An important area of value for this project lies in its contribution towards our understanding of ‘emotional objects’. Throughout history, the material world, and portable man-made objects in particular, have been used to fashion identities and shape social relationships. Objects have always conveyed materially-embedded messages about the experiences, thoughts, and behaviours of their owners. Man-made objects are meaningfully constituted; as such, they all assume and convey some degree of emotional intensity.

This relationship is recursive. Emotions theorist, Monique Scheer, (drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus) conceptualizes this as ‘emotional practice’, where the permanently repeated process of emoting situates the body in the world. Andy Clark and David Chalmers similarly present this idea as extended cognition, in which objects within the environment function as a part of the mind. [1]

Emotions are performed, and wrought upon the world. They are something we ‘do’, not just ‘have’, and this is actively expressed onto the objects that we carry with us – temporarily or throughout our lives. Feelings are offloaded, however consciously or unconsciously, onto our environments, and of course, onto our things, in a never-ending, reciprocal cycle – shaping, and being shaped by us.

Yet, objects are sites of competing and often conflicted emotions. They can elicit emotions which cluster around a single theme, or they can produce an entire spectrum of responses from one individual even within a single context. To give you some examples of this from Emotions3D, the 17th century drinking vessel known as the puzzle jug would probably have consistently elicited a sense of merriment or mirth, though now in its broken and dilapidated state, it might indeed puzzle a viewer.

Likewise, the Amputation Saw generally produces feelings of fear, revulsion, and sometimes empathy for patients undergoing this gruesome operation in an era devoid of anaesthetic or antibiotics. From historical documentary evidence about amputation procedures, the emotional regime in response to this object would have been relatively stable throughout history.

Yet other objects in the collection are more complex. Emotions scholar, Thomas Dixon, proposes the idea that ‘emotions have an anatomy and a genealogy’. Semantic changes to the emotional effects of objects occur across place and time. The temporal schemas can happen over a person’s lifetime; within a community over several lifetimes; or throughout different historical periods with constantly changing socio-cultural contexts. These multiple historical ‘moments’ in the lives of material cultural can often explain the manifold emotional valences encompassed within a single object.

The Trepanning Dummy was used to demonstrate the procedure of trepanning to medical students and staff at St Bartholomew’s hospital in the mid-1800s. Sometime later, as the curator at St Bart’s theorises, this object acquired its battered appearance, around the time it acquired a new purpose – that of a makeshift ball. This change in function was also accompanied by a change in its emotional coding, perhaps bringing joy to the staff of the hospital where before it had not produced any particularly strong feelings.

Nowadays, the object has been reported to induce less positive responses, with some viewers labelling the dummy as creepy or uncanny, particularly when viewed in 3D rotation which reveals the marks made with circular drill bits into the skull, as aspiring doctors practiced their trade. This object shows that, over time, the material properties, function, and even the language used to describe an object changes, leading to corresponding fluctuations in its implicit emotional register.

We tend to think of heritage, and particularly the cultural heritage presented in a museum context, as existing at specific moments in the past and now with us in the present. But this doesn’t provide the whole picture of an object and it doesn’t depict the process by which objects acquire, accumulate and sometimes even lose emotional meaning. As David C. Harvey notes, heritage has its own history. [2] From an emotions perspective, an object might even deliberately depiction emotional expression such as the angry, brawling faces of the figures on the Japanese Netsuke.

How we respond to heritage today, in a museums context, is fraught with complexities, often stemming from how we package and display objects from a curatorial perspective. We experienced this to a degree in the working group when discussing the Netsuke, which was potentially acquired in a colonial context, and being made of ivory, raised the ethical spectre of cultural heritage derived from the products of hunting.

What happens when you eliminate, or permanently alter an object’s material state? With the digitization of cultural heritage, the original physical objects are heavily altered – they are remediated as the digital ‘idea’ of an object in cyberspace. Can this process in any way enhance how we how we understand and interact with objects and their three-dimensional ‘virtual’ forms today? See Curating Emotions3D for more information.

[1] Monique Scheer, (2012) ‘Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion’, History and Theory 51 (2):196-199.

[2] David C. Harvey. ‘The History of Heritage’ in The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity ed. Brian J. Graham and Peter Howard (Aldershot: 2008), pp. 19-36.