GDE740: Week 7 – Just an object

Hi again. It’s Week 9 Yara writing a Week 7 blog post. Technically, there is no obligation to write these posts, but seeing as writing is my weak point, and it’s easier to gather my references linearly in a short essay format, I decided on repopulating my blog to catch up on the work I’ve been doing. Anyway, it’s fun writing these in retrospect, as there were subconscious decisions I’ve made that I can now rationalize. So I am patting my intuition on the back.

I started my journey into the Science Museum’s digital archive by simply looking through it. Our course leader, Dan, had sent us various ways to extract content from their archive. One package, in particular, intrigued me. It was titled “Ethnography and folk medicine.” One of the photos was of a plaque that read, “And if you fall ill, for He is the healer.”

Plaque – “God is the healer”. Front three-quarter view. Black background. Source: The Science Museum Group.

The image search led me to an entry that explained it was part of their collection referencing Unani medicine. Unani medicine, also called Unani Tibb, Arabian medicine, or Islamic medicine, is a traditional healing and health maintenance system observed in South Asia. (Britannica, 2019) I wasn’t familiar with the practice of Unani, nor did I have the interest to delve any deeper, but some related items I came across sparked my attention. A picture of an evil eye, a blue bead made of glass, with a yellow and black pupil. I found several more. Tons, in fact. And they all stated the same thing: “Glass “evil eye” bead, pierced for suspension from Hebron District, Palestine, 1880-1930.”

Source: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/

One thing that stood out on an entry for an evil-eye necklace was a section of the page that said it’s currently on display at the Wellcome Galleries. And that’s when I came across this article from the Wellcome Collection’s blog and a landmine of information that sent me through the rabbit hole that is Week 7’s research.

Source: https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co103089/necklace-worn-to-ward-off-the-evil-eye-necklace-amulet

In the 1930s, Henry Wellcome purchased approximately 220 amulets from Dr. Tawfiq Canaan’s collection. (Abdel Majeed, 2020) Canaan was a prominent doctor of modern medicine in Palestine at the time but was also interested in an array of other subjects, including amulets, talismans, and folk medicine. Between 1912 – 1946, Canaan acquired amulets from patients, children, sheikhs, village leaders, pilgrims, and priests in Palestine. (al-Ju’beh, 2005) According to Birzeit University Museum, many of the objects collected by Canaan were already disappearing from Palestine. Without his scholarly work and continued commitment, these objects could have been lost from the memory of the Palestinian people. (museum.birzeit.edu, n.d.) In 1996, the Canaan family donated the remainder of the amulet collection to Birzeit University.

Illustration by Jacqueline Reem Salloum

At this point, I was curious to see how this collection compared to the entirety of the archive. Would gauging its size help me discover something? Since 2019, the Science Museum Group has been digitally archiving their collection, amounting to over 150,000 objects and documents recorded thus far and made publicly accessible through an online portal. This digital archive is only a part of the group’s 425,000 objects currently in possession, and approximately 5% of that collection is on display. The group desires to make the online platform that houses this archive more engaging and interactive through various applications and solutions. They invited designers to partake in an ongoing exploration of design solutions to address audience engagement and discovery.

As dry as the diagram can be, imagine the amulets both in the hands of Birzeit and the Science Museum. At Birzeit, they hold a lot of weight, permanently displayed, with an adequate amount of information in each object’s caption. Canaan’s amulets in the Wellcome collection are all hidden away in boxes, with the exception of 6.

Source: Birzeit University Museum – Virtual Gallery

In the context of the digital archive, the recording of each amulet is not consistent, and much information is missing. This online display erases its important cultural context and strips the amulets of their mystic, medical properties, history, and meaning.

Source: Science Museum Group (I found 71 amulets so far)

This online display erases its important cultural context and strips the amulets of their mystic, medical properties, history, and meaning.

