The intangibility of things

Simon Knell

In his classic study of illusion in art, art historian Ernst Gombrich (1977: 176, 190-1) observed in practitioners of his discipline, a ‘readiness to start projecting, to thrust out the tentacles of phantom colours and phantom images which always flicker around our perceptions.’ He continued, ‘what we call “reading” an image may perhaps be better described as testing it for its potentialities, trying out what fits.’ In other words, while art historians believed the object was communicating to them they were really talking to it, infusing it with their thoughts and desires; the flow of communication was quite the reverse of their perception of it. If Gombrich understood that ‘the artist of the Western tradition came to rely upon the power of indefinite forms’, he knew too that the reception of works of art also played upon these ambiguities, permitting artist and art historian alike to find creative potential in the same uncertainties. 

Of course, we cannot deny the material specificity of the art object; it is a thing of definite form and composition. Even a constructivist engages with an object of surfaces and textures, weight and temperature, and other properties, and never with a ‘blank slate’. The arguments developed in this essay, however, privilege the interpretive process. They suggest that such things as the bold ribbing on a shell do not ‘speak’ to the viewer but are perceived. Indeed, speech itself does not, of course, reach the listener’s mind without this act of perception and interpretation. So, if we take this page as an object bearing clear marks which seem to speak, we understand that they do so only because we have learned their meaning. Indeed, those who invented writing, those who designed type, those who write and those who read bear a cultural connection which permits this page-object to work. However, not all objects exist within such connected cultural systems – all must first be admitted into these worlds, including Nature’s shell. We detect and value such things as its ribs, and perhaps even value them when they are barely perceptible and can hardly be said to whisper let alone speak. This selective valuing of one feature over another is a choice that has been made and then adopted. Were this page to arrive from some alien culture we might decide that it is not the black marks that matter but the white patterns that surround them. Of course, it is hard for us to imagine this, but it is entirely possible and no less possible than choosing to value the black characters.  

So the boundaries between an object’s material form and our presumptions and interpretations of it are unclear. ‘Culture’, an inextricable part of ‘material culture studies’, is fundamental to our working with objects. For example, those materially vague but firmly intentional hints and indications of the form of cloth in Velázquez’s later works seem hardly up to the task of describing their subject matter. Materially they are blobs and streaks of pigment. But step back five paces and these indefinite forms take on the appearance of the thing they were meant to represent. However, they do so because Velázquez’s masterful use of paint chimes with our experiences of cloth. He had simply wrapped up an idea in these blobs and streaks which we were then able to unwrap because of our shared experiences of the things he was representing. The material aspect of the object here is however in this pattern of marks, the cloth that forms in our minds is of our own making. Had we no prior experience of cloth, the blobs and streaks may have helped little in explaining what cloth might be like. 

The material aspect of the object also forms an important baseline for judgments of authenticity, though even here opinion can take possession of these material components. In older art objects attribution plays a central role in giving these objects significance and mapping out the geography of art history. In art, interpretation is all; the material object cannot become an art object without additional interpretation. Art is, so we are told, a judgment or a ‘meaning’ attached to the material thing by those who make and particularly by those who receive. Many social theorists, however, have argued that reception alone confers an object with this status. But this is not how the art object seems to those who engage with it. For them it is born an art object and it is an art object; art and object are inseparable. Indeed, it is possible to argue that art is a functional aspect of the object; art and object are inextricably entwined at birth in the same way that a bowl is made a bowl and does not become one simply through use. The art in the object is an intention, not a measure of elevation. This does not mean that we all share identical ideas about the artistic merits of an art object or that just because a maker conceives of her object as art that an audience will do the same. 

