An artistic reinterpretation of William Hunter

University of Glasgow Library

Special collections are traditionally used for University teaching and research, but in reality our clientele is a diverse lot. In recent years in particular, our books, manuscripts and archives have provided inspiration for a variety of creative endeavours. We have participated in events such as Culture Hack, and hosted seminars and classes that use ‘primary resources’ to spark off ideas for writing and poetry. Examining works from the past also proves to be fruitful for contemporary artists.

In the past few weeks, we have welcomed the visual artist and researcher Dr Jac Saorsa for a number of visits to explore the red chalk drawings created by the Netherlandish artist Jan van Rymsdyk (fl. 1740-1788) for William Hunter’s groundbreaking obstetrical atlas The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus. Jac is currently a Visiting Fellow in the Medical Humanities Research Centre here at the University of Glasgow, working on a project…

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Hidden Stories, Hidden Lives

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Photo ©Chris Loughnane

Welcome to Hidden Stories at The Hunterian, a blog to uncover the stories that go untold at The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, Scotland’s oldest public museum. To uncover, but to [re]imagine, also.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

The Hunterian was founded in 1807 on the bequest of Dr William Hunter, renowned physician, anatomist and obstetrician, and features a permanent display dedicated to him called William Hunter : Man, Medic and Collector.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

The artefacts in The Hunterian tell many stories, but those stories are often told within a traditional curatorial framework. Yet other frames of reference exist in which the collections may be viewed. This project will explore those other reference points from two different but complementary positions, intended to broaden the scope of the collections and how visitors view them.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

The first will tell the stories of museum staff, curators, academics, the university’s students and museum visitors. What does the day in the life of a curator, a guard or the director involve? What are their personal stories in regards to the collections? What items do they find significant and why? How do students and academics integrate objects into their research? What do visitors to the museum think about the building, the objects, or the displays? This will construct a picture of the complex human activity surrounding the collections.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

The second will focus on those objects themselves – whether a Roman coin, a dinosaur thighbone, some Inuit snowshoes, or one of Hunter’s microscopes. The project will use creative narrative and metaphor as a way to explore the untold stories behind the objects and their place in the museum past and present.

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Photo ©Chris Loughnane

Composing experimental, mixed-media narratives based on research and digitisation work in the archives, the objects will tell the history of their provenance, how they came to be collected, traded or discovered, how they were used and how they fit within the collection, now and in the past.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

To contextualise both viewpoints, I will use the university archives to source and and then digitise ephemera relating to the museum and its past visitors and exhibitions (archive audio and video footage, architectural plans, newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and catalogues etc.), as well as documents relating to the acquisition of the objects (deeds of sale, letters to and from Hunter, expedition diaries, maps, etc.).

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

These narratives will be placed in this ongoing blog project to create a multimodal, multi-viewpoint digital archive storing and sharing the stories that go untold around a collection of world significance.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

This project, part of the Hunterian Associates Programme, is intended to complement one of my PhD research aims, to unveil the work of special collections, archives and museums by showing what happens behind the scenes. It will allow me to explore notions of identity and place in archival and museum contexts, as well as gaining practical experience of curatorial practices, digitisation, educational storytelling, and user interaction in a public-facing context.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane

It will also, I hope, be an engaging experience, allowing different perspectives to come through, differing perceptions of the museum and its objects, and allow the objects to gain a greater agency, no matter how necessarily limited the scope of the project.

Photo ©Chris Loughnane