Objects of Study: Paper, Ink, and the Material Turn

This symposium is co-organized by Aaron M. Hyman (University of California, Berkeley) and Juliet Sperling (University of Pennsylvania). It is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, through a partnership of the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School and the Andrew W. Mellon Object-Based Learning Initiative between the History of Art Department at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

About the Symposium

The goal of this symposium is to dissect the interpretive aims of “materiality studies” through a focused lens of works on paper. In recent years, “materiality” has become a buzzword across the humanities, and an impressive range of methods, investigative starting points, and analytic goals have come to rest under the term’s mantle. But in grouping this diverse array of approaches under a single heading, does each method’s unique potential risk becoming flattened and obscured? An illustrated book might just as easily inspire a reconsideration of workshop practices as it could a chemical investigation of ink formulae; are social history and chemistry, to name just these two examples, justifiably held together within the rubric of materiality?

The institutional landscape of object-based study has had a role to play in miscommunications about the goals of focusing on materiality. As art historians, we have noticed that materiality, as a concept, has often complicated communication between scholars of art objects in academic and museum settings. Conversations about process and the substance of things in the academy often veer quite far from the ways of engaging objects with which curators and conservators have long been deeply invested. In light of this muddled translation across institutions, we have chosen to focus this symposium on a single genre of objects that rely upon the materials of paper and ink. Books, prints, drawings, and documents, to name but a few examples, attract intense interest across not only museums and the academy but also libraries, archives, and antiquarian collections. By looking at the spectrum of approaches generated by these materials, this symposium works towards answering a pressing question: do the academy, museum, archive, and library define “materiality” differently? And, if so, what are future avenues towards intersection and collaboration?

The questions and objectives of this symposium have been shaped by the emerging field of “critical bibliography,” which unites scholars from a range of disciplinary and methodological backgrounds around the central axis of the book. We aim to map these connections onto art history by gathering academics, archivists, artists, conservators, and curators to think together about shared and divergent premises and, most importantly, goals for object-based study. The symposium will interweave hands-on workshops led by curators, conservators and artists with public talks by materially-focused scholars. In turn, discussions will not solely center on formal presentations, but will extend to alternative venues: the conservation lab, the studio, and the study room.

To begin addressing the symposium’s driving questions, we will ask participants to present “materialist” case studies of 20 minutes in length, and then to devote at least 5 additional minutes to explicitly addressing how “materiality” operates in their work. What are the analytic goals of a materially focused account? Where and how does such an inquiry begin? And, finally, how do those aims and methods relate to the field’s broader material turn? Talks may engage these questions in relationship to works on paper across time, and from any geographic origin.