Call for Papers: Cabinet, Elaboratory, Gallery 1500-1800

Abstract Deadline: 14 March 2020

cabinet call for papers

The conference will take place on Friday the 24th of July 2020, at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford. The Selection Committee invites the submission of a 500 word abstract for a 20 minute paper to be sent by the 14th March 2020 to: morwenna.blewett@worc.ox.ac.uk . Abstract submissions are made on the understanding that if selected, a publication length paper of c.4000 words (including notes) must be submitted to the Selection Committee three weeks before (3rd July) the conference date to assist with the scheduling of editing.


The idea that the conservation and the material exploration of collected objects is mostly a twentieth century development has become disproportionately represented in the growing literature on the history of conservation.  Great scientific advances in conservation and related materials analysis were made in nineteenth and twentieth centuries by various museum directors, conservators and chemists. The contribution of notables such as Sir Humphry Davy who lent his scientific expertise to the complicated problem of unrolling charred papyruses of Herculaneum, and Michael Faraday who investigated atmospheric pollution at the National Gallery and British Museum, have ensured that these periods have emphatically delineated the marriage of science and conservation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as the dominant narrative. The legacy of earlier periods remains relatively unexplored in the scholarly output of art history, history and philosophy of science, and that of conservation.  

Ranging from the work of French textile repair workshops and the restoration of ancient sculpture in Seville in the sixteenth century, to the establishment of seventeenth century centres of learning in England, such as the Royal Society and the Ashmolean museum, to the treatment of manuscripts in India to protect against insects in the eighteenth century, the early modern period offers many examples of concerted efforts to investigate and to preserve. Often with one facilitating the other. Discovery, collection, documentation and preservation were key activities that heralded the birth of the modern public museum, of which the Ashmolean is believed to be earliest.

It is evident from historical accounts, that varying levels of physical of care – that today we consider to be preventive or interventive in nature - were devoted to certain objects. This is true of both new institutional settings and in other publically-accessible collections. Their records chronicle the physical manipulation, deterioration, preservation, condition-recording and sometimes the elective disposal of these specimens and works of art. This raises important questions about the changing significance of the physicality of object, the rejection and remedying of deterioration, or the toleration of it, either as an inevitable by-product of handling and investigation, or through other agents of the destruction that at the time, could not be halted or minimised. This period also heralded the use of visual records to illustrate the condition of some collections and provides examples of remedial intervention pressed into service to extend use. Physical maintenance of collections’ spaces and new methods of display also demonstrates the nascence of collections management and care as a whole.

This one-day conference invites papers which, among other things, might address questions such as how was materiality, condition, alteration and disrepair viewed during this period? Was this different for early institutions compared to other semi-publicly accessible but private collections such as the Tradescant’s Ark, Belsazar Hacquet’s and Ole Worms’ cabinet collections, or James Salter’s Museum and Coffee House? What measures constituted conservation activity or materials analysis in this period? What factors motivated these efforts? Who had agency to carry out or direct these interventions? Which materials and techniques were used? What can be learnt from recipes and notes dealing with problems such as materials alteration or institutional desiderata setting out new solutions to materials-based or preservation problems?  Contributions could also address how any of these factors changed over time. Did techniques evolve or improve, or were they phased out and abandoned? What influenced their use?  Were wider political or societal messages closely connected to material preservation or investigation? What does this tell us about material culture and about the changing cultural and scientific roles of individual categories of object in this period?  Papers might also take a biographical focus looking at individuals engaged in what we might term conservation, their networks and how their work intersected with different collections. We especially welcome cross-disciplinary papers and contributions from early career researchers.

The proceedings will be published with a prestigious partner.

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