Accepted Paper:

Morphology as marvellously enlightened: artistic reworkings of skin and bone  


Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

‘Wonder’ and ‘curiosity’ have been making a comeback in museums through installations teeming with hollow or glass eyes. Drawing on my ethnography of artistic reworkings of more-than-human remains, I argue that the ‘new curiosity’ implies an enlightened fascination with skeletal morphology.

Paper long abstract:

In 2008, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum displayed Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a human skull (For the Love of God) in a cubicle at the end of a pitch-dark corridor. The encounter with the skull left me strangely invigorated. In the room next door, seventeenth-century Dutch still lives featured a combination of wondrous treasures from foreign exploits and reminders of death (such as human skulls) cautioning the viewer: memento mori. As in numerous recent exhibitions, visitors were made to marvel at the curious and crafty, achieved through juxtaposition of unusual (art) objects from different materials and provenances, prominently including reworked human and animal remains. 'Wonder' has been making a spectacular comeback in museum contexts through still-life displays teeming with hollow or glass eyes, organised in playful cabinets of wonder harking back to the age of curiosity. The in-between of Enlightenment, however, has been associated with a rejection of 'the marvellous' (Daston and Park 1998). Does the 'return to curiosity' (Bann 2003), understood as an artistic encroachment of art upon the realm of science, imply a rejection of enlightenment, or is something else afoot? Drawing on my ethnography of artistic reworkings of more-than-human remains in Britain and the Netherlands, I argue that the new curiosity implies an enlightened fascination with morphology as it is shared by human and animal skeletons.

Bann, Stephen. 2003. The Return to Curiosity. In Art and Its Publics, ed. Andrew McClellan, Blackwell.

Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. 1998. Wonder and the Order of Nature, 1150 - 1750. Zone Books.

Panel P15
Skulls, faces and being human