sentence following on from the last. This process produced a written piece narrated from the perspective of a Kashmir sock giving voice to the sock, not its owner, Warren Hastings, a key figure in Britain’s colonial exploitation of India. An engraved gypsum relief of winged genius with a standard inscription of Ashur-nasir-pal II extracted and exported from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud by one of the key colonial archaeologists of the 19th century, Austen Henry Layard, produced the second.
The final text responded to a fragmentary hand and forearm from a Mathuran sandstone standing Buddha of the Kushan period. Its provenance is to the collection James and Marilyn Alsdorf of Chicago, in the 1970s, though its history after being removed from a site near Mathura in the 19th century is somewhat sketchy. After sensing an immediate connection with Shelley’s Ozymandias, the group reworked the short poem to capture something of the power, heroism (and melancholy) of the Mathuran Buddha.
Tying these three collection items together was the relation between heroism and colonialism. As Dylan led us to realise, a heroic narrative often underpins that of colonialism. Common understandings of heroism are founded on the idea of overcoming a difficultly, a challenge or an ‘other’. Colonialism’s common ‘us’ and ‘other’ foundations are, therefore, mirrored in the stories of ‘heroes’, whereby both nation and individual overcome the ‘other’ to establish, ownership and control. In this correlation, the reimagining of museum objects in our literary exercise was a practice in decoupling, examining or challenging the implicit heroism that is silently presented in objects acquired through colonialism.
To demonstrate the process of becoming a hero through overcoming a difficultly or difference, we had earlier turned to Dylan’s own discipline, music. After listening to Antonín Dvorák’s Hero's Song his last symphonic poem, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy we saw their contrasting fundamental structures and patterns distilled in the Ursatz of Schenkerian analysis.
While the former (right) constitutes one strong note, continuous throughout, the latter (below) moves upwards, before returning. In Beethoven’s work, this audible struggle before finding familiar ground again encapsulates the notion of becoming a hero: the sound of freedom, the sense of success, a form of heroism in which the process of overcoming is vital.
In Dvorák’s simpler Hero’s Song, however, Dylan demonstrated that there is also a form of heroism in the 19th century consciousness that is steady, strong and innate.
This distinction, between an innate or divinely present form of heroism and the process of becoming a hero had become clear visually in the first part of the session. David’s Napoleon on the Great St Bernard is a perfect, self-fashioned image: the isolated figure, supposedly caught in the heroic moment. Not only did Napoleon commission the work himself but he did so to place himself among a hall of fame of ‘greats’ such as Charlemagne. An image of steely reserve commanding both his men and his wild-eyed horse, he is overcoming the odds to press his campaign forward over the Alps. In contrast, Alphonse Mucha’s early 20th-century The Slav Epic and Viktor Vasnetsov’s Bogatyrs of 1898 (below) offer up an image of a more innate, God-given, national heroism.
The assumption of heroism as an innate characteristic brings us full circle to consider the presentation of the ‘heroic’ in museums and its relationship with colonialism. Over time, we have allowed the ‘heroism’ of colonisers and collectors to pass as an an assumed, legitimised and approved fact. Now, we should recognise and draw attention to our collections’ foundations and the concomitant manufacture of heroic narratives for the collectors we have celebrated. In understanding their processes of becoming we can begin to reconstitute and reimagine the forces they represent, decoupling them from the heroic, questioning them just as we aimed to do in our literary responses to the three colonial objects from the Ashmolean.
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Sarah Jackman, who is reading for an MSt in the History of Art at Christ Church College.
Week 2 was devised and led by AJTF Talah Anderson, a DPhil researcher in Assyriology and Neo-Assyrian Studies, working on kingship, divinity and antiquarianism in the visual representations and texts of Sargonid Mesopotamia.
Becoming an Empire
“Ashur is king – indeed Ashur is king!”
So opens the passage of King Ashurbanipal’s coronation hymn given to Krasis scholars to read by Assyriologist Talah Anderson. Etched in cuneiform on immortalising clay, these lines of the hymn represent a Neo-Assyrian imperial propaganda which proclaimed the supremacy of its head deity in the Assyrian pantheon over conquered peoples and by extension, the divine right of its King Ashurbanipal (literally, “Ashur has given a son-heir”) to rule over them accordingly, granting hegemony to his power-wielding sceptre. The entire multitude of the Neo-Assyrian empire is channelled through the relationship of two individuals, god and king as rulers of their respective pantheons, and an object of limitless reach “to extend the land”.
What symbolises an empire? This question lay at the crux of our discussions. As we ascertained over course of the session, an empire’s conception of self is fashioned through subjugation (of the enemy) and construction (of physical systems of canals and gateways, of opulence, of homage to previous eras and empires). Nowhere is this duality of empire, of destruction and creation, better exemplified in Assyrian material culture than the BM124920 relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh.
The so called the Garden Party scene features Ashurbanipal drinking and reclining amidst lavish flora and fauna, accompanied by his enthroned wife and harp-playing attendants. Hanging in one of the trees, however, is the head of Teumann, the defeated king of the enemy peoples the Elamites, and on the table behind the peacefully reclining Ashurbanipal lies his bow, the symbol of the war-goddess Ishtar. There is luxury and splendour to be derived from the fruits of empire, to be sure, but its primary impetus derives from brute military force and disempowerment of the enemy, thereafter absorbed into imperial imagery in a show of dominance and threat for the future.
At once divinely sanctioned and sustained (in the words of his coronation hymn, “the great gods make firm [Ashurbanipal’s] reign”), the King is simultaneously a figure who needs to be grounded, to be seen as participating in his empire amongst his people in spite of, or perhaps exactly owing to, a near divine posturing. A stone stela commemorating Ashurbanipal’s refurbishment of the Marduk temple in Babylon has him holding a basket of earth above his head, an age-old symbol of the king as a divinely guided builder, as his hat and hands point towards the sky.
Encouraged by Talah, we found pertinent links to a copper figurine of King Shulgi, a member of the Third dynasty of Ur, similarly positioned in a building stance, but differently configured in its aims as an object.
Thought to have been discovered by Ashurbanipal during his own excavations in Babylonia, Shulgi’s figurine was buried deep in the ground, an act of humility and devotional reverence which Ashurbanipal took from his supposed Neo-Sumerian (and therefore, very distant) ancestor and appropriated to give his own great power a humble veneer.
But empire is a wholly unnerving concept, we Scholars determined; one which requires a Defeated in order to define a grand Victorious, and one which finds brusque reiterations in modern memory. Looking at the lamassu, the Assyrian intermediary protective deities often stationed as statues at major palace entrances like that of Sargon II at Khorsabad, Talah drew our attention to their appropriation as plaster casts in the imperial pomp of London’s 19th cent. Crystal Palace – one empire’s remnants feeding the imaginations of another.
