KRASIS BLOG

ABOUT KRASIS

Krasis is a 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.  It is now in its tenth iteration.

Each term Krasis gathers eight early career researchers from the University of Oxford (the Ashmolean Junior Teaching Fellows or AJTFs) and sixteen current Oxford undergraduates and postgraduates (the Krasis Scholars) for a series of object-centred symposia, taught 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 three years Krasis has seen series on Power, the Body, Absence, Presence, Performance, Devotion, Imitation, Voices in Conflict, Movement/Transition, Play, Danger, Identity and Constraint. We have used objects ranging from kimonos and Tibetan musical instruments to Renaissance bronzes, newspaper advertisements and palaeolithic handaxes.

Our Teaching Fellows and Scholars have come from Classics, English, History, Physics, Economics, Fine Art, Chemistry, Archaeology, Anthropology, Japanese Studies, German, Earth Sciences, Politics, French, Portuguese, History of Art, Geography, Music, Philosophy, 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 is mysterious.

This blog, written by Krasis Scholars and Junior Teaching Fellows, aims to shed some overdue light on the enigma.

Welcome to Krasis.

KRASIS 11

During Trinity term 2021, we will be exploring the theme of Becoming from the perspectives of AJTFs working in Archaeological Science, Art History, Assyriology, Conservation Science, English Literature, History, Museology and Musicology.

KRASIS 10

During Hilary term 2021, we explored the theme of Opening, from the perspectives of AJTFs working in archaeology, history, anthropology, musicology, art history, English literature and conservation science.

 

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

A black and white photograph of figures next to an archaeological dig, with handwritten notes underneath

The west end of the ship, Sutton Hoo burial, 11.20am, 27th July 1939; annotations in Crawford's hand

Image reproduced courtesy of the O.G.S. Crawford Photographic Archive. Institute of Archaeology, Oxford

 

 

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

 

Open Access?

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.

krasis 10 week 4: A walk to the postbox noticing materials that might be used to make sculpture

A walk to the postbox noticing materials that might be used to make sculpture

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.

krasis 10 week 4: A walk home from the postbox noticing materials that might be used to make sculpture

A walk home from the postbox noticing materials that might be used to make sculpture

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

 

Sedimented Histories

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.

 

Map of Europae, 1600 by Arnoldo di Arnoldi

Map of Europe by Arnoldo di Arnoldi, 1600

 

Tin-glazed vase with IHS trigram, found during Broad Street excavations, 1930s

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.

 

Oxford, by Ralph Agas, 1578; republished by Robert Whittlesey, 1728

Oxford, by Ralph Agas, 1578; republished by Robert Whittlesey, 1728

 

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?

Ashmolean floorplan level 2

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.

 

References

McKittrick, Katherine, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis, MN and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

Ahmed, Sara,  Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham NC: Duke University 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

Victoria 

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.

Kyō-Satsuma vase from the workshop of Hōzan; Ashmolean Museum, EA1990.1237

Kyō-Satsuma earthenware vase, Hōzan workshop, Kyoto, c.1890

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.

 

Kyō-Satsuma vase from the workshop of Hōzan, earthenware, enamel and gold; Kyoto, c.1890; Ashmolean Museum, EA1990.1237 (detail)

 

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. 

 

Avery

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.

 

Henry Chalfant, photograph of graffiti on #5 Lexington Express subway car, as shown in the Universal Museum of Art exhibit, 'Street Art'

Henry Chalfant/unknown artists, #5 Lexington Express Subway Car; Universal Museum of Art

 

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.

 

References

Brown, Bill, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no.1, Things; Autumn 2001, pp.1-22 

Kyō-Satsuma vase by Hōzan

Universal Museum of Art

V&A Videogames Exhibition

 

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

 

Beyond Labels

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?

The Great Bookcase by William Burges

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.

 

William Burges et al, Great Bookcase (detail)

 

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.

The Great Bookcase by William Burges (detail)

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.

 

William Burges et al, Great Bookcase (detail)

 

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.

Tea Ghigo heritage science wordcloud

 

 

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.

byzantine tesserae

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.

mosaic border florence

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.

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul from the balcony, with two domes above, crowd of worshippers on the carpet below, and entrance in background; after Fossati. Tinted lithograph with hand-colouring. 1852

Interior of Hagia Sofia, 1852

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.

hagia sophia southwestern entrance mosaic: Justinian presenting a model of Hagia Sofia to the Virgin

Justinian presenting a model of Hagia Sofia to the Virgin; Hagia Sofia, Southwestern entrance

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.

Plan of Constantinople's imperial district at the time of the Emperor Justinian I

Imperial Contantinople at the time of Justinian I, 6th century CE

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.