The Bones Beneath the Face

Joan Smith, John Harries, Joost Fontein, Linda Fibiger

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


The bones beneath the face: an interactive museum installation:

This interactive installation and forensic investigation was associated with ASA Decennial Conference in Edinburgh, June 19th-22nd 2014. It was particularly associated with panel 15, “skulls faces and being human” and shared allied concerns with other panels (e.g. panel 16 “the evidence of death”, panel 20 “the new immortalities; and panel 58 “the enlightening museum”).
The interactive installation and associated activities was organised jointly by the “Bones Collective” and the Edinburgh College of Art, in collaboration with the Surgeon’s Hall Museum and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. The project team included Joan Smith (ECA), John Harries and Joost Fontein (Social Anthropology and the “Bones Collective”), from an original idea suggested by Jane Cheeseman (Royal Edinburgh Hospital). In the second part of the project, Linda Fibiger (Archaeology) worked with filmmaker and artist John Nowak to create a documentary about the analysis of a skull including research by Elena Karanoti. Photographer Caroline Douglas helped document the project.

Introduction and Rationale
The event invited people to engage with human bone by assembling a display featuring a skull and other objects. They also wrote a caption for the display. The finished display was photographed. Our idea was to explore the ways in which we engage with skulls, not just ideationally, but in practice, and in this engagement try to recover a sense of living humanness from the mute mineral materiality of bone. It was both an exploration of what bones “say” and how we give them voice, but also what they don’t say and how these evocative and provocative things, which opaquely communicate the suggestive trace of animate human life, resist our strategies of rendering them intelligible and so “speak” to a presence which is withheld even as it is made manifest. The installation, by evoking traditional strategies of display and the history of the “cabinet of curiosities”, also suggested a critical and ethical engagement with enlightenment traditions of bringing the “other” into “our” domains of intelligibility and into the compass of “our” economies of curiosity and understanding.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAssociation of Social Anthopologists
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherSurgeons Hall Museum
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2014
EventVisual Dissection: the Art of Anatomy - University of Edinburgh library, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 3 Dec 20155 Mar 2016


ExhibitionVisual Dissection: the Art of Anatomy
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • social anthropology
  • human remains
  • museum
  • public engagement


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