The Crystal Palace appropriation struck me as a very different European configuration of the ‘Oriental’ to works of art like Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, where the chaos and sheer sexual deviancy puts the depicted Assyrian king at odds with the (then celebrated) neoclassical conventions as found in paintings like David's Oath of the Horatii.
The lamassu remains a potent symbol today. Those who have visited London’s Trafalgar Square recently may recall a colourful example on the Fourth Plinth in 2018-19. Made of 10,000 Iraqi date-syrup cans, this construction of the winged bull was meant to represent one which stood at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh, destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
We ended with an analysis of the advertising and reviews of the 2018 British Museum exhibition I am Ashurbanipal, king of the World, king of Assyria. Although the idea of empire remains very attractive to some British audiences, for whom the memory of ‘their own’ empire still rings true, Assyria and its cultural remnants continue, often, to be an Orientalist fantasy: to quote The Guardian, nothing more than a “murderously efficient empire”.
Constructions of empire, acts of becoming and the self-fashioning of power and might, are not just the temporary products of wealthy kings and their commemorative inscriptions; they persist throughout time. When it comes to manifestations of immeasurable control, we are always looking back; as Ashurbanipal to Shulgi, the Victorians to the Assyrians.
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Kiana Rezakhanlou, a first-year undergraduate at Merton College, reading Classics and German.
Week 3 was devised and led by AJTF Petros Spanou of Baliol College, whose doctoral research in 19th century history examines ideas of peace and 'just war' and the ways in which they inhabited public discourse around the Crimean conflict.
The attentive little girl in John Everett Millais’ 1863 painting My First Sermon is perhaps not how many of us imagine ourselves during sermons. Belying no ‘endurance’, she encourages well-worn caricatures of Victorian Brits as somehow alien, inoculated from boredom by their own haughtiness.
Yet, alongside its 1864 sister-painting, My Second Sermon, the pair undercut this typecast. The child, sent to unreceptive sleep, has undergone a transformation clearly unintended by the preacher. As Petros Spanou framed our third Krasis symposium, this inadvertent loss of audience raised questions of what may instead have been intended. How did Victorians successfully use sermons as vehicles for morality? How did experiences of sermon-going participate in moral inculcation? And how, ultimately, did the Victorians approach 'becoming better'?
We opened by attempting to encapsulate a sermon, though it was clearly agnostic to precise definition. Power relations are apparently inherent: a person in control acts upon a static audience. However, the latter are not totally passive, for their process of reception dominates sermons’ purpose; sermons require ‘accessibility’ for ‘understanding’. This leads to positive moral audience transformation, rendering recipients ‘educated’, ‘inspired’, and ‘improved’.
Comparing present-day political speeches was striking, and we wondered whether sermons had to be religious. Certainly, ‘popular’ appeal, today and for Victorians, was a common thread: in their, 19th century, England, 8 pages of sermons were published for every 1 of fiction. There was hunger for spiritually-minded self-betterment, and they were clearly connoisseurs. As Millais demonstrated, Victorians knew a bad sermon when they saw one.
The question was thus, "what made a sermon ‘land’"? We discovered the Victorian conception of space as a participant in mental transformation, creating a holistic, multi-sensory experience to enhance the reception of messages.
The 1851 Crystal Palace, in a secular context, was a case in point, with The Westminster Review in 1854 fawning over the capacity of its sights and sounds – even down to life-size cement dinosaurs - to ‘kindle’ even the ‘dullest intellect'.
In a spiritual context, the picture varied according to confessional division. In groups, we examined three very different Victorian churches, considering the affective impact of space: Edinburgh’s (Presbyterian) St. Andrew and St. George’s West; Cheadle’s (Catholic) St. Giles by Augustus Pugin; and Clapham’s (Anglican) Holy Trinity (home of the abolitionist 'Clapham Sect' of Wilberforce, Venn and Macaulay).
The Edinburgh and Cheadle churches were effective extremes. One a Presbyterian exercise in simplicity, removing any distracting ‘friction’ for the sermon message. The other, a Catholic exercise in achieving theophany via sumptuous space, with the sacred content of the sermon made palpable. Holy Trinity Clapham was something of a middle ground, though even Anglican tastes oscillated, witnessing the widespread removal of overly-comfortable pew booths, yet also the grand architecture that came from the Oxford Movement. Witnessing these contrasts was as if we had effectively distilled the iconoclastic debates that have shaken the Abrahamic religions for millennia.
Strikingly, despite varied architectural styles, Petros explained that one trans-confessional approach to sermon texts was favoured: a threefold division into ‘Exposition, Application, Exhortation’. This accessible and recognisable format allowed moral messages to reach audiences most smoothly, and thereby to transform them. A scriptural tert would be explicated and then applied as a moral message, illustrated with contemporary parallels. The application would then precipitate a lesson, exhorting congregants to inward transformation and outward action.
Using this format, in groups we attempted to compose our own sermons, each group receiving a short scriptural prompt: Joshua 1:9 emphasising fortitude, Proverbs 4:7-9 emphasising wisdom, and Matthew 4:44 emphasising compassion. We set to work within a 5-line limit for each trifold section, and the results, preached ‘live’ via TEAMS, were valuable lessons for our own complex age: exhortations on COVID-19, the Climate Crisis, and the world’s conflict zones.
While the affective impact of a webcam was no Victorian consideration, the use of their format, considering their incorporation of holistic experience, made them not so alien. Whatever the popular Victorian stereotype for emotional austerity, they had at least one mission with as much resonance today: in a changing world, to end up, as we all could, becoming better.
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Julian Wood, of University College, where he is reading for an MPhil in History.
Below are the three sermons on Becoming Better written by the Krasis team on May 12th 2021
"Be strong and courageous; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest"
Here Joshua is exhorted by G-d to take the Israelites and lead them after the death of Moses. Joshua is asked to be bold, to be brave, to improve upon himself, as the occasion demands he must. Despite the daunting task Joshua is reminded that he is not alone and that G-d will accompany him throughout his journey.
As we move into through and beyond pandemic, we have been tasked with new challenges and responsibilities. We are charged with the care of our families and communities, even as we have experienced great loss ourselves. Both as a society and as individuals. Bravery is needed to carry us forth despite hardship or despite perceived isolation.
We ought to be strong, we ought to be brave, and we ought to be faithful. It is at this time that we are called upon to react with these virtues. Like Joshua, we need to become leaders for our communities and maintain faith despite the hardships upon us. For with these ideals we can walk in faith and in victory wherever we may go.
