Last week, I was one of a number of students lucky enough to be invited to attend a three-day workshop on Materiality and Objects at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. This workshop was the second in what is proving to be a fruitful exchange program between Uppsala and Queen Mary, University of London, the first event having been held at Queen Mary this spring. Our trip to Sweden featured a packed programme of museum visits, object analysis and fantastically generous hospitality. On arrival, we were divided into groups composed of students from both universities working on similar themes, with our group working on projects broadly covering issues of personal or group identities. We then visited the university’s own museum, in Uppsala Castle, to view an intriguing art collection which covered a range of artistic styles and themes. From there, we went on to the university’s library, to learn more about the conservation of their special collections, which include paintings such as those in the Castle as well as some beautiful rare books. After being lavishly entertained with traditional schnapps and Swedish drinking songs in the evening, we got a bright and early start on Tuesday morning to travel to Stockholm, where our first stop was the Vasa museum. Quite apart from the ship itself, whose magnificent bulk looms atmospherically as you enter the galleries, the museum has an enormous collection of the possessions of those sailors who were on board at the time of its sinking. We were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the stores and the opportunity to study some of the objects in detail with the assistance of Fred and Emma Hocker, who work at the museum as Director of Research and Conservator respectively. In the afternoon, it was onward to the nearby Nordic Museum, where again we looked at different kinds of objects in detail, tried to deduce their histories, and learned more about the ways in which they were conserved and exhibited. On the final day of the workshop, the groups had the chance to work together on presentations about some of the objects we had seen over the previous two days. The different groups chose a wide range of items, including cannonballs, a much-copied painting, a doll’s house, some commemorative table decorations and a dressing gown made from recycled sofa fabric. These items were used as prompts for fascinating and productive discussion. We questioned how important objects were in uncovering wider histories, and decided that although an object on its own might not be able to tell us a whole story, it might prompt different questions and offer alternative narratives to those provided by traditional textual documents. Issues relating to the objects themselves were also raised. We debated the level of expertise in making an item necessary to understand its value (both emotional and financial), feeling that an understanding of process could inform our work but that it was important to be aware that we might never fully recreate the experience of the original maker. We also thought about value in terms of authenticity and originality, prompted by a seventeenth-century painting of Dr Paracelsus, the original of which is worth less now than a copy made by Rubens. The idea of originality was also complicated by discussions of the ongoing life of objects: their use, reuse, and perhaps misuse sometimes fundamentally altering the original item. This poses problems for those working on the exhibition or conservation of an item – in which of its many contexts should it be shown, or preserved? The session provided the opportunity for students and senior academics from a range of disciplines, working on various time periods and studying material culture from differing perspectives, to share in a conversation in which it emerged that we had many concerns in common, some of which we might not have immediately been aware of by ourselves. It brought home to me the need to work collaboratively. There are hidden meanings in paintings that only those with art historical training might be able to draw out, while a textile historian might understand more about an item of clothing or furnishing due a more intimate knowledge of processes and traditions involved in its making, and these perspectives can only benefit a historian looking at material culture from the point of view of its historical context. To that end, after a look around yet more fascinating exhibits in the Gustavianum, we ended the workshop with yet another evening of Swedish hospitality. This gave us a chance for further informal discussion of the connections between our projects, enhancing further not only my perspective on object studies, but also my understanding of Swedish history and culture. I hope that, going forward, these insights can inform and improve my research, and that the lively and productive spirit of collaboration fostered by the exchange can be continued.

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