Allan Sekula mentions in his essay “Reading an Archive,” “The archive has to be read from below, from a position of solidarity with those displaced, deformed, silenced or made invisible by the machineries of profit and progress.” My mission then became to examine the digital archive as a system to be critically challenged and open up the possibility for genuine engagement. I believe that the archive should be accessible to interpretation by the beholder of cultural significance to the items they carry, to make their connections, retell their stories, reclaim their narratives, and make sense of it on their terms.

To conclude this week, let’s look at the mood boards I put together to express my feelings about the project. For me, this mood board is a guide and a reminder as I move along each step to make sure I stay true to the beliefs I brought into it early on.

Liminal Spaces

Liminal spaces can be defined as transitional spaces, void of people, yet offer familiarity with unease. There is a trend going around the internet where people share pictures of liminal spaces. Depending on the time of day you view the photos, they can seem oddly eerie, almost haunting. Think of the photo series of abandoned malls by Seph Lawless. They give an insight into once occupied spaces, bustling with people and activity. Their remanents, while empty, somehow we can almost see ghosts of the past, floating across the floors, happily shopping. The feeling is called Kenopsia, the eeriness of places left behind. (Solar Sands, 2020)

Seph Lawless – Rolling Acres Mall

To me, the Science Museum’s digital archive gives the same feeling. Its objects, almost floating in space, weathered enough to indicate that they had been used. That eerie feeling fortified when imagining an amulet being worn by a child to cure a disease, sprawled across a blank background and photographed at a seemingly unstrategic angle.

The controversial British Museum collaborated with Google Cultural Institute on an online portal called The Museum of the World. The interface features floating points, connected through thin white lines in space. Underneath the dots are markers, like in a football field, indicating the century each dot is above. The dots represent an object, and the lines attempt to link them to one another, in an attempt to describe connected histories. A soft droning sound in the background sets the scene for an immersive experience, while the dots chime gently upon every click. It’s an eerie experience, and not in a good way.

Source: https://britishmuseum.withgoogle.com/

While I do add Dima Srouji’s Ghosts to this space in my mood boards, it is far from negatively portraying this feeling, but rather positively enforcing what happens when objects are taken out of their context. The objects in question are vessels from Palestine, displayed across the world. Srouji’s recreation, transparent glass made in collaboration with the last surviving glassblowers in Palestine, poetically reflects on this cultural loss.

Source: https://www.dimasrouji.com/ghosts

Mystic Medicine

This is an area I have to admit I know nothing about. I grew up in an atheist household, but more than that, we rarely if ever consider homeopathy as an option for medical ailments. Not to link religion to mysticism, but there are cultural connectors between Islamic and pagan traditions.

I came across quite an intriguing archive called She Who Sees the Unknown by artists Morehshin Allahyari. The digital interface for this archive is dark and mystical. Part of it is locked to those who cannot read Arabic or Farsi. However, what this archive actually represents is her work to move beyond a simple binary view of West vs Islam and tech-future vs religious-history. Allahyari looks to forgotten, misrepresented, and suppressed histories and narratives, and her project offers a third method to re-situate power and remark history and ownership. (TransferGallery, n.d.)

Source: https://archive.shewhoseestheunknown.com/

In a journal written by Baha’ al-Ju’beh, he mentions how amulets and talismans are seen as objects of superstitions, fetishes that simple folk resorted to in solving health ailments or remedies for social or psychological problems. Dr. Tawfiq Canaan, however, viewed them differently. Canaan was well-known as one of the foremost researchers of Palestinian popular heritage, and he probed and asked questions concerning the value of the amulets and talismans as a source of knowledge in interpreting the traditions and beliefs of his people. He saw a connection between modern medicine and folk medicine. (al-Ju’beh, 2005)

Source: Magic and Talismans – Baha’ al-Ju’beh

“I have occupied myself during the past year with the subject ‘Popular Palestinian Medicine’ and have gathered a large number of amulets that are used in curative and preventive ways. It is certainly not sufficient merely to possess such a collection and to know superficially what each object means; therefore, I have endeavored to find how and where they were made, how they are used in the different parts of the country and for what ailments, how they act, etc.”

