Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW)

The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLW) exists to encourage practice and research in life-writing in all forms, from biography to autobiography, diaries to blogs, letters to memoirs. It is directed by renowned biographer Professor Hermione Lee, associate-directed by eminent colonial scholar Professor Elleke Boehmer, administered by literary historian Dr Rachel Hewitt, and is based at Wolfson College, Oxford. From 20-22 September 2013, OCLW will hold its first major triennial conference, on the subject of ‘The Lives of Objects’.

The application of life-writing to objects lies at the heart of many recently published biographies, memoirs and histories, including Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010), Steven Connor’s Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things (2011), Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History (2003) and Lorraine Daston’s Biographies of Scientific Objects (2000). Biographies of objects raise important methodological issues pertinent to life-writing, regarding narrative, structure and chronology; the representation of change and improvement; and the influence of objects in human lives, communities and material history. The study of ‘object biographies’ continues to generate fruitful areas of academic research, including Bill Brown’s work on ‘thing theory’ (2001); Chris Gosden and Yvonne Marshall’s 1999 study of ‘the cultural biography of objects’ (in relation to archaeology); and explorations of value and exchange of objects in cultural and material history, such as the essays included in Arjun Appadurai’s edited volume The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (1986).

The ‘Lives of Objects’ conference will be an interdisciplinary, international event, inviting 20-minute papers from a wide range of backgrounds. Papers may offer biographical accounts of particular objects (including, but not limited to, portraits, sculpture, scientific instruments, archaeological finds, domestic artefacts and items of clothing). The organisers also invite papers that reflect on the methodology of object biographies or outline existent projects concerned with objects’ lives; papers considering the influence of life-writing on material history and/or archaeology; papers exploring the relationship between curating and auto/biography; the history of the book; the history of museums; and any other facets of the conference theme. The organisers also invite submissions for an informal workshop, in which delegates will present and discuss the lives and meanings of individual objects.

The conference will comprise panels of 20-minute papers, four plenary lectures, visits to the Ashmolean Museum and other museums in Oxford, and the objects workshop. A number of postgraduate bursaries will be provided to help contribute towards the costs of the conference registration, accommodation and travel. Please check our website for details of these:

Confirmed plenary speakers include Neil Macgregor, Jenny Uglow and Edmund De Waal.

Please submit a 200-word abstract of your conference paper or poster session (making it clear which format your submission will take) by 31 January 2013 to OCLW’s Research Fellow and Administrator, Dr Rachel Hewitt ( Please provide details of your contact details and institutional affiliation, if any. You will be informed by email by Friday 15 March 2013 whether your paper or submission has been accepted. Registration for the conference will open shortly afterwards.

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