The artwork, and all those individuals and institutions engaged in the production and reception of a work of art, might be understood ethnologically as forming a cultural grouping built around systems of belief which are produced and permeated by traditions and performances (Appadurai 1986), which reify, consolidate and shape mutual values and understandings of the objects in their possession. I shall refrain from calling this the ‘art world’ (Danto 1964; Dickie 1974; Becker 1982; Bourdieu 1993) as that makes it too special. What I am talking about is little different from those cultural groupings formed around racing pigeons and racing cars, collecting fossils or making glass beads. By suggesting a similarity, I do so in terms of an ethnologically understood cultural group with its objects, beliefs, roles and performances; I am not suggesting that the performances are identical in each of these groups. Our aim, as museologists, cultural historians or ethnologists, must be to stand on the outside of such performances and look in.

So what of the art object in its peculiar cultural world? Here things get a little more complicated, for this art aspect – a meaning bound to the material object through functional intent – is mutable. It is an intangible held in constant negotiation by those who experience the object. The material aspect of the art object is, by contrast, progressively reduced and diminished (relatively speaking) as the mythology of the object’s artistic significance grows. Indeed, as many of the most famous works of art are consumed in reproductions and the printed word, and held in negotiation in our thoughts and conversations, the materiality of the art object may contribute little to its place in this cultural world. But is this not true of all objects? ‘[W]hen we look at how people experience and negotiate authenticity through objects, it is the networks of relationships between people, places and things that appear to be central, not the things in themselves’ (Jones 2010: 181). 

Now this entanglement between the tangible object in our collections and its intangible counterpart in our recollections is interesting for its complex psychological effect. When we stand before the material object, its intangible qualities seem a part of it; we cannot isolate them. In a similar way, the material reality of the object seems implicitly present whenever we think about or discuss the object even though our conversations only ever invoke its intangible and mutable form. In both cases we perceive only one object. The illusion, then, is this: that this one object is actually two, one tangible and real but not always present, the other intangible, the product of experience and negotiation, which seems to us to be the real object but is not. The intangible object exists in our world but is made in our thoughts; it is ever present and inescapable. The material object also exists in our world but it never really exists in our thoughts. 

This notion of an unavoidable detachment between the thing, and our understanding of it, is many centuries old. A central debate in Western philosophy, Descartes expressed his concerns as long ago as 1641 (Descartes 1975). Our present constructivist reading, which privileges the experience of reality over its actuality, owes much to Berger and Luckmann’s (1967) phenomenology. They argued, as did Gombrich implicitly, that ‘Consciousness is always intentional; it always intends or is directed towards objects’ (Berger and Luckmann 1967: 34, my emphasis). Morrissey reflected on Husserl’s comprehensive and radical account of this phenomenological outlook: ‘the objects that surround us function less “as they are” than “as they mean”, and objects only mean for someone…To see implies seeing meaningfully’ (Tauber 1997: 399). Bertrand Russell observed, ‘It is not correct to say that I am believing the actual event; what I am believing is something now in my mind… since the event is not occurring but the believing is… What is believed… is not the actual fact that makes the belief true, but a present event related to the fact. This present event, which is what is believed, I shall call the “content” of belief’ (Aquila 1977: 96). Finally, Schulz (1963: 3): ‘Even the thing perceived in everyday life is more than a simple sense presentation. It is a thought object, a construct of a highly complicated nature.’

This should suggest to us that museum objects are things that ‘seem to be’ rather than ‘are’. But to think this is to undermine the very justification for museums. These institutions came into being with an Enlightenment view, that emerged with the consolidation of the natural sciences, which suggested that by detecting, collecting and preserving material reality society could escape the clutches of myth and speculation, and all the ill consequences that arise from it. For example, Peter the Great promoted the pickling of deformed still-born babies, on public display even today at the Kunstkammer in St Petersburg, in order to quash a mythology of monsters that fostered irrational science and social relations. Perhaps surprisingly, even early historians of art, such as Giovanni Morrelli (1816-1891) and Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), adopted a natural science model to establish a framework for the study and connoisseurship of art objects. They did so not by blind adoption but through sophisticated adaptation. And while many disciplines have since found more liberal frameworks for their studies, in their museum manifestations at least, all remain true to principles which foreground the fundamental reality and authenticity of the object. It is through this lens that museum professionals see their objects, rarely considering the boundaries to the realities they believe they curate. They see only the material object which seems to speak to them and never an intangible thing constructed in their thoughts. This, Husserl (1913) observed, is the ‘natural attitude’. They, their institutional and disciplinary world, and the objects within it, are locked in an unquestioned, and seemingly natural, relationship (Knell 2007). Arguments for greater cultural democracy, such as Bourdieu’s (1984) convincing demonstration that museum objects are political (suffused with meanings and manipulated by an elite) rather than neutral (material) things, did nothing to displace this. Objects were, for him, real. We might argue, however, that this political aspect exists as a component in an intangible object deployed in social relations; it never existed in the real object.

