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LOST BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

COLLECTING AND INTERPRETING HUMAN SKULLS AND HAIR IN LATE NINETEENTH-CENTURY LONDON: PASSING FABLES & COMPARATIVE READINGS AT THE WILDGOOSE MEMORIAL LIBRARY. AN ARTIST'S RESPONSE TO THE DCMS GUIDANCE FOR THE CARE OF HUMAN REMAINS IN MUSEUMS (2005)

Doctoral Research, School Of Art & Design History Kingston University London (2015)


'Were I not entering these dreamlike chambers - could I find the psychic space to encompass the moral dilemma?'
  Visitor response to The Wildgoose Memorial Library Presents Passing Fables & Comparative Readings: Collecting & Interpreting Human Skulls & Hair in Late 19th-Century London at the Crypt Gallery St Pancras (2014)

In 2015 Jane Wildgoose was awarded a PhD from Kingston University London, where she presented her practice-based doctoral research as an artist's response to the 'unique status' ascribed to human remains in the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005).

The research took as its starting point the DCMS Guidance's acknowledgement that human remains may be perceived both as objects - in scientific, medical and anthropological contexts - and as subjects 'that have a personal, cultural, symbolic, spiritual or religious significance to individuals and, or, groups.' It also responded to the Guidance's acknowledgement that some human remains in museums 'were acquired between 100 and 200 years ago from Indigenous peoples in colonial circumstances, where there was a very uneven divide of power.'

Focusing on the circumstances in which human remains were acquired from Indigenous peoples under British colonial rule, and the legacies of that historical practice concerning their presence in museums today, Jane Wildgoose's doctoral project aimed to contribute to developing new ways of engaging the public with a significant and problematic aspect of the history of collecting, which is little discussed in the narratives that museums present to their visitors.

Taking the form of a Comparative Study, Jane's research focused on the late nineteenth century: when human skulls were collected in great numbers for the purposes of comparative anatomical and physical anthropological research in metropolitan museums (a phenomenon in the history of collecting described by Stephen J. Gould, in The Mismeasure of Man, as 'the heyday of craniology') while, at the same time, the fashion for incorporating the hair of known individuals into mourning jewellery was widespread throughout society in the UK.

The project investigated previously unpublished correspondence from a wide network of suppliers, who sent quantities of human skulls from the colonies to metropolitan museums. It also examined catalogues and gallery guides published by those museums: in which the resulting collections of human skulls were measured, compared, classified and displayed according to hierarchical theories of racial "type."

The associative significance popularly attributed to mourning hairwork in wider society in the UK (revealed in contemporary diaries, literature, and hairworkers' manuals) was examined in parallel for the purposes of comparison.

Combining inter-related historical, archival- and object-based research with subjective and intuitive elements in her practice, Jane developed her findings, concerning the collection and interpretation of human skulls from Indigenous peoples under colonial rule by metropolitan museums, into a new archive of The Wildgoose Memorial Library: which contains transcriptions from letters from suppliers of human skulls in the colonies; editions of museum catalogues in which the skulls were analysed and organised according to craniometrical methods - that is, 'the leading numerical science of biological determinism during the nineteenth century' (Gould) - and gallery guides describing their presentation in racially differentiated hierarchical displays in museums.

She also devised a new piece of hairwork: which commemorates the lives of the individuals whose skulls were historically taken without consent for the purpose of providing data for pernicious theories of (long-since discredited) racial science in metropolitan museums.

Jane Wildgoose presented the Lost But Not Forgotten archive and the accompanying commemorative hairwork at the Crypt Gallery St Pancras (2014) and the Lumen Crypt Gallery at St John on Bethnal Green (2018); she has also exhibited the work at the Platform Gallery, Kingston University London (2015); the Norman Rae Gallery, University of York (2015); the International Textile Research Centre, University for the Creative Arts (2015) and King's College London (2018).

Jane regularly speaks about the work at conferences and in public debates: as chair of the 'Difficult Material - navigating ethical challenges in collections' panel at The Artist as Researcher conference organised by Artquest at the Foundling Museum (2019); at the Representing the Medical Body conference at the Science Museum (2019) and at the Troubling Objects: interrogating collecting and collections conference at the Victoria & Albert Museum (2018).

She appears in an online interview with Alexis Boylan, Director of Academic Affairs at the University of Connecticut, as part of the University's Seeing Truth: Art, Science, Museums, and Making Knowledge project: discussing her work with human remains in museums in the context of the development of her wider practice as Keeper of The Wildgoose Memorial Library (2022).

Jane Wildgoose has also presented papers on her work with human remains in museums at:

IABA Europe Life Writing, Europe and New Media conference, King's College London (2017)

In This Place Cumulus Association Biannual conference, Nottingham Trent University (2016)

The Personal, Fashionable and Archival Spaces of Hair (Image and Artists' Practice panel), Somerset House, London (2016)

Curiosity 2.0: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Contemporary Art conference, Hochschule for Bildende Kunste, Dresden, Germany (2015).

LINKS TO PUBLICATIONS:

Wildgoose J, 'Presenting Lost But Not Forgotten at the Crypt Gallery St. Pancras: Negotiating and Constructing Active Critical Conversation Concerning Contested Human Remains in Museums,' In This Place Cumulus Association Biannual Conference Proceedings Wednesday 27 April - Sunday 1 May 2016, D. Higgins, ed. (Nottingham: Nottingham Trent University, 2016) pp 43-50

Wildgoose J, 'Post-Specimens and Present Ancestors: Passing Fables and Comparative Readings at The Wildgoose Memorial Library - An Artist's Response to the "Unique Status" of Human Remains in Museums,' chapter in Post-Specimen: Encounters Between Art, Science and Curating (Intellect, 2021) pp239-270

Wildgoose J, 'Ways of Making with Human Hair and Knowing How to "Listen" to the Dead,' West 86th Vol. 23, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2016), pp 79-101

Wildgoose J, 'Collecting Human Skulls and Hair: In Pursuit of Wonder in Death's Chambers,' chapter in Wonder in Contemporary Artistic Practice, Christian Mieves and Irene Brown, ed. (Routledge, 2017), pp 211-229

Wildgoose, J & Roelof Bakker, 'Strong Room: Material Memories and the Digital Record,' European Journal of Life Writing Vol. 7 (2018), pp C1-C16

 
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