Proverbs 4: 7-9
"Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee: she shall bring thee to honour, when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace: a crown of glory shall she deliver to thee."
The proverb tells us to embrace Lady Wisdom, the divine property, so that we might earn a glorious crown. Her hand is offered to us, to you, an aid for your endeavour through the righteous path. Wisdom, in Her glory, is the way to glory itself. Her gift, upon our embrace, is that of a process toward enlightened consciousness: understanding. Understanding is the enactive engagement with all holiness afforded by wisdom.
We are called to respond to these words in our everyday life. These words talk of an abstract figure of wisdom, one that is separate from, but underpins, your actions. It speaks of the distance between wisdom, and of understanding, yet there is a powerful relationship here. This relationship must be maintained, and nurtured, like a beautiful flower rising from the Earth. Wisdom, and our understanding of the Bible’s teachings, will lead us to salvation.
So now, I entreat you: water your magnolia of wisdom! Let it flourish into a magnificent field of colour and splendour! Let it protect thee against the perils of cholera, let your wisdom grant you shelter. Let your crown be a beacon of health and virtue for your people.
Matthew 5: 44
"But I say unto you: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
Few people were as beset with as many enemies as our Lord. Here, while the Roman soldiers watched from the fringes of the crowd, and the elders of the Sanhedrin kept a close eye, he preached always a message of love and acceptance. Bless them that curse you. Do good to them that hate you. Pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you. What does it mean to despitefully use you? It is those who are characterised by ill will or spite. Jesus asks us to pray for them. Not to spite them back, but to pray for them.
This week, there has been a great division in our land. Neighbour has turned against neighbour. It has been a week characterised by ill will and spite. As weak human beings, our first instinct is to embrace our spiteful natures. I ask you to remember our Lord’s words. Bless them that curse you.
Regardless of how you voted, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with others in your town, your street, your own family, remember that we are all brothers and sisters in God. Remember our brothers and sisters on the continent. Let me entreat you to move forward amidst the uncertainty, with love, with prayer, with acceptance. Hate and enmity are born of division. We can unite through love.
Week 4 was devised and led by AJTF Amy Lim, who is undertaking a collaborative DPhil in History between Oxford and Tate Britain, examining the relationship between monarchy and aristocracy in Stuart England through the lens of their artistic patronage.
This week we will be exploring the ways in which we use objects to construct our identities. We’ll be doing this by looking at three eighteenth-century portraits, and the clothes, backdrops and props that the sitters and/or artists use to present themselves in a particular guise. How much do the objects we surround ourselves with represent our true selves? Be prepared to think about the objects that you use to present your own identity/identities.
Week 5 was devised and led by AJTF Katie Noble, a DPhil researcher in English investigating the FB Brady Collection of theatrical ephemera in the library of Christ Church College.
Becoming Someone Else
Digital technology has allowed people to become someone other than themselves in a multitude of ways, from fantasy role play to creating a fake dating profile. Yet for centuries people have transformed themselves into different characters to earn a living and entertain others – actors. However, outside of the industry the process of acting and inhabiting another persona are rarely considered. This nebulous task of becoming someone else was the central theme of our symposium.
We started by considering a distinction drawn between two styles of acting in the eighteenth century. Mimetic acting is merely replicating an emotional response without a full embodiment of the character’s feelings. There is a synthetic quality to the mimetic style of acting. Whilst the earnest style of acting requires the actor to authentically experience the character’s emotions.
This may involve the actor recalling moments from their own lives where they felt similar to the character. The inference being that the mimetic style is somewhat hollow and contains less emotional truth than the earnest style.
This question of truth would arise throughout the afternoon. In regard to the two styles, it could be argued that if the earnest actor has to recall their own personal experiences they aren’t fully becoming someone else. However, actors must maintain some sense of themselves otherwise they are not acting but descending into madness. As Jim pointed out, actors are constantly asked to become other people and yet remain themselves.
(Those seeking an amusing anecdote are encouraged to look up Laurence Olivier’s response to Dustin Hoffman’s approach to the earnest style whilst filming Marathon Man.)
Our first task was to examine clips of actors in different forms and styles of drama, our group was given a clip of Nicole Kidman in the film Stoker. The majority of the scene is shot in close up and the proximity of the lens to Kidman’s face and voice places the viewer practically in her mind. We discussed how this closeness encourages the viewer to believe this is an earnest performance. If we are close enough to see her thinking, hear the break in her voice, surely we’d spot any inauthenticity? Yet the viewer’s gaze is deliberately manipulated and controlled which could be considered its own form of mimesis.
We discussed too the tropes of naturalness that can persuade an audience the performer’s emotions are genuine. A glistening eye can be as mimetic as it can earnest. The other groups who were given an extract from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and EastEnders' iconic “you ain't my mother” scene between Kat and Zoe Slater, discovered similarly blurred lines between the two styles.
The scope of a Krasis symposium is as diverse as it is stimulating, so naturally after discussing soap opera Katie set us the task of transcribing the epilogue from the eighteenth-century play, Personation. Mercifully, the handwriting was no worse than the average student’s scrawl, although the word ‘swindlers’ took us a little longer to decipher.
After hearing the whole epilogue read aloud it was apparent how closely the verse aligns acting with deception. The actor’s job is to cheat the audience of their senses but as the audiences have chosen to attend the play they are “fairly taken in”.
This is in stark contrast to a lot of the language used around drama today. Actors and directors talk of the emotional truth of a character or play, and many actors will tell you with pride that a good actor is a terrible liar. The epilogue from Personation is concerned with literal truth: the actress references the fact that she is not really as old as the character she has been playing. Whilst contemporary performers are more concerned with the truth of feeling, the lack of literal truth is taken for granted. Yet portraying an emotional truth is the same as delivering an earnest performance, so perhaps we are not so different from our eighteenth-century predecessors as first appears.
The final task was to discuss images relating to three particular actors and three partiucular performances. Our group was given an engraving of the famous actress Sarah Siddons (1755–1831) in the role of Medea. Two things about the image were immediately striking.
Firstly, that she is wearing a lot of scarves, that familiar colonial cliche of ‘exotic attire’. Secondly, that despite inhabiting the role of Medea, Mrs Siddons looks more like she is trying to shield the child clinging to her robes from harm, than do away with them. Perhaps, we thought, the artist was influenced by Sarah Siddons’ own reputation as a mother. In this image not only has Mrs Siddons become Medea but Medea has become Mrs Siddons. However, we went on to learn that Sarah Siddons in fact never played the role of Medea and was quoted as saying it wasn’t a ‘female character’. Yet for a brief moment on a Wednesday afternoon Mrs Siddons had become Medea, in our minds. Which proves an actor can take part in a performance without stepping a foot on stage.