The material object, from which our conceptual or intangible object is negotiated into existence, remains simply that: material and mute but implicitly, we must believe, bearing authentic witness to its origins and original context. We can take the intangible, immaterial or conceptual object wherever we like and deploy it in our imaginings and communications in a wide variety of ways. The silent, material, object – the real museum object – however, remains in a drawer or case. Situated in the tame environment of a collection formed to serve the particular needs of an intellectual discipline, the material object nevertheless sits apart from the field which seeks to understand it, always belonging to a reality beyond. Being real, it is to be used to question and doubt the knowledge produced, invested in, and represented by, its intangible twin; the material object is there to be the subject of new investigations as new knowledge, fashions, desires and technologies permit. Of this tangible-intangible pairing, it alone holds the potential to reveal the ultimate truth but this truth must always be negotiated and represented using its intangible form. 

By adopting this approach I am denying the material object independent agency of any kind (unlike Callon’s (1986) famous oysters, for example, for which see also Collins and Yearley 1992). Our thinking about an object, our surprise at first meeting it, even our involuntary bodily reactions to it, emanate from us and reflect our prior cultural experiences.

I would argue that this twin existence of things allows the development of that natural attitude, of which Husserl so disapproved, to operate without impeding processes of cognition. It alone permits the performances necessary to make sense of, and utilise, the real world using rational tools. It does so by ensuring that inaccuracies and mistaken beliefs, established during the negotiation of the intangible object, remain separated from reality by an invisible and impenetrable barrier; the factuality of material objects is never dependent upon the vagaries of belief or knowledge. History shows that the reality of objects has never been affected by thought; they have proven immune to designer gods and successive creations, untouched by the Flood and all variants of theory. These thought fashions manifested themselves only in the intangible object. This intangible, conceptual, immaterial, evidential object appeals to the truth of the material object; but its connection to its material twin is detached and fluid – it lives in another world. The object in our thoughts may seem material, definite and fixed but it is in fact intangible, contingent and transient.

But, again, this is not how things seem. Scientists, for example, work on the basis that the real thing is entirely within reach. How else might a scientist know that she has seen a greenfinch? That truth, however, which might arrive in her thoughts with great assurance, does so at the end of a rather convoluted journey spanning centuries. It might be explained: bird seen down barrel of gun; bird shot; bird skinned and preserved, drawn, described, compared, named, classified, published; other birds shot etc.; bird featured in an identification guide; book sold; book read; bird seen; intangible greenfinch held in constant negotiation; intangible greenfinch appears immutable; intangible greenfinch seems tangible. Through this grand performance the intangible thing I have in my mind seems indistinguishable from the material thing I saw. Science theorists might evoke paradigms, falsification episodes, correspondence theory, and so on, to explain this but most scientists work with a more innate sense of science practice. This, in the natural sciences, includes the belief that there can only be one truth which must correspond with nature. This is a moral and ethical obligation central to the sciences but not shared so fundamentally by other disciplines. This obligation is embedded within a culture which implicitly believes in the possibilities of discovery, the accessibility of reality, the necessity of disinterestedness, the distancing terminology of theories, hypotheses, paradigms and models, the superiority of measurement and exact science, the need for open and testable data, and so on. This is instilled into scientists, to echo Bourdieu’s arguments concerning taste and class, during their ‘upbringing’ and education. This thinking is fundamental to science but it must be understood that it is so only in relation to science’s own particular performances. This permits scientists to live in a world which can negotiate absolute truth with no sense that a ‘natural science attitude’, to use Husserl again, is in any sense naive or unwarranted.

