“Hidden Histories of Things” was a one-day workshop on the 26h of January 2015, organised by Commodity Histories in collaboration with UCL’s Institute of Making. It was held amidst the oddities and wonders of the Institute’s materials library, which was introduced at the beginning of the day by Sarah Wilkes and included examples of failed objects such as a heavy bell with a lead clapper. These manipulable materials set a tone of playful enquiry which characterised the workshop deliberations throughout the day. The workshop’s goal was to take a step back in time and think about the historical dimensions of materiality, focusing on localised histories in different parts of the world. Eleven papers were presented across four panels each of which also had a respondent. Most of the speakers were early career researchers from institutions in Britain, Norway, Holland, France, and Singapore, with a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including anthropology, history, and art. The discussion generated by the papers benefited greatly from the contributions of four respondents: Leonie Hannan and Sara Peres, from UCL; and Sandip Hazareesingh and Mat Paskins, from the Open University.
The first panel,“The Lives of Plants”, dwelt on different ways of relationships between humans and plants, ranging from the Bina plants cultivated by the Makushi people of the Amazon rainforest, to the ephemeral but symbolically potent and lavishly illustrated apples in Victorian Britain, to the itineraries of wood used to make a teak bed found in Singapore. The second, “Plants into Commodities”, focused on the processes by which plants are transformed and exploited as objects of trade and use, discussing exotic plant drugs in early modern Europe, turpentine in twentieth century France, and seaweed in Norway; speakers questioned how (or whether) other kinds of value could subsist alongside the marketable properties of these plants. The third panel, “Materials and Modernities”, offered ways of understanding the role of three kinds of material object – pesticides, rose hips, and geographical surveying instruments – as materials which made distinct contributions to projects of modernity. Finally, the fourth panel, “Animal Environments”, offered stories of two culturally-laden human-animal relationships: the training of guide dogs for the blind throughout the twentieth century in Germany, Britain, Israel, and China.and the different ways in which these helper animals were interpreted in different locations; and reactions to ‘verminous’ red squirrels in nineteenth century Scotland.
The eclecticism of these papers meant that there was much that was highly singular , even idiosyncratic, to each one. Indeed, the question of material singularity– the relations between humans and individual plants, animals, or other materials – was significant in several papers. Lewis Daly discussed relations between humans and plants which were characterised by unusual intensity, even intimacy. Jane Wess offered the diary of an individual instrument from the Royal Geographic Society, which disciplined the practice of exploration. Joanna Crosby talked about the paradoxical nature of studying the history of apples, which as individual objects are immensely perishable but which persist both through representations in botanical works and paintings, and through the trees which bring forth fruit each year.
A second major theme of many of the papers was questions of material agency. In line with much recent work on materiality, speakers asked about the kinds of agency different animals, plants, and materials might be considered to possess. Tom Widger analysed pesticides as a medium which mediated human interactions with an array of other beings, including “plants, insects, fungi, and other microbes”, all of which push back against the application of pesticide, and shape human understanding and attempts at control. In her history of guide-dogs, Monika Baar analysed how humans and animals mutually shape each other, describing both the techniques by which the dogs’ behaviour of “intelligent disobedience” was developed, and the ways in which they were interpreted differently according to existing cultural understandings of dogs; thus in Britain, for example, the introduction of guide-dogs met with some resistance by those who judged it cruel to treat dogs as working animals. Lewis Daly discussed Bina plants as powerful examples of “plant perspectivism”: plants which are held within animistic cosmologies to have their own perspectives on the world, experienced through human interaction with their “affective, active, dynamic properties […] as living beings”. This provided a salutary reminder that agency varies enormously between different materials, and can depend significantly on human interpretations of material beings.
Many kinds of expertise are mobilised to analyse, manipulate, and control materials. In their different ways, these papers revealed the unexpected connections between such expert knowledges and the commercial exploitation of materials. Lucy Davis talked about the conflict between traditional and scientific understandings of the provenance of wood. Tom Widger’s research emphasised the plurality of ways in which pesticides are produced and used , in particular the contrasting approaches adopted in Europe and in South Asia. The history which he offered traced both the interaction between humans and “significant ‘others’: plants, insects, and fungi; chemistry, molecules, and compounds; markets, policies, and laws”, and a sense of how unbounded and excessive these chemicals are. As Widger put it, they drift
across fields, hedgerows, and water (and within water) to places beyond their intended application; they flow within markets and beyond borders outside of regulatory agreement and control; they enter landscapes and bodies – human, plant, insect, microbe – in ways and mediums far beyond those designed for and checked for.
Similarly, in speaking of the secret history of Turpentine, Marcin Krasnodebski emphasised the controversies in reaching a common, internationally accepted scientific definition of this material. He showed how a crisis of the local resin industry in Aquitaine, France, led to the setting up of scientific institutions that ultimately acquired the authority to define turpentine in a way that was favourable to local commercial interests.
Discussing rose hips in 1940s wartime Britain, Mat Paskins brought out the range of scientific, commercial, and amateurforms of knowledge that had to be applied to their picking and production into medicinal syrup; a coalition of forces which challenges conventional images of home-front thriftiness and the ‘pure’ and unmediated values of wild food. Sophia Efstathiou discussed seaweed harvesting in Norway in the 20th century, focusing on the competing commercial, scientific, and environmental values that had recently been conferred on the old aquatic plant. Commercially-driven scientific research had also led to a re-valuation of seaweed, that is, an “appreciation of the non-economic value of nature both as source of human appreciation and as a value in itself. The subtle play between knowledge and exploitation and between the contrasting needs of commerce and the oceanic environment served as a reminder of the persistence of other values alongside economic ones, even when materials have been commodified.
The question of how “hidden” these histories can actually be said to be was raised several times throughout the day – especially in relation to the potential wider geographies of the stories narrated. While most papers had addressed the concept by focussing on new areas of inquiry and by offering fresh perspectives, ‘hidden histories’ also conveys the need to uncover the connected stories of human and non-human both in less familiar parts of the world and among particular social groups that have remained marginal in historical accounts. A particularly interesting question raised during discussion was whether the focus on the vibrancy of human interactions with things ran the risk of ignoring broader contexts of human and environmental exploitation and degradation . Here, some of the perspectives emerging from papers that focused on particular parts of Europe were opened up to more global connections and considerations.