Object Mobilities Workshop Convenes in Australia

Written by
Ariel Kline
Dec. 2, 2022

Scholars Meet in Canberra, Australia, to Discuss Objects on the Move

Students gathered around tables

Convened in Canberra in November 2022, the “Object Mobilities” workshop brought together scholars from the United States and Australia to speak about objects on the move. Most surprising was the wide range of objects under discussion: from radioactive samples of Persian ceramics in nineteenth-century British collections (in a paper by Mary Roberts) to a model boat created by Tran van Hoang at a resettlement camp off the coast of Malaysia in 1980 (in a paper by Kylie Message), our exploration of objects and their movements spanned subfields and centuries and elicited a variety of methodological questions. Among these were speculations about how we might attend to the visual residue of an object’s journey across space and time, how we might narrate local histories amid the global circulation of objects, and the more subtle reversals, twists, and inversions that the word “mobilities” might also encompass.

Stone mural of women gathering
Iran, probably Isfahan, Garden Gathering, 1640–50, stone paste, painted and polychrome glazed (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA)
profile drawing

“W.W.,” Bennelong (State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia)

Robert Wellington gave a fantastic paper on a snuff box gifted to Agapit Chicagou by the young Duchess d’Orléans, asking us to speculate about the lost snuff box and the encounter between these two figures at Versailles. Kate Fullagar gave an equally thoughtful account of a request for some garments sent by Bennelong of the Eora Nation to the British Royal Navy Officer, Arthur Phillip. Both papers dealt with the absence of their respective objects, offering visual and textual analyses that unfolded the political stakes of these lost or unfulfilled exchanges. And Kailani Polzak delivered a compelling analysis of the Ipu Makani o Laʻamaomao, a wooden vessel given to King David Kālakaua of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, seeing in this object the contrasting understandings of oceanic space in Kanaka ‘Ōiwi and British epistemologies and a potential methodological rejoinder to European ocularcentrism. Other papers by Cate Friedman, Sushma Griffin, Sarah Hodge, and Annemarie McLaren dealt with the problems of grouping mobile objects, the importance of naming and relaying an object’s cross-cultural significance, and the contested legacies of historical objects in our contemporary moment.

Painting of seated woman under trellis

Leopoldo Romañach Guillén, Dama de 1850, 1940 (Ramos Collection, Miami, FL)

I co-organized the workshop with Robert Wellington (Director, Centre for Art History and Theory at the Australian National University) and Kylie Message (Director, Humanities Research Centre), with funding from the Australian Catholic University thanks to Professor Kate Fullagar, as well as funding from the Department of Art & Archaeology, the University Center for Human Values, ArtHX, and the Humanities Council at Princeton. We were thrilled to have Associate Professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson give a paper on the medical imagery that James Thompson produced on plantations in the British empire, and to have A&A Ph.D. Candidate Luke Naessens give a paper on the American Indian Movement’s use of the inverted U.S. flag. I gave a paper on a painting by Leopoldo Ramañach Guillen, whose Dama de 1850 was repurposed as an outdoor awning on the streets of Alamar, Cuba, following the Revolution of 1959. The workshop will result in a special issue of Humanities Research, which will include a transcript of our concluding roundtable discussion.