I work in theatre and if I had a pound for every time someone has quoted “holding a mirror up to nature” at me, I would no longer need to work in theatre. Yet a mirror image reverses the objects it reflects. On reflection, where the truth in drama lies is no easier to spot now than it was in centuries past.
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Emma Jones, a theatremaker and writer undertaking the MSt in Creative Writing at Keble College.
Week 6 was devised and led by Heritage Scientist and AJTF, Dr Tea Gigho. Tea is post-doctoral Research Fellow in Conservation at the Ashmolean, where she has been undertaking a material investigation of the pigments used in the making of Wiliam Burges' Great Bookcase, deploying a range of non-invasive analytical and imaging techniques.
Becoming a Thing
"Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed". Museum objects are often displayed presenting their history or telling the stories they unfold. By contrast, during this session, we are going to look at some of the objects in the Ashmolean using a different approach. What were these objects in the beginning? How were they assembled together? Why were some materials chosen over others? Join me this week: you will never look at a museum the same way.
Week 7 was devised and led by AJTF Lily Crowther, a curator at the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum and a historian undertaking a collaborative doctorate between theV&A and Balliol College, examining the lost Museum of Building and Construction.
Becoming an Expert
How do we acquire the knowledge needed to make something? Can museum collections and displays serve as a medium for the transmission of expertise? In this seminar we will be looking at the work of contemporary potter Walter Keeler and discussing how material knowledge can be learned through the study of made objects. The seminar will involve participants making an object of their own, and will also invite them to consider how best to communicate knowledge through objects.
Week 8 was devised and led by AJTF and former Krasis Scholar Ruby-Anne Birin. Ruby-Anne is a DPhil candidate in Archaeological Science at the University of Oxford. Her research explores the origins of modern human behaviour and symbolism in Africa with timescales for archaeological sites. She started her archaeological career in South Africa with a masters at the University of Witwatersrand.
At some point in the last 500 000 years, our ancestral species becomes something that resembles us today. But this fuzzy transition does not answer: when does humanity start and how do we see it in the archaeological record? Together, we will examine ideas surrounding human evolution and modernity using material culture and archaeological methodologies. These ideas will help us understand the ongoing transitions and innovations that are part of our collective story.
Week 1 was devised and led by AJTF Beth Hodgett, a collaborative doctoral researcher in archaeology, working at the Pitt Rivers Museum and Birkbeck College, London. Twitter @Wcoloursburntin
Who is this? – Enlarge image to text width, i.e. 7”. – Mystery object. – Crop. – Could be helmet.
We begin Beth Hodgett’s symposium by examining the working notes O.G.S. Crawford scrawled in red ink, pencil, and biro onto the blue card mounts of his photographs taken at the 1939 Sutton Hoo excavation site. Much as the archaeologist and photographer’s images show the dig findings resting on the earth, his annotations too show his thinking process in situ.
Each photograph is taken as artefact, not document. The photographer’s handwritten additions highlight the journey from guesswork to polished interpretation. The second set of photographs is mounted on brown card. Here, that gained (or created) knowledge has been tidied into neatly inked formal captions: Cleaning the silver tray + drawing the other objects for our plan; Part of the silver tray, showing its decoration.
Every archive comes down to chaos held at bay. We trace the lively prehistory of the fifty box files forming the O.G.S. Crawford photographic archive at the Institute of Archaeology, a narrative reconstructed through Hodgett’s oral history work.
In his will, Crawford directed his executors to burn the contents of a trunk in his room without examining its contents. Rumours suggest the Institute of Archaeology’s photographer rescued Crawford’s eighty albums from a museum skip. An unnamed female researcher ripped out the album pages and reorganized the photographs into box files, creating a new order. Decades later, Crawford’s original celluloid negatives were removed from their wax paper sleeves for fear of spontaneous combustion.
Objects, like people, have lives.
The archivist’s work begins in medias res. It is the time spent in the same snug room day after day – immersed in the contents of the same burgundy boxes, revisiting the same photographs of archaeological sites or castles, cats or clouds – that yields up insights into how the images interrelate. New details and connections emerge through deep looking over time.
The photograph is the focus. But the surrounding rings of annotations, filing systems, curatorial history, acquisitions and storage records spin a dynamic pattern of elements that invites creative play, showing that fieldwork need not require distant journeys. Excavating an archive becomes like opening up new ground.
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Sylee Gore, a poet and artist undertaking an MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford. Twitter @berlinreified
Week 2 was devised and led by AJTF Katie Noble, a doctoral researcher in English Literature, working on 18th century theatre, using theatrical ephemera in the FB Brady Collection at Christ Church College. Twitter @Kaatienoble
Accessibility to resources comes in many shapes and sizes. As Katie Noble demonstrated in her symposium on Open Access, the issue of accessing resources for research is vast and complex, whether it’s completing your DPhil or feeding your appetite for academic knowledge. Beginning by looking at reading lists from our own disciplines, it became clear that even with immense institutional privilege, the barriers to entry for research are varied.
These barriers can take the form of an institutional log-in, complicated online interface, or six flights of stairs to an archive, to name a few. Katie outlined the ways in which limitations to access pertain to physical accessibility, online accessibility, social accessibility and cultural capital, care regarding content and trauma, financial barriers, public engagement and impact, amongst others. Not to mention that circumstances afforded by the Covid-19 pandemic further complicate these matters—ameliorating some while exacerbating others.
While the group conversation navigated these various twists and turns on the subject, we landed on a few struggles in particular that many researchers are currently facing. One of these is institutional politics, which could mean requiring supervision to view archives in a college basement or a lack of advertising for ongoing projects and available resources. This gives rise the issue of arbitrary manuscript digitisation, another topic that requires a worldwide collaborative strategy to make collections available online. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, research has been forced to go virtual, but often resources can only be found physically in archives and libraries, which are temporarily closed or have restricted access.
What happens if those materials do get digitised and are made accessible to the general public? Often, open-access research carries the misconception that it ranks lower on the hierarchy of scholarly sources. We must rid ourselves of this notion and appreciate that restricting resources to those with paid subscriptions or institutional log-ins does not enhance their value. Additionally, we must be dynamic and flexible in solving issues of access while recognising that making resources available for ‘open-access’ goes beyond merely being able to Google them. For one, it means making academic work widely available and user-friendly while ensuring that researchers and authors are properly compensated. It also means looking inward at our own institutions and points of access to better this issue in its myriad forms.
This post was written by Krasis Scholars Victoria Horrocks, who is studying for an MSt in History of Art and Visual Culture at Hertford College, and Sandra Saade who is in the second year of an MChem degree at Christ Church.