The art object is different. It exists in a field which understands that reality is just one dimension to knowledge; subjective understandings are admissible. This permits art history to be something of a theological discipline, critically questioning its beliefs, whilst also setting up idols and gods. In the museum, a curatorial priesthood might be understood to disseminate this gospel which we, the masses, lap up. How else can we explain the  performances that daily greet Velazquez’s La Meninas (1656) at the Prado Museum in Madrid? Every day, a crowd assembles before this painting and remains there. Its constituent actors may come and go but nevertheless a crowd remains. At nearby Reina Sofia, a similar spectacle can be observed in front of Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Here the air is alive with the chatter as a public discusses the form, meaning and significance of this work, and in so doing makes it a part of their lives. 

But what in these museums is making these objects perform in this way? On their own, and without any contextual information (historical or art historical), I doubt that these objects would provoke these performances. At the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Raphael’s famed Madonna of the Meadow (1506), perhaps rather surprisingly, attracts no such fuss. My point is simply that we have, on the one hand, the material object, detached from the everyday and presented in the museum, and on the other we have an intangible object formed through experience. The material object, if left to its own devices, might have little or no impact upon us as we need to learn how to appreciate objects. But what we learn, of course, is how to make our own intangible objects from real things. It is not the real Guernica that is causing all the hubbub, but a nebulous immaterial version forming in minds and in the exchanges between individuals, and between individuals and the object. In neighbouring galleries art (paintings, sketches, posters and photographs) performs as historical context supported by labelling which assures the visitor that this painting is the great antifascist symbol uniting the  people of Spain. Picasso understood the functional purpose of his artwork at the moment it was made. He was the first among many who constructed the intangible Guernica that would forever accompany it.

The modern guidebook to the Prado tells us that this museum is ‘considered by many to be the greatest public collection of paintings in the world’ (Museo Nacional del Prado 2009: 5). To believe this, I would argue, one would need to have never visited the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the National Gallery in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest or a number of other leading European galleries. One would also need to believe that the Prado is, like these other museums, rather more the international survey museum than is actually the case. If we chose to see it in its very Spanish colours then we might also compare it with the great national collections of paintings such as the wonderful Russian Museum in St Petersburg or the magnificent Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest. To elevate the Prado, we would also have to accept that the tastes and patronage of a seventeenth-century monarchy remain central to the idea of great art. But I tease a little here, the Prado is most certainly amongst the greatest of art museums. Its greatest attribute, however, is that it sees itself primarily as the keeper of ‘the Spanish tradition’ (Museo Nacional del Prado 2009: 23). It is its Spanish collections, nurtured over four centuries, that make it exceptional, together with its direct relationship to the active production of art in Spain over that period. The museum actively promotes the Spanish School, but in doing so also promotes its own significance: ‘It is not by chance that the Prado’s inauguration coincided with the international discovery of the “Spanish School” in general, and of the most emblematic of its painters, Velázquez, in particular. Indeed, the characteristics regarded as typical of the “Spanish School” can largely be said to be those associated with the most outstanding paintings by these artists at the Prado’ (ibid.). Vast numbers of paintings by Velázquez, Goya, El Greco, Ribera and Murillo, and a lesser number by Zurbarán, are here turned into great pillars upon which the notion of an artistic tradition has been built. So effective is the museum’s  performance, one could believe that these paintings spring from a people, from a territory, from the national culture, from the very soil of the country. Viewed from within this carefully constructed cultural world, visitors learn to believe and seek to locate those characteristics said to be typical which connect the prodigiously talented royal painter, Velázquez, to the Caravaggist, Ribera, and the idealised beauty of Murillo, and these in turn to the more extraordinary work of Goya and El Greco. Stood in room 12, looking at La Meninas, am I simply seeing the material object? Thrusting ‘out the tentacles of phantom colours and phantom images’, my thoughts affected by curators and historians who insert the lenses of Titian, Italian travel, the formality of court portraiture, and late nineteenth-century French Impressionism before my eyes, am I not making my own intangible La Meninas? And in doing so are not these lenses as important as the material object to this act of making?

