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In the skin: an ethnographic-historical approach to a museum collection of preserved tattoos

Angel, G; (2013) In the skin: an ethnographic-historical approach to a museum collection of preserved tattoos. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

This thesis deals with a collection of 300 preserved tattooed human skin fragments held in storage at the Science Museum, London. Historically part of the Wellcome medical collections, these skins are of European origin and date from c.1850-1920. The collection was purchased in 1929 on behalf of Sir Henry Wellcome from a Parisian physician, and is exemplary with respect to its size and coherence. The thesis argues for the significance of such collections for the understanding of the material culture of medicine. As little archival material relating to this particular collection survives, it is contextualised both in relation to the contemporary museum setting, and within nineteenth-century medical and criminological discourses surrounding the tattoo. Through the adoption of a combined auto-ethnographic and historiographical approach, this thesis sets out to explore all aspects of the collection. The structure of the thesis demonstrates this method and reflects my working process: The project is first situated within the contemporary museum context, and framed within an ethical and political field in which human remains have been problematised. This context underpins a theoretical approach that redefines these remains as hybrid entities, and informs a multi-sensory, auto-ethnographic working method within the museum environment. A close visio-material analysis of the tattooed skins then explores both their substance and iconography in some detail. The collection of skins is then situated within the broader historical contexts of flaying; nineteenth-century collecting practices and medical and criminological discourses on the tattoo; an analysis of historical procedures and contexts of skin preservation and display; and a visual analysis of the iconography of the tattoos and critical discussion of their reading. Through this approach, I demonstrate that the tattoo was a highly ambiguous and frequently stigmatised sign in the late nineteenth century, whose polysemic and fugitive meaning eluded criminologists who sought to assimilate them into taxonomies of deviance. Similarly, as contemporary museum artefacts, they resist simple categorisation and interpretation, necessitating an interdisciplinary, ethnographical-historical approach, which enables a multi-faceted understanding of their substance, significance and origins.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: In the skin: an ethnographic-historical approach to a museum collection of preserved tattoos
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Volume two of ethesis restricted because of ethically sensitive material
Keywords: tattoo, preserved specimens, human remains, museum anthropology, skin, sensory ethnography, museum collections, history of collecting, history of medicine, 19th century criminology
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > SHS Faculty Office
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1416295
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