Week 3 was devised and led by AJTF Petros Spanou, a doctoral researcher in History at Balliol College, working on Victorian ideas of war and peace, particularly in relation to the Crimean War. Twitter @Petros_Spanou
Immediate and Visible: Opening the First 'Media War'
What is war in the eye of the beholder? To the readers of British periodicals during the Crimean War of 1853-56, often referred to by historians as ‘the first media conflict’, the visibility of war changed drastically.
This week, Krasis Scholars were asked to explore how immediacy and visibility interlink through representations of war. Petros Spanou began this session by asking what war means to us as individuals. In our era of hyperconnectivity and never-ending media cycles, we are all too familiar with war: it is on the televisions of waiting rooms, the notifications at the corners of our screen, and can always be found at our fingertips. In spite of the near permanent state of war in global history, it is something that most of us see and feel at a distance. And these ways of ‘seeing’ and ‘feeling’ are almost always mediated by another eye.
The term ‘media war’ seems a misnomer in the 21st century, as we find it difficult to divorce our understanding of war from media representations. Yet is the high visibility of war dependent on a need for immediacy? Why do we - and indeed, why did onlookers of the Crimean war - want to view war to begin with? Moreover, how do we want to view war? Through a series of commissioned engravings and photographs, Petros asked us to consider what a ‘media war’ truly entails.
The Krasis Scholars began the discussion thinking about what it means to make conflict ‘visible’ and ‘immediate’, confronting the presentism we often bring to these terms. In the context of the Crimean War the process of bringing an ‘immediate’ image of the war to the reading British public could take weeks. Petros then introduced us to a series of wood engravings representing scenes of the conflict that appeared in The Illustrated London News over the course of the war.
The publication sent three engravers, Edward Goodall, Joseph Archer Crowe and Constantin Guys, to report as direct observers of the war in the Crimea. Their status as ‘artists’ rather than ‘press’ granted them unprecedented access to the army and the battlefields. The scholars speculated about the accuracy and authenticity of such images, recognising the time they would have taken to produce and the deployment of traditional artistic techniques to heighten their drama. Yet considering their place within the broader Victorian cultural milieu problematizes our demand for ‘authentic’ representations of violence; the fact that contemporary readers believed that the images were legitimate reconstructions of the events in the Crimea is perhaps more significant than their factual accuracy.
Petros brought us on to examine the impact of the introduction of photography to capture the events of the Crimean war. “For the first time since men fought we shall have history illustrated by the certainty of a reporter who never errs,” wrote one contemporary viewer of these new snapshots of reality. Far from the neoclassical representations of destruction and pain, the photographs brought a sense of reality and true visibility to representations of the Crimean War.
Yet, the Krasis Scholars were less than satisfied with assertions that the camera is infallible. In spite of our presuppositions, we came to the conclusion that the images in the wood engravings were possibly more accurate than those captured by photography, which was in its incipient stages of development at the time, requiring long exposure with posed subjects.
Perhaps it is our own postmodernity that forces us to doubt the concept of objective photography. Perhaps it is the ruins of a neoclassical building gazing over the rubble of a war well fought that reminds us too much of the commissioned engravings. Whatever it may be, despite the changing media of 'media wars', the relationship between immediacy and visibility remains complex and dynamic.
This post was written by Krasis Scholars Noorie Abbas, a third-year undergraduate in History and Politics at New College, and Corrina Summers, a second-year undergraduate in History and English at Harris Manchester College.
Week 4 was devised and led by AJTF Vithya Subramaniam, a playwright and doctoral researcher in Anthropology, working on the spatial and material experience of South Asian identities, particularly Punjabi, Sikh and Singaporean. Twitter @straitssettled
You'll Never Walk Alone
How do we understand walking?
What does the modern human take note of and what is particularly important when deciding upon a walking route?
And how does a contemporary anthropologist use walking as a research tool to explore identity and environment, and the relationship between the two?
Vithya Subramaniam sent us out to walk, tracing our interaction with the ‘more-than-human’
In comparison with a bus journey, walking allows access to an urban wall (the noise of traffic, of pets, the smell of fresh grass), a social context and to the environment, all of which may be explored by recording empirical knowledge in the form of lists, photographs or scene drawing.
However, considering the worldwide impact of the pandemic, weather and the purpose of the walk (academic or non-academic, solo or in company, social or practical), the ways people relate to their walking experience definitely shape its way of being.
Deciding on the threshold of an ambulatory experience is more than a question of when to press 'Start' on Strava - it is an unconscious testimony to our relationship with the landscapes around us and might tell us a lot about what we most value when moving through different environments.
We shared our experiences of walking and the records we kept
Comparing the views of those who walked rurally with those who chose a route through the city (whether through the golden Headington stone of Oxford or the urban cityscapes of Berlin); those who walked alone with those who enlisted company; and those who wrote notes with those who painted watercolours; all this opened up a conversation on how and why we travel on foot, and what the value of recording this travel might be.
A particular experience has been choosing completely different routes to reach the same destination, no matter the duration or distance, depending on the goal needing to be accomplished.
Another question we came across in discussing how we notice the more-than-human was whether the issues we think of when walking determine why and how the walk even starts or ends.
We walked around the rooms we work in
Having been asked to walk around the room and record by closing our eyes what we hear, what kind of smells we perceive, what makes a cosy place comfortable, we crossed the room by our usual route and then by an alternative. Most of us had comparable encounters : the light taking up a lot of space, the room as a microcosm of the world, divided into sections (space to exercise, bookshelves, a spot to play). These experiences raised an essential question: are the things there because I am there or is it the other way around?
The diverse ways of recording included sketching lines accounting for the side of the space noises came from, the unexpected sneeze from another room, or arranging words into blocks.
We walked from the Bodleian to the Ashmolean on Google Maps
Finally, we questioned the accuracy and reliability of the pictures taken for an online walk and considered the timeframe, overlapping images from 2019, 2018 and 2012. An important strength of walking virtually was, no doubt, the possibility of discovering alternative routes, quieter or narrower streets, making the journey shorter. Nevertheless, our inability to explore through the human senses was also highlighted: the noise of the buses, the feeling of the raindrops, or the flatness of the ground.
The experience of moving from a sunny morning to a rain-soaked afternoon (or from a busy Broad Street to an almost empty one) in the space of a keyboard click is jarring, accentuating the loss of physical sensation and real-world interaction in the theatre of the everyday walk.
Vithya's symposium allowed us to explore again the social rhythms of a world currently deprived of spontaneous interaction, and left many of us with a keener understanding of how walking shapes our lives on a daily basis; as well as a lingering nostalgia for a lost Oxford.