It might appear, then, from the examples of the greenfinch and Spanish art that the negotiations of intangible objects taking place in the arts and sciences are fundamentally different but this is not really the case. The arts and humanities also possess in some measure science’s desire for rationalism, dispassionate objectivity and truth. And, as I shall explain, scientists cannot live in a wholly rational and objective world; they too admit subjective experiences. Different disciplinary worlds – or cultural worlds – do not distinguish themselves at a fundamental level, it is rather that each values and privileges particular performances. Indeed, it is possible, through detailed study, to reveal these performances and show how these shape the object in the mind. What is particularly interesting about these performances is that they are structured not by disciplinary rigour but by social experience. 

To explore this, I will, as a final example, discuss a group of materially insignificant, ambiguous, and yet evocative, objects. In doing so I am going to be a little circumspect about the nature of these things. If I state overtly what they are, you will be inclined to presume to know the arcane world to which they seem to belong. You might then be tempted to stop reading, believing that these objects are concerns only of that particular field. This all-pervasive act of pigeonholing things into their supposedly natural intellectual homes must, however, be resisted. Paintings and fossils don’t belong to artists and palaeontologists, they both belong also to – and to no lesser extent – artists, children, collectors, television viewers, advertising agents, military historians, knick-knack sellers, and so on. The approach we are using here does not arise from within the disciplinary worlds we are exploring. Our goal must be not to think as participants do within the field but to stand on the outside of the field and see it and its participants as engaged in forms of negotiation and attached to particular objects without them ever reflecting on the cultural strangeness of it all. We should aspire to see this strangeness. And although I shall be discussing a world formed around a curious group of objects, my aim is not to focus on the objects but on the manner of the negotiations taking place.

The objects I chose for this study are small; vanishingly small. So small, in fact, that you could fit several on the head of a dress making pin. The world collection, totalling millions of these things, could be made to fit into a few shoe boxes, if poured like so many grains of sand. But put these Lilliputian things under a microscope and they show themselves to possess extraordinarily exotic form. They are translucent and jewel-like. Some might even say they are beautiful. Were they considerably bigger then we might convince ourselves that they are like animal teeth though in many respects they are not like teeth at all. Their other special quality is that they are puzzlingly old. As material things, they seemed to me, to echo Thomas Mann’s (1927) eloquent description of atoms, ‘so small, such a tiny, early, transitional mass, a coagulation of the unsubstantial, of the not-yet-substantial and yet substance-like, of energy, that it was scarcely possible yet – or, if it had been, was now no longer possible – to think of it as material, but rather as mean and border-line between material and immaterial.’ 

What are these things? Well, the truth of the matter is that all who have looked – and this has included the great and good – have never quite managed to agree on the answer to that question. They have been attributed to almost every group of animals you might imagine (and others you have never heard of) and at least three times they have been considered the remains of plants! Over the 160 years they have been known they have become, rather ironically, the great unknown. The degree to which they were unknown spawned a myth and even a rather jolly song. Nevertheless objective and rational people still managed to make use of them – quite remarkable use of them. This, then, was my object but it was not its strangeness that concerned me but the strangeness of the world that surrounded it – a world consisting of a global population of 300 or so workers who made this thing central to their being. How did this group live with such an ambiguous thing and  yet make it function for them?  

So I set out not study the thing but those who had thought about it. I positioned myself outside their arcane and expert world – for these objects were possessed by an enclosed community – never seeking to be drawn into their way of looking or to believe that I could know these things as they did. Instead I took the view that each actor possessed his or her own contingent knowledge (Weber 1968). It did not matter that each thought differently about the object or that each possessed, within his or her ‘knowledge’, a complex mix of truths, errors and orthodoxies. At that moment, for each individual, all these things composed ‘the truth’ and this truth shaped the intangible object at the centre of their studies. I was not concerned with what the objects were, only with what these people believed them to be (Latour 1987). I could not, as Evans-Pritchard (1937) did, begin by believing that ‘Witches, as the Azande conceive them, clearly cannot exist’; in my study, belief alone brought intangible things into existence. By this means I could separate the reality of the material thing from the objects that existed only in the minds of those who worked with them. 

