The context of things

Cultural health historian Finola Finn reflects on lessons learned at an ECR training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection.

This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection.

Although this vase is designed to be hung from a nail and filled with flowers, I do not use it in that way. Circular, glossy, and cyan, it usually lies flat on a dresser, accompanying other items I have accumulated: an old bottle, a photo of a bird, some scraps of paper. While this misuse of the vase can be communicated to you textually (as I am here) or visually (through an inspection of the object in its usual place), this information is largely lost when the vase is removed from its context. Other aspects of the item’s significance are also erased, including any backstory, imbued meanings, or lack thereof (I spontaneously bought it at the Danish variety store ‘Tiger’; it is a reminder of the frustrations of not being able to use nails in rental properties; and it possesses no particular sentimental value for me).

Basic as it is, this example illustrates the sorts of losses that can occur when an object is placed, and observed, in a new space – such as an archive, museum, or the web. Removed from its context and original owner or creator, the ways in which an item was (mis)used and appreciated – as well as how and why it was made or acquired in the first place – can be obscured. In other words, without complementary evidence and information, textures and layers of meaning are shed. At the same time, these losses open up space for potentially erroneous assumptions about an object’s significance to take hold in the mind of the observer. As a cultural historian, this is problematic, as it is precisely these easily obscured aspects that I am interested in, allowing us as they do to probe the intricacies of the past. Only by rebuilding an object’s context and considering it in relation to other evidence can I get closer to understanding how ideas and practices were transmitted and inflected within past societies (Jordanova 2012; Gerritsen & Riello 2015).

Various discussions at the training day reminded me of this, while also bringing my attention to other vital roles context plays when we ‘think through things’. The archivists, for example, explained the risks of sharing their collections online given that – without the context of the archive and its guidelines – it is more difficult to effectively communicate the ethical considerations of items to users. Later, a fellow participant – Claire Horn – enlightened me to debates occurring within property law around the issue of human tissue and its ownership. I was interested to learn through subsequent reading that the legal classification of tissue changes when in or outside (the context of) the body (Quigley 2018; Nöthling-Slabbert 2008). In discussing our shared research interests further, we also realised that strong similarities exist between the bodily organs of the womb and heart, given that they both possess the power to elicit strong emotional responses in people when the prospect is raised of removing them from their original context (i.e. a particular individual’s body) and placed into a new context (such as the body of another).

While these lines of thought demonstrated the practical, legal, and emotional significance of objects’ contexts, Jen Grove’s presentation highlighted the authoritative potential of particular environments, such as the museum. By participating in one of the object-based exercises she conducts on her ‘Talking sex’ educational programme, we learned how the metaphor of a chastity belt became a tangible reality through their production as curiosities in the nineteenth century and later display in museums. By being housed in the authoritative context of a glass display cabinet, a myth was able to endure under the guise of historical fact. In the final session of the workshop, I found that the group drawing exercise similarly demonstrated how perspective can shift our understanding of ‘things’. As we spun our co-drawn creation around the table – allowing me to see it upside down (a face), from the left (a moon), horizontally (a new face) – the immediate influence of perspective on interpretation was striking. Where we are coming from – whether that be in a spatial, cultural or personal sense – and the research questions we are pursuing, will most likely shape the way we perceive and understand an object. With this in mind, it is worth considering the degree to which items that may be ‘visually similar’ (according to one of the Wellcome catalogue’s search functions) may also possess deeply different meanings when tackled from alternative perspectives or considered in light of their original contexts.

This series of photographs explores these trails of thought. We see the vase in an expected context used ‘correctly’; disposed of in the street; floating in water; and nestled at the base of a tree. The contexts depicted evoke different connotations and point to alternative information: one tells a ‘false’ story of how the vase was used in my house; another is perhaps reminiscent of a ritualistic practice; the final suggests an act of commemoration. In looking at these images and acknowledging the various meanings they imbue, we sense the significance and sway of the context of things.


Finola Finn is an Honorary Research Fellow and part-time tutor in History at Durham University. She recently completed a PhD on melancholy and embodiment in nonconformist religious experience in England (1640-1700); is currently co-developing a project on grief in the early modern period; and is interested in the use of contemporary art to disseminate historical research.

All images © Finola Finn.


Gerritsen, Anne and Riello, Giorgio (eds.). 2015. Writing Material Culture History. London: Bloomsbury.

Jordanova, Ludmilla. 2012. The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nöthling-Slabbert, Melodie. 2008. ‘Human Bodies in Law: Arbitrary Discursive Constructions?’, Stellenbosch Law Review 19 (1), 71-100.

Quigley, Margaret. 2018. Self-Ownership, Property Rights, and the Human Body: A Legal and Philosophical Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.