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Biomedicine in museums

Everyday objects you enjoy touching — investigating tactile aesthetics

By January 13, 2013No Comments

During the last 48 hours my mind has mulled over the latest announcement for Medical Museion’s internal Thursday lunch seminar series — with our own PhD student Emma Peterson, who will present her work on methods for investigating tactile aesthetics.

It’s a PhD project within the framework of Jan Eric Olséns project on the history of blindness from a material culture perspective. That’s a very interesting project in itself, but that’s not what has occupied my mind the last two days.

What has kept me busy is that Emma’s seminar will not be a conventional academic presentation only; she has announced that it’s better called an “experiment”, because she wants all of us each to “bring an everyday object you enjoy touching”.

I find this assignment very provocative. Not only because a combination of ordinary embarassment and university etiquette will probably keep us from bringing some our most enjoyable touch objects to the seminar table. But also because I’m really at loss when it comes to selecting an everyday object I really enjoy touching.

Not because I don’t like touching things. I usually do. But because I’m not used to reflect on the act of touching — and selecting an object forces me to think more systematically about the role of touch among my personal everyday aesthetic preferences.

I’m used to reflect about my visual and auditory preferences. I know exactly which books I enjoy reading because they produce pleasurable imaginations in my mind. Same with films and images I enjoy viewing.

I can also easily make a long list of people I enjoy being together with (and a somewhat shorter of people whose company I don’t enjoy). Or birds voices I like listening to. Or places I like to come back to. Or houses I like being in. And so on: cities, landscapes, streets, museums, etc.

But material things I enjoy touching? My first thought was that I have a favourite tooth-brush, which I like holding in my hand. Then I came to think of some of our plates and cutlery at home that not only look nice, but also feel good to handle. And then I thought some of my clothes are better ‘touch objects’ for my skin than others.

Then I remembered that holding a baby is extremely enjoyable (but are babies ‘objects´?). And besides, as soon as we get into people-things, the discussion about the enjoyment of touching becomes charged.

Back to impersonal thing-touch. The iPhone, of course — a recent and very enjoyable touch object. The iPad too feels good to finger. Which made me think of books, not as objects of reading, but as objects of handling. The experience of reading a good book in hardback cover in certainly enjoyable — maybe that’s why people still buy hardbacks?

And then a whole tsunami of material objects came welling up. The touch of grass in the summer, the sense of forming snow balls in the winter. Holding a piece of raw wood. Stroking a raw stone surface. Caressing the cat …

Still, after 48 hours, Emma’s assignment for our Thursday seminar, occupies my thoughts. I’ve suddenly begun deliberately touching objects at home to find out which of them I really like (not many it turns out).

And I’m thinking: What does my ‘life of touching’ actually feel like? Which objects are pleasurable? Which enrich my everyday? Are scientific, medical or health-related objects among these?

This is going to be a radically mind-expanding seminar.

(feature image: ‘The Touch’, from R.W. Wertz and D.C. Wertz, Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America, 1989)

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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