It soon became apparent that my actors made no attempt to differentiate their disciplinary knowledge – knowledge belonging to that arcane field focused on these objects – from other knowledge and experiences arising from lunchtime conversations, casual reading, babies, pets and so on (Strawson 1979; Geertz 1983; Rapport 1993;  also Wenger et al. 2002 and Fish 1990). What each person thought about these objects, then, arose from direct study of them, but seen through the lens of heterogeneous experience. Iterative exposure to the object and to these other lens-forming experiences gave their understanding of the object a high degree of reliability; it also exposed unknowns and uncertainties which could then be corralled and contained. Rather interestingly, the exterior sources which affected each individual’s looking and believing – which shaped the intangible objects in their heads – were never revealed in the papers written about the objects. But, then, how could they – exterior experience is boundless and uncontained and constantly in negotiation. The performances recorded in the scientific papers they wrote referred only to the work they had undertaken on the objects themselves, though the manner of that work was sometimes motivated by things off stage. If they referred to external influences, it would only be to papers published by others. As in a play it seemed that part of the performance remained in the rehearsal room; no public ever saw it.

Now despite what seems at first sight a rather formalised approach to knowledge production, participants were well aware of the vagaries of interpretation. One worker argued that the field possessed 4000 specifically-defined types of these objects, 500 examples where different kinds had been found together, and partial remains of five animals possessing these objects; ‘All the rest is really speculation or, if you will, interpretation’, he said. Another worker also recognised this speculative aspect, stating that when one has one object one also has one type. When one has two slightly different objects, then one must believe one has two types. When one has 100 objects all differing slightly in some way, then one might feel brave enough to believe that one has just one somewhat variable type. His point was that even in the sciences knowledge of the thing – the object – results from connoisseurship which in turn relates directly to the simple matter of how many of these things are known. The intangible object being formed in this way, which is held differently in each mind, but which is also acquiring shared understandings through conversation, is locked in negotiation, and subject to waves of phantom thoughts which envelop it and make it. 

As someone on the periphery of this particular field noted, ‘The road to good scholarship is paved with imagined patterns’. The intangible object might be regarded as a pattern which sits in the mind and which seems to possess a poetic and cognitive logic; a constellation of thoughts, ‘readings’ and projections. These patterns are constrained by what seem to be the material possibilities of the thing. In the 1950s one observer, a respected authority from another field, seemed to demonstrate conclusively that these tooth-like objects were not teeth after all. This silenced a generation. A language based on the teeth, which had been used to describe these things, was abandoned. Hardly anyone dared consider what form of life had possessed them. This phase ended when the field itself adopted a more liberal intellectual outlook and developed an aspiration for grand theory and creative thinking in the 1970s. This permitted workers to use reason to manifest functional roles for the objects. Intangible objects now developed rapidly but because they included a higher level of creative opinion new tensions grew between them as conflicting interpretations were given room to develop.  

This was not the first time that incompatible objects were produced. In the 1930s, differing interpretive communities developed in Chicago, Washington, Missouri and Göttingen. Local negotiations, in an era when long-distance communication was rather more onerous, produced localised beliefs, and localised forms of the intangible object. By this means geography shaped the object, and would continue to do so as centres later developed in Iowa and Marburg, then Ohio, and lastly in the English midlands. Each possessed a particular outlook and saw the object differently. In this field of knowledge, then, sub-communities disrupted that sense of universality often claimed as a scientific necessity. 