Some of the texts Vithya has drawn on in her own research and practice are:
Ingold, T., Lines: A Brief History (London: Routledge, 2007)
Ingold, T. and Vergunst, J. L. (eds.), Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot (London: Routledge, 2008)
O’Neill, M. and Hubbard, P., ‘Walking, sensing, belonging: Ethno-mimesis as performative praxis’, Visual Studies, 25(1) (2010): 46–58.
O’Neill, M. and Roberts, B., Walking Methods: Research on the Move (New York: Routledge, 2020)
Springgay, S. and Truman, S., Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab (New York: Routledge, 2018)
This post was written by Krasis Scholars Sandra Saade, who is in the second year of an MChem degree at Christ Church, and Annabelle Fuller, who is a third-year Classics and English student at Magdalen College.
Week 5 was devised and led by AJTF Ruby-Anne Birin, a doctoral researcher in Archaeological Science, working on the application of infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) to the dating of Early Stone Age sites in South Africa. She is also the first former Krasis Scholar to return as an AJTF. Twitter @Rubys_Travels
Geography is not fixed; we produce space and its meanings. In Week 5 of Krasis 10, we worked with archaeologist Ruby-Anne Birin to rediscover what maps can do, making our own intertwining and varied cartographies, putting into practice - as Krasis seminars are bound to make us do - an alternative, productive way of thinking about time and space,
To begin, we created our own maps, using ArcGIS StoryMaps software: cartographies that are not fixed, but are rather socially and culturally produced. Feeling pangs of lockdown nostalgia, I produced a map of all the places where I had fallen in love, accompanied by pictures. Another scholar produced a map of the locations of all of the people they had met and bonded with via video gaming. The constellation of human dots stretched far and wide across the continents.
Next, working in small groups we toggled between maps of Oxford from different periods, to consider how the spatial - and thus social - relationship between student and town has shifted. We thought about how changes in political climate change the maps we make, and in what ways maps might be manipulated to reflect particular values or goals. We began to experience a strange sense of bodily relation to maps from hundreds of years ago. Placing myself between faded parchment lines, I could chart my route from Tesco to home, imagining cycling across Magdalen bridge and into the swirl of the bustling Cowley roundabout, through maps made when it was filled with grazing cows.
We moved on to objects associated with Oxford and currently on display at the Ashmolean. Since, as Ruby-Anne pointed out, ‘each object has its own story, linked to many places and multiple lives,’ we were to use five maps to reconstruct the unique history of our objects through space and time.
My group investigated a little, blue-glazed, earthenware vase or cup of circa 1520-40, from Liguria or Antwerp, inscribed with the Christian IHS trigram.
Like bona fide detectives, we explored exactly where it would have been buried, while the historian among us spoke to the reformation, and the possible fate of a catholic object in 16th century Oxford.
Its burial had been in what was a garden behind Broad Street; but as we explored the subsequent maps, we saw how more dwellings and buildings were constructed over it until it was unearthed in the 1930s during excavations before the construction of the Bodelian Library extension.
The activity was meaningful in multiple ways. To me, it seemed a good example of how we can think about objects - what work goes into not only making and keeping them, but even discarding them? If we were to simply look at the basic form and materials of the object, what stories would we miss?
Instead of taking the object’s presence in the museum for granted, we asked how it got here? Why? What serendipities had to unfold for it to emerge, be acquired, written about, catalogued and placed within a glass box?
Maps acted as the ideal tools to explore these questions. But Ruby-Anne’s invitation to ‘propose other maps which may assist in unravelling your object’s mystery,’ required us to question our assumptions not just regarding cartography, but also the traditional fixity of time and space in Western knowledge. I began to think about my own research, which is rooted in feminist redefinitions of the things we take for granted - like time and space - by employing queer lenses. I considered my understanding of feminist phenomenology in relationship to maps, and why and how it was possible to imagine myself existing between the lines of a very old map despite the yawning distance of time.
I recalled two books I’d recently read about theories of bodies in space; by Katherine McKittrick on the cartographies of Blackness, and by Sara Ahmed on queer phenomenology; because following McKittrick, it is my belief that ‘human geography needs some philosophical attention.’ This is exactly the kind of attention that this symposium encouraged, not only because we want to alter the oppressive strictures of traditional disciplines, but also because we simply want to make new maps and new meanings.
Sara Ahmed describes how the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty both refer to bodily horizons as ‘sedimented histories.’ Ruby-Anne’s maps allowed us to literally see this sedimentation, as we toggled the transparencies of older maps onto newer ones. As an archaeological scientist, her research deals with scientific sedimentation; mine with amorphous, bodily sedimentations. Nonetheless we are both interested in charting these layers, regardless of the forms they take. And as the seminar seemed to demonstrate, we are all, in one way or another, invested in understanding the sediments we stand on.
McKittrick, Katherine, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Kathleen Quaintance (also an Ertegun Graduate Scholar), who is reading for an MSt in Women's Studies at St Peter's College.
Week 6 was devised and led by AJTF Dylan Price, a former Krasis Scholar and now a doctoral researcher in Music, considering the affective landscapes of the music of Antonín Dvořák in the interstitial space between political geography, international relations, music analysis and game theory.
Sensing the Museum
When we walk through the Ashmolean, how do we feel?
This week’s symposium, led by Dylan Price, asked us to engage with the sensory experiences tied to museum-going. When we walk through a gallery, we are not just affected by seeing an object, but also by what we hear, feel, touch, and taste. In the absence of those sensory experiences, we were presented with a range of objects in the Ashmolean and asked instead to imagine our engagement with these works of art.
Looking first at a Kyō-Satsuma ware vase from the workshop of the late 19th-century potter, Hōzan, sitting amongst the glass cases of the 19th century Japanese Gallery, we imagined the experience of weaving between the arrangements and analysing the works included in them. Ceramics, we determined, illuminate an interesting relationship between the art-object and the museum space.
With the display of ceramic plates, cups, vases, and teapots, for example, we are presented with objects that we typically use in our daily lives. But what happens when quotidian objects are arranged in a gallery display? Theorist Bill Brown has an answer: that once they are decontextualised, separated from their utilitarian purpose, objects become ‘things’ endowed with greater meaning. Significantly, a ‘thing’ has the capacity to affect us emotionally, intellectually, or phenomenologically, whereas an object merely serves a pragmatic purpose.
In many ways, Dylan’s questions interrogate the enigmatic ‘thing’, and reflecting on the sensory experience of our engagement with art in the Ashmolean revealed how multi-faceted that engagement is. For example, each of the glass cases in the Ceramics Gallery are packed with beautiful, delicate ‘things’. While the Kyō-Satsuma vase is a remarkable object in its own right, its display, and the displays around it locate it among an inundating swath of other works of art.
