Accepted Paper:

Museum stores, genetic junk, experimental art: conversations on a train  


Chris Dorsett (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

An artist meets geneticists on a train and falls into conversations about non-coding genes, a kind of ‘reserve collection’ known as 'junk' DNA. Audio-visual recordings of their discussions are used to explore the importance of archival material held off-display in British anthropological museums.

Paper long abstract:

The topic of this paper has its origins in the type of exhibition-making which resituates experimental art within collection-holding institutions such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. These activities juxtapose contemporary artworks and museum exhibits in order to rethink the construction of knowledge through the public display of objects. However, anthropology also generates knowledge through geographic dislocation and cultural difference. Thus the transient nature of travel, like an unexpected art encounter in a museum, repositions the durational understandings we gain through a lifetime of movement in and out of our museum environments. Paradoxically, the abiding 'thinglyness' of familiar anthropological collections may be best understood within the frame of mobility/body/technology relations, a field of research pioneered in science/technology studies (Latour, 2005), sociology (Urry, 2006), and human geography (Bissell, 2010). This proposition is explored by the author using audio-visual recordings made during train journeys with Volker Straub and David Elliott (Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle) as they commute to and from work. Across a moving carriage ideas are swapped about the presence of 'junk' in the human genome. It turns out that the relationship between active and inactive genes plays an important part in biological evolution. This paper compares the archival significance of DNA for scientists with the experimental value of ethnographic collections for artists, urging a reconsideration of the cultural value of storage, and proposing interdisciplinary approaches to 'enlightening museums' that use the capacity of travel to 'craft' new knowledge about the sedentary power of reserve collections (Watts, 2008).

Panel P58
The enlightening museum: anthropology, collecting, encounters