Tawfik Canaan: His Life and Works – Khaled Nashef

The preservation of cultural practices in the context of the beholder is an important factor when recording items for an archive. Archival, typically deemed as a Western practice, can either store information sensitively and accurately, or in my opinion, strip them of any meaning, or magic.

Virtual/Augmented Reality

The Zucc announced the rebranding of Facebook (the mother company) as Meta. In his announcement, he described the future of the company as one that would focus on virtual reality (the Metaverse) as the next evolution in digital and online technologies. I take everything this guy says with a grain of salt, but I do believe we are moving towards a different kind of tech reality that involves a certain degree of augmentation. The developers of Pokémon Go, Niantic Labs, recently made their tech open source so that anyone who wishes can build their own augmented reality and “real-world metaverse” apps. (Holt, 2021) Fashion trend forecasters have also been recently discussing virtual outfits, mainly targeted to fashion influencers, in a bid to reduce waste and promote thoughtful consumption.

Source: Safiya Nygaard

And of course, let’s not forget that we’re already highly comfortable using augmented reality apps, like Instagram/Snapchat/Tiktok filters. For some, it’s a must-have before posting a story of yourself, lest you show the real world your actual skin texture. Museums have also picked up on this trend of late in an attempt to engage with their younger audiences.

The day of Leopold, the Saint of Lower Austria and Vienna, is observed annually on the 15th of November. To promote their activities for this day in 2021, the Leopold Museum created a filter with Egon Schiele’s portrait of Mime van Osen.

Source: https://www.leopoldmuseum.org/leopoldi/de

The exploration of augmented reality as a tool to reimbue an amulet’s mystical properties was especially intriguing to me. The amulets are essentially locked up in boxes, far away from their place of origin. Legally, they belong to the Wellcome Collection, and there is no sense in ordering them back. However, there is also no sense in their perpetual storage away from the culture that birthed them. Can our natural adaption of technology allow us to reclaim the amulets and recontextualize them? That’s the question I’ll be asking myself throughout this project.

Reference list

Abdel Majeed, Y. (2020). A symbol of a lost homeland. [online] Wellcome Collection. Available at: https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/X71Z0BMAACMApbYe [Accessed 19 Nov. 2021].

al-Ju’beh, B. (2005). Magic and Talismans The Tawfiq Canaan Collection of Palestinian Amulets. [online] Available at: https://www.palestine-studies.org/sites/default/files/jq-articles/22_23_magic_1_0.pdf [Accessed 3 Nov. 2021].

Britannica (2019). Unani medicine. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/Unani-medicine.

Holt, K. (2021). “Pokémon Go” maker Niantic is helping others create AR metaverse apps. [online] Engadget. Available at: https://www.engadget.com/pokemon-go-niantic-augmented-reality-metaverse-apps-193559416.html [Accessed 20 Nov. 2021].

museum.birzeit.edu. (n.d.). Tawfik Canaan Amulets | Museum. [online] Available at: http://museum.birzeit.edu/collections/tawfiq-canaan-amulets [Accessed 3 Nov. 2021].

Nashef, K. (n.d.). Tawfik Canaan: His Life and Works. [online] Available at: https://www.paljourneys.org/sites/default/files/Tawfik_Canaan_-_His_Life_and_Works_-_Khalid_Nashif.pdf [Accessed 20 Nov. 2021].

Solar Sands (2020). Liminal Spaces (Exploring an Altered Reality). [online] http://www.youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N63pQGhvK4M&t=80s [Accessed 20 Nov. 2021].

TransferGallery (n.d.). She Who Sees the Unknown :: Morehshin Allahyari | TRANSFER. [online] transfergallery.com. Available at: http://transfergallery.com/morehshin-allahyari-she-who-sees-the-unknown/ [Accessed 20 Nov. 2021].

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