Recalling my walk through this part of the Museum back in October, I remember feeling very aware of my body—sensing a need to shrink. Aware of the fragility of the objects and the silence of the gallery, my viewing experience demanded lightness of foot and precision of sight. With so much to see in such detail, I felt an impulse to be as tiny as any one of the teacups.
When looking at it virtually, the vase and its intricacies embodied an interesting manifestation of the ‘thing-ness’ Brown ascribes to the decontextualised object. While the gallery space constitutes an initial layer of separation from any sort of utilitarian purpose, a second layer of decontextualisation emerges when viewing the work on our computer screens. We seemed to inch further and further from physical engagement, and yet the vase still conjured a charged sensory experience.
A scholar in our discussion group asked, ‘What would it sound like if it broke? I wondered, ‘How would it feel like to the touch?’ Such imagined understandings of our engagement with objects feel especially pertinent in the Covid-19 pandemic when our closeness to art, and to life, feels so in flux.
We finished our discussions of objects, museums and sensory experience by exploring digital spaces of curation. The Universal Museum of Art has created a virtual museum comprising exhibits that users can move through digitally. This open-access project creates a completely different understanding of not only the pieces of art themselves but also with the museum space more broadly.
In navigating our way through the exhibit A Walk into Street Art, a virtual collection of graffiti and street art curated by Yannick Boesso, our discussions emphasized the ways in which a digital space perhaps provides a more honest medium of display for such a genre, whose process of creation is inherently anti-establishment. The connection to video game spaces was also brought up as a comparison for the virtual museum; both employ identical forms of world-building in order to tell a story of sorts; yet video game design has seldom been considered ‘art’ in the sense we see displayed in the virtual museum (the 2018-19 V&A show, Design/Play/Disrupt is an honourable exception). The focus on street art potentially bridges part of this institutional and cultural gap between what is ‘art’ and what isn’t.
Like seeing online images of Ashmolean objects, moving in a digitally created space raises the question of sensory experience. Even though the weather had been designed in detail and you moved from indoor to outdoor spaces, the virtual museum denies the non-visual senses such as touch and smell. Audio may be embedded in the experience, but the ambient noise that usually defines museums is absent. What was notable, however, was the capacity of VR to convey the scale of artworks when compared to conventional digital representations.
Finally, we moved into a discussion of authorship and legitimation. In the section of the digital museum titled ‘Subway Art’ we were able to observe a tagged subway train from the #5 Lexington Express line in New York in (virtual) situ. The art preserved on the cars, however, is credited not to the graffiti artists who painted them, but rather to the photographer, Henry Chalfant, who photographed the train in 1980 as part of his work as an urban culture photographer. Is graffiti art legitimized by being filtered through the more accepted medium of photography? Or is there a symbiotic relationship between the two? Who is considered the ‘artist’ when the original creator is unknown to us? And what about the designers who built the digital versions of these pieces for the virtual museum? Are they artists and, if so, in what sense?
These questions complicate our assumptions when we picture art, artists, and the museum space. Dylan’s careful engagement not just with the what but also the how of museums and curation allowed us to reflect on the permeability of categories we perhaps take for granted in the art world. This permeability is intrinsic not only to a world currently digitized by COVID but also to the future of museum spaces more broadly.
Brown, Bill, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no.1, Things; Autumn 2001, pp.1-22
This post was written by Krasis Scholars Victoria Horrocks, who is reading for the MSt degree in History of Art and Visual Culture at Hertford College, and Avery Warkentin, who is taking the MSt in Classical Archaeology at Lincoln College.
Week 7 was devised and led by AJTF Dr Tea Ghigo, Heritage Scientist and Conservation Research Fellow on the Chromotope Project, for which she is undertaking an analysis of the pigments used in the decoration of William Burges's astonishing Great Bookcase, now on display in the 19th Century galleries at the Ashmolean. Twitter: @ercchromotope
Imagine you are the Keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean Museum. One day, a researcher contacts you and asks permission to undertake pigment analysis of the Great Bookcase. How do you respond? As Keeper, what concerns do you have? What challenges do you anticipate, and how might you address them?
These are just a few of the questions we sought to tackle in this week’s Krasis, which was led by Tea Ghigo, Heritage Scientist and post-doctoral Research Fellow in Conservation at the Ashmolean. Tea opened the session by challenging us to consider the label for the Great Bookcase, which was designed by architect William Burges, painted by 14 artists under his supervision, and exhibited at the 1862 International Exhibition in London.
The Bookcase’s museum label describes it as “painted and gilded deal with inlaid marble and pietra dura panels, 1859-1862.” This description, though accurate and concise, raises a host of questions of its own: what kind of paint was used? How exactly was it applied, and why? How were the materials chosen? Where did they come from? How did these different materials come together across the three years during which Burges’ team worked on the bookcase?
To help us answer these questions, Tea introduced us to heritage science, a field that combines art, art history and archaeology with the natural sciences to investigate the materiality of heritage objects. Heritage science encompasses techniques such as radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, petrological studies of ceramic materials, and material studies of inks, pigments, and metallic artefacts. Each of these inquiries offers different insights about different types of materials, and each allows us to probe deeper—literally and metaphorically—into the story of a given object.
Whenever possible, heritage scientists prefer to apply non-invasive investigative methods, such as infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence, using portable instruments, which allow objects to be examined without removing them from their original locations or the galleries or museums they now inhabit. During the session, Tea challenged us to use data she had gleaned from these methods to uncover the story of the Bookcase’s construction.
She showed us how the Bookcase’s central panels, which now bear blue and gold backgrounds, originally depicted far more intricate scenes. This backstory, invisible to museum visitors, allows us to gain a clearer picture of the object’s history and hypothesise about the designer’s motivations. By using scientific techniques to complicate what is visible to the naked eye, heritage scientists are able to enhance our view of individual artworks and, perhaps more importantly, of the historical contexts in which they originated.
Yet, as we realised during our discussion of the Bookcase, acquiring this knowledge is not enough, nor is publishing it in an academic journal for the consumption of fellow researchers. How could we allow a museum label to continue offering such a simplified portrait of an artwork, we wondered, if we knew its story were so much more complex? We could not.
In considering the possible applications of insights from heritage science, we revisited discussions on openness and accessibility raised in previous weeks. What if we recreated the first set of Bookcase panels, before they were painted over in blue and gold? What if we displayed this set to visitors using an interactive digital model, so that they could compare the “before” and “after” states themselves? What if we tried to reconstruct the atmosphere of the workshop and trace the geographic origins of the paints and other materials used? Possibilities abounded.