Key to this localisation was the training of PhD students. These new workers, on  entering this field, were allocated to physical and intellectual territories by their supervisors. This positioned them uniquely in the field and ensured they were to complete their projects without risk of personal rivalry or interference. It meant that each individual had an in-depth knowledge of a particular space and the objects that occupied it. Thus while the field as a whole relied upon the ability to test the data of other workers, it also structured itself so that no two workers would possess precisely the same material. The social necessities of working relationships had made this necessary (Merton 1976). There was, then, in this division of labour, a peculiar balance between the agonistic and communal which was determined and achieved through control over part of the global resource of these tiny things. If the intangible object was held in constant negotiation then the performance of these negotiations was in part preconfigured in social relations. 

However, on occasion individuals found themselves in possession of key objects – powerful objects capable of producing major advances in the field – which also permitted them to have influence far beyond anything these objects themselves could offer. These empowered individuals mobilised their own intangible objects to great political effect, attracting new monies, expanding their research teams, and acquiring control of popular media. Lesser objects, in the hands of particularly innovative thinkers, also became powerful, forming new readings which affected whole communities of workers, shaping their thoughts and their conceptions of the object. But in most cases these shifts in thinking were ephemeral. Occasionally, a fashionable idea would later find rejection but more often ideas simply slipped into the backwaters without a fight. The intangible object mutated through acts of letting go.

Repeatedly workers started out along a particular path that seemed to offer a solution to contemporary unknowns about the thing but before the destination of that research trajectory was reached – before the once-imagined definitive result had been delivered – those on the path were drawn into new things. This happened because at the moment when particular questions were asked and the map of progress was drawn up, the features on that map were composed of things already within view. But, as these workers voyaged forwards, they soon hit seas disrupted by new ideas. They looked again at their map, and saw that the features marked upon it were not those imagined at the moment of departure. They needed a new ship and new map, and a new direction in which to voyage. It was not simply that the expenditure of effort in this field had entered a phase of diminishing returns but rather that changes around that field of research had diminished its value. In this way, once fashionable ideas drifted out of sight, joined by those ideas rejected by new knowledge, or which were never promoted or defended, or which had only persisted while their proponents remained alive. In this scientific world, the thought object – the intangible object – was never on a simple and progressive trajectory. It was never simply an objective and rational thing, but rather a palimpsest recording experiences that the individual still considered legitimate.

I have discussed elsewhere, and in a rather less abstract way, the manner in which these enigmatic objects journeyed through scientific minds (Knell in press). My aim here has simply been to demonstrate that while we partition knowledge into disciplines in museums, and define those disciplines in terms of ethical expectations and learned performances, there is another side to these human-object relationships which can be explored culturally or, as Swedish workers might describe it, ethnologically. By invoking the notion of an intangible object, we can extract ourselves from the norms of disciplinary engagement, and view the object as produced and existing within particular cultural worlds. Few museums have attempted to do this. At Historiska Museet in Stockholm, however, one gallery which uses the metaphor of the airport departure lounge, deconstructs the social and intellectual presumptions of archaeological knowledge. It permits the archaeological past to be understood as contingent upon present-day perceptions and performances. The past and the objects that seem to speak of it are all things held in contemporary negotiation. Other displays in this museum also reveal a sophisticated museological deployment of objects quite unlike those found in other historical museums. Similarly, across the city at the Nordiska Museet, Swedish ethnologists reveal with striking effect the power of this form of museological interrogation. An ethnological museum dealing with the Nordic present and past, curators here expose the anthropological strangeness of society, its objects and performances. The contrast between this and a British class-based social history tradition in museums could not be more profound. In Sweden, the curators privileged a commonality of human experience across time in order to evoke this sense of strangeness. In doing so they had swept aside that historical distancing which also tended to distance the subject from the viewer as something academic, arcane and rather irrelevant, approachable only through empathy, sympathy and reminiscence. By contrast, at the Nordiska Museet, life and culture seemed to be something worth celebrating, even if the beautifully designed displays themselves never took this stance. The museum simply asked visitors to look at everyday objects afresh, to see them as part of rather than remote from their culture and consider the peculiarity of the human condition. This is possible, I feel, because the intangible object does not remain hidden – it is not sold to visitors as existing within the material thing on display – but revealed as something to be wondered at. 


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