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Edward Juler / Alistair Robinson (eds.): Post-Specimen Encounters Between Art, Science and Curating, Bristol: Intellect 2020, VII + 345 S., zahlr. s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-1-7893-8311-9, GBP 34,00
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Rezension von:
Marieke Hendriksen
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
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Anna K. Grasskamp
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Marieke Hendriksen: Rezension von: Edward Juler / Alistair Robinson (eds.): Post-Specimen Encounters Between Art, Science and Curating, Bristol: Intellect 2020, in: sehepunkte 22 (2022), Nr. 2 [15.02.2022], URL:

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Edward Juler / Alistair Robinson (eds.): Post-Specimen Encounters Between Art, Science and Curating

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The edited volume Post-specimen encounters between art, science, and curating is the outcome of a two-day interdisciplinary conference hosted by the University of Montpellier in 2016 on the occasion of the exhibition A Scientific Encounter: Inter-Objectivity. (vii) With this book, the editors seek to explore three issues: to investigate what happens to objects when they become specimens, how they can be reimagined by academics and visual artists, and to answer the question of whether art objects can be seen as post-specimens, which the editors define as "things freed from the limits of curatorial narrative or the narrow constraints of historical time." (2)

A contribution by Marion Endt-Jones and chapters based on artistic research in the second half of the book (chapters 7-13) in particular offer valuable new insights and ways of looking at existing collections, traditional science museum displays, and new (bio) art projects alike. Endt-Jones analyses displays in three contemporary alternative curiosity museums: the Museum der Unerhörten Dinge in Berlin, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris. In her analysis, she convincingly demonstrates that these museums can function as experimental spaces in which curiosity can be cultivated, probed and played out in novel ways - but also identifies issues that prevent them from doing so. As for the chapters based on artistic research, these offer surprising new ways of looking and understanding. Nadia Lichtig's monologue written from the perspective of a Ziziphus ziziphus plant, for example, is not only entertaining and informative, but is itself an encounter between art and science. As Gemma Anderson rightly points out in her chapter on drawing processes, artistic research practices can generate unconventional questions and result in unconventional bodies of knowledge.

Yet there are some issues with this book. Interdisciplinarity is relative here - as it so often is: all the contributors are either (post)modern art specialists and / or artists, and the editors are a lecturer in Art History (Juler) and a curator of contemporary art (Robinson). The only exception is Ludmilla Jordanova, emeritus professor of History and Visual Culture, who provided an afterword. This brings me to what could be considered the one serious flaw in this volume: it displays a surprising lack of interest in and engagement with the history and sociology of science from which the collections, materials, and (post-) specimens in this book are drawn, not to mention the work of material culture scholars who have studied specimens in recent years.

This can be easily forgiven due to the distinct merits of, predominantly, the chapters based on artistic research. Yet while the editors' desire to be freed from the constraints of historical time may go some way to explaining the almost complete absence of an enormous body of highly relevant recent work from the history and sociology of science, the book does raise the question of how much of this is intentional. For example, it seems inexplicable that Juler, in his contribution that focuses on the Montpellier historical anatomical collections, cites a dated art historical take on Frederik Ruysch's seventeenth-century anatomical collections from the 1980s, but completely ignores the rich, much more recent academic work on the (afterlives of) anatomical collections by historians such as Knoeff and Zwijnenberg (2015), and Wils, De Bont, and Au (2017), as well as Van de Roemer's take on Frederik Ruysch (2010) and Elizabeth Williams's outstanding work on Montpellier anatomy (2002, 2003). [1]

Another issue with this volume is the way in which concepts are borrowed and introduced. For example, why the editors refer to a 2012 article by Megan K. Halpern when they first use the concept of boundary objects in the introduction remains a mystery. The concept was not only famously coined by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in 1989, but also sharpened by Leigh Star in a 2010 article [2] - yet disciplinary affiliation appears to prevail over origin here. Something similar can be said about the idea of an 'object-based epistemology' launched in the introduction and revisited by Robinson in his contribution. The idea that "objects are not the receptacles of knowledge, but are knowledge themselves" can be traced back to at least the 1980s, to both object-driven approaches by art historians (see, e.g., Prown 1982) and the work of anthropologists such as Appadurai. [3] It is hard to tell whether this is carelessness or disciplinary myopia, but it is a pity for readers interested not only in the art but also in the science in the title. Finally, there are minor errors in references which could have been resolved by careful copy editing, such as incorrect publication dates.

Does the book deliver what it promises? It gives some insight into but no comprehensive overview of what happens to objects when they become specimens, nor does it answer the question of whether art objects can be seen as post-specimens. I, for one, am not at all convinced that things can be "freed from the limits of curatorial narrative or the narrow constraints of historical time" (2), but that might be my own disciplinary constraint. This book does, however, show how specimens can be reimagined by academics and visual artists, and, in this case, that the visual artists are overall much more successful at this than the academics. At 49 USD, with plenty of colour illustrations, the book will prove an excellent resource for artists and academics. Overall, this is a fine book for those interested in recent developments at the intersection of art, science, and curating, even though it is by no means exhaustive, nor does it give equal attention to the roles of all three.


[1] Rina Knoeff / Robert Zwijnenberg (eds.): The Fate of Anatomical Collections, Farnham 2015; Kaat Wils / Raf de Bont / Sokhieng Au (eds.): Bodies beyond borders. Moving anatomies, 1750-1950, Leuven 2017; Gijsbert M. van de Roemer: From vanitas to veneration. The embellishments in the anatomical cabinet of Frederik Ruysch, in: Journal of the History of Collections 22, 2 (2010), 169-186; Elizabeth Williams: A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier, Aldershot 2003; Elizabeth Williams: Hippocrates and the Montpellier Vitalists in the French Medical Enlightenment, in: Reinventing Hippocrates, ed. David Cantor, Aldershot 2002, 157-177.

[2] Susan Leigh Star / James R. Griesemer: Institutional Ecology, 'Translations' and Boundary Objects. Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39, in: Social Studies of Science 19, 3 (1989), 387-420; Susan Leigh Star: This Is Not a Boundary Object. Reflections on the Origin of a Concept, in: Science, Technology, & Human Values 35, 5 (2010), 601-617.

[3] Jules David Prown: Mind in Matter. An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method, in: Winterthur Portfolio 17,1 (1982), 1-19; Arjun Appadurai: The Social Life of Things Cambridge 1986.

Marieke Hendriksen