New York City in spring 2018 seemed to be worlds apart from the topic of my research, the dynamics between relics and reliquaries in late medieval Europe, and the role of materiality in establishing the intimate distance between sacred items and their containers. In my work, I aimed at closing the gap between art historical discourse and the large body of knowledge collected by conservators and scientists. A few months before I arrived at BGC I had started my new job as a professor of archaeology, and I was really looking forward to a quiet time to reflect, read, and write in the midst of professorial duties. Of course, quietness was relative, since in New York I stepped into a whirlpool of libraries, museums, and private galleries, and attended a series of academic talks.

One of the first events, in which I took part during my stay at BGC, was the symposium “Disrupting Distance: Evolving Connections and Disconnects in the Digital Age.” Again, like with New York, medieval relics seemed quite far from the contemporary digital realm, but the relationship between technologies and audiences is something which brought the two seemingly distant time periods together, and pointed towards the central question of my work: How understanding of relics and reliquaries as a visual phenomenon is affected by the advances in analysing its materiality?

Realizing the relationship between material entities and their audiences, or rather seeing it from a new perspective, gave me an impetus to continue with the analysis of medieval things caught between sciences and the humanities, but on the other hand, to take the research into new directions. I was motivated to contribute to a new article “From Bones to Sacred Artefact: The Late Medieval Skull Relic of Turku Cathedral, Finland,” which I published with conservator Aki Arponen, and forensic anthropologist Heli Maijanen in 2018. On a similar note, the topicality of studying medieval reliquaries and relics was reminded of by art historian Sofia Lahti’s doctoral dissertation Silver Arms and Silk Heads: Medieval Reliquaries in the Nordic Countries, which she defended in autumn 2019. I had the privilege to be one of her work’s pre-examiners.

My growing interest in the audiences of complex material entities provided me with fresh ideas about university teaching, which led to a university course held in autumn 2018. In the course, organized in collaboration with the Museum of Turku Cathedral, students were first introduced to ideas about material culture and the study of ecclesiastical heritage. Then they got to choose one object from the cathedral’s collections. They documented it by measuring and photographing, and wrote an essay where the object was historically contextualised. The course was a success, and we organised it again in 2019.

While the temporal distance between the stay at BGC and my current life is growing, there remains an intimate distance, which still link me to BGC and spring 2018 in the form of novel ideas, developing projects and motivation to find new ways of linking different scholarly traditions to better understand artefacts and their materiality.

Visa Immonen, Bard Graduate Center Research Fellow, April–May 2018.