Our brainstorming led us to realise that what might, at first, seem like a simple pigment analysis is never such a simple matter after all. Such analyses certainly highlight the difficulties posed by the conservation of invaluable works of art. They might also help us construct—and present to the visitor—a more nuanced understanding of those same objects. But in doing so, they complicate the questions of how much a short museum label can communicate and what are the optimum conditions for responsible viewing, underlining the twin challenges of care and interpretation inherent in the work of museum curation. If we had revisited Tea’s original set of questions at the end of the session, we would have emerged with altogether different answers.
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Maggie Wang, who is in the second year of a BA degree in History and Economics at Pembroke College.
After the session ended, Tea invited the whole Krasis team to consider why heritage science should form part of museums' interpretive narrative. This is the word-cloud that resulted.
Week 8 was devised and led by Alexis Gorby, a doctoral researcher in Classical Archaeology whose work examines the social, religious and material significance of late-antique, Roman sarcophagi. Alexis is also the co-leader of Talking Emotions, a programme of public, research talks by Oxford ECRs exploring aspects of the history of emotion through the lens of the Ashmolean's collections. Twitter @AlexisCGorby
Zooming In and Zooming Out
In the last session of Krasis 10, Alexis Gorby led us into the world of late antique mosaics. After watching Ray and Charles Eames’ film Powers of 10, we were challenged to consider the role of scale in how we approach mosaics, and what each individual piece may be able to tell us about the larger artwork and the contexts in which we see it.
We were first split into smaller groups to consider a single gold tessera and discuss what we may be able to learn from it. We considered the costs and impact of using gold, how it was made, and by whom.
It was an intriguing way to approach an artwork and raised to us particularly the challenges that must have come with making so many tesserae and keeping them neat and consistent. Alexis then explained to us the way tesserae were manufactured, and the different materials and chemicals used to create each colour inside the tiles, making each tile completely unique.
In the second group session, our scale was widened to a square of 10x10 tesserae. We talked about how the differences between each tile, in texture, colour and shape, whether they were deliberate or not, changed what we saw.
The aesthetics of intentional imperfections were discussed, and we speculated on where the mosaic may have been – on a wall, a floor or a ceiling. Back together again, Alexis led us to consider how the ways the tesserae were inserted into the medium could change their effect, and the effect of the whole mosaic, as the sunlight catches different sides and edges at different times of day; how the materiality of objects works in context.
Alexis then introduced different objects to our groups, looking at candle holders and incense burners, to further consider the environment surrounding the mosaic, the effect of light and smell and their impact on how we understand the artwork.
Looking at the example of the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) we began to think about artworks not just as visual encounters but as rich sensory experiences. Recordings of haunting liturgical music helped to immerse us, as we were invited to think about not just what we could see but also the many sounds, smells and emotions that form key parts of how an ancient artwork is seen and understood.
Finally, we zoomed out one more time, to consider the place of Hagia Sofia in the wider imperial landscape of late-antique Constantinople – why it is where it is. And with that, the final Krasis session came to a close all too soon, as we reflected on how Alexis had skilfully led us from a single tessera to the landscape of an entire city, to show how each point on that scale can inform our understanding, give us a new perspective on the function of mosaics.
As someone observed during the session, these eight Krasis meetings have formed something of a mosaic themselves, building on ideas and perspectives from previous weeks that, although diverse in subject, have been united around our theme of ‘Opening’ by the passions the ECR scholars have shared with us through their research. Krasis has been one of the highlights of my term, both for the people I’ve met and the discussions we’ve had. A blog post cannot convey the levels of enthusiasm and dedication every member of the team has brought to this programme, but I hope reading our summaries will encourage prospective students and researchers to apply to Krasis in the future!
This post was written by Krasis Scholar Gemma Bond, who is a third year undergraduate at Lincoln College, reading Classical Archaeology and Ancient History.
Krasis Scholar Sylee Gore, a poet and artist undertaking an MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford, reflects on a Hilary Term spent exploring at a distance. Twitter @berlinreified
Experiencing the Museum(?)
“We will experience the museum without being in the museum. We will experience the archive without being in the archive.” – Jim Harris
And so our virtual symposia began. We “knelt” on the ground in Suffolk and sought to discern where the great silver dish of Sutton Hoo was first excavated. We changed the settings on our web browsers and scried photographs of steep spiral stairs to consider how access to proprietary research and private archives is controlled. We compared nineteenth-century photographs and engravings of Crimean battlefields to reflect on how each visual medium manipulated a public’s reception of war.
A spotlight shines onto a single circumscribed field; our culture of specialism encourages us to value the mastery of a tightly focused area of knowledge. But in Krasis, the Ashmolean Teaching Fellows brought the objects of their research into our weekly circle of archaeologists and artists, chemists and classicists, economists and musicians, historians, literary scholars, linguists, psychologists and writers – and the interdisciplinary group we formed illuminated each topic from so many angles that we were sometimes left dazzled, even on Zoom.
And we went walking. “Life itself is as much a long walk as it is a long conversation,” Ingold and Vergunst observe, “and the ways along which we walk are those along which we live.” We considered walking as a humble research tool that downplays the conversation in favour of the moment, encouraging a personal exchange to dart in unexpected directions. When grouped under the rubric of “Places I Have Fallen in Love”, scattered quadrants from street maps across the world took on a stirring resonance. And star maps, stick and shell charts, stone mosaics and paper maps showed us how cartography layers freeze-frames of a place over time.
But did we miss the museum? We most certainly did. No herky-jerky virtual museum tour could rival the serendipity and sensual experience of moving through airy galleries, bending to examine a hammered shield, circling a marble figure to consider the delicacy of the robe’s folds, catching a glimpse of a basalt god on a plinth from another floor and taking the stairs to follow the excitement of seeing it up close. Yet the accessibility benefits of a virtual museum could offer are tantalizing and unquestionable; and we imagined how creative scholars and web developers could collaborate more closely to create engaging online experiences of museum spaces and holdings that equal all that a physical museum offers.
Behind the scenes in a museum, of course, heritage scientists are hard at work. Is the rich green found on Burges' mighty bookcase malachite, verdigris, emerald green, or viridian? We peered at an X-ray fluorescence spectrum and realized how non-invasive samplings can help us answer such questions and date an object to a time when the pigments present were in use. Krasis 10 finished, fittingly enough, by sweeping us from a tiny gold tessera to the soaring interior of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, and reminding us that the points of light in this awesome structure were collaged of just such miniscules stones.
More than anything, Krasis showed us that a museum is foremost not a set of vitrines and plinths but a network of conversations, always in flux. Our encounters with the University’s archives and collections breathed new life into objects under lock and key because together, we brought an array of fresh perspectives. Opening up the museum to outsiders is to welcome in playfulness, serendipity, and a sense of wonder.