This past week I was introduced to lovely Oxford, United Kingdom, by way of the 4th International Illustration Symposium: Science, Imagination, and the Illustration of Knowledge. Filled to the brim with stimulating posters, engaging conversations, provocative presentations, and paradigm-challenging keynotes, the symposium addressed issues surrounding the development and production of scientific images.
The title of the symposium carried the phrase, “illustration of knowledge”—a claim seldom addressed specifically. Instead, nearly all the speakers discussed, to some extent, the production of knowledge through illustration. Martin Kemp told us about illustration making unreal knowledge real, or even too real, and Johnny Hardstaff makes imagined worlds real. Dan Hicks’ claim that Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers’ drawings did not illustrate knowledge—they enacted knowledge—nevertheless suggested that some form of knowledge was produced through the illustrations, echoed in Paul Smith’s discussion of Charles Lapworth’s solution to the Highlands Controversy. But this idea came through panels, too. The Dimensionalities panel suggested that new knowledge is formed, and cultural values exposed, in the shifts from one dimension (or set of dimensions) into another. Cosmologies explored the relationships between cultures, mythologies, and the origins of the universe. Epistemologies addressed meanings of images in contexts of different cultural situations, as well as the trends and shifts in the knowledge that illustrations produced. The panel on Natural History looked at illustrative artefacts as media for transmitting, or transforming and reproducing, knowledge.
In his closing remarks Adrian Holme listed more than a dozen topics approached in the symposium, including archaeology, cosmology, botany, zoology, drawing, printing, and sculpting—an impressive variety. Equally impressive were the diverse methodologies present. In addition to practitioners of illustration were academics in the disciplines of animal studies, historians (of art, of science, of medicine, of material cultures), science studies, biology, philosophy, and communication. This diversity of methodologies brought refreshing perspectives to a common subject, allowing for many fruitful conversations to blossom at the intersections, and for the creation of professional interdisciplinary alliances that can continue to produce knowledge over the waves of the internet and at other academic venues.
Many thanks go to the organizers of the symposium, both visible and working tirelessly away from the spotlight. Also, thanks to the Oxford University Museums, who proved wonderful hosts in allowing this symposium into the inspiring arenas of the Museum of Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museum. No doubt, the venue and the people involved made the symposium a great success.