The doll is 22 inches high. It has a porcelain head, articulated wooden limbs, and a metal torso. Out of its perforated tin chest comes a strangled, grating noise. If we listen carefully, we can discern that the noise is actually a childlike voice. It is reciting a nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb. This is one of Thomas Edison’s Talking Dolls that used his own phonograph mechanism to replicate the human voice. There is something slightly distressing about hearing this sound, a facsimile of a real voice , an acoustic simulation of human life emanating from this inanimate, artificial figure. It feels disembodied. It feels ventriloquised. The doll sounds possessed, haunted, like there is a ghost in the machine. This public at the time thought similarly; it frightened them. The Talking Doll was marketed in 1890, but the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company ceased production within months. Thousands of dolls were manufactured but few were sold.

Edison’s dolls can be found in the exhibition entitled Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish, currently being held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in the UK. The exhibition features paintings and drawings, films and photographs, sculptures, dolls and mannequins. Lots of dolls and mannequins.

The exhibition’s argument is that since the Renaissance, artists have used mannequins  as tools that aided them in drawing or painting or sculpting the human form. These are the ‘silent partners’ that give the exhibition its title. Mannequins made it possible for artists to study anatomy and human proportion with the necessary care because mannequins did not and would not move. These mannequins functioned as substitutes for human beings.

But from the 19th Century onwards this dynamic changed, and mannequins no longer functioned simply as substitutes for human beings but rather they became icons and muses for artists. In fact, artists (specifically male artists) became interested in mannequins in and of themselves. As idols and spurs for inspiration, there is something fascinating and sinister afoot in this novel status of mannequins who are grasped as inanimate and animate, life-less and life-like, artificial and natural. And as objects of desire.

Uncanny valley

What we witness as Silent Partners unfolds in the dawn of a historical interest in the realm of the uncanny. The most renowned text on the subject is Sigmund Freud’s  essay of the same name, written in 1919 in response to the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch’s essay On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906), itself a reading of ETA. Hoffmann’s short story Der Sandmann (1816). Hoffmann’s story – in which the protagonist Nathaniel is enchanted by and falls in love with Olympia – who it transpires is a doll-like automaton – is the one that perhaps most significantly marks the shift from the doll or mannequin as a ‘silent partner’ to an icon, muse, or even fetish.

For Freud, the uncanny (unheimlich or unhomely) is a doubt as to ‘whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or, conversely, whether a lifeless object might be in fact animate’. Feelings of uncanniness are then aroused by dolls and mannequins, automata, waxworks and other lifelike figures, as well as persons, experiences, and situations. This is still our general sense of the uncanny. More specifically though, for Freud the main theme of Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann, and what gives it its uncanniness, is that it deals with the arousing of an early childhood fear: our anxiety over our eyes; for in the story it is the Sandman who tears out children’s eyes. This threat of going blind is often, for Freud at least, a substitute for the dread of being (metaphorically) castrated; the eye is a substitute or stand-in for the male organ. The Surrealists, avid followers of Freud’s theories of sexuality, knew this well, and to illustrate this Silent Partners includes a number of photographs by Denise Bellon and Raoul Ubac documenting the infamous 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, as well as images of artist Hans Bellmer’s contorted poupée.

Fetish culture

The uncanny feels and works the way it does because of the nature of fetishes. The fetish comes to be both a stand-in for something else (for instance the hair fetishist or tricophile might think of a person’s hair as a stand-in for that person) and a thing in and of itself (they might experience sexual arousal from stroking the hair per se). Thus the fetish – the doll, the mannequin, the body part, etc. – functions as a stand-in and simultaneously as a thing that appears to have a life of its own and be capable of independent activity.

The painting and sketches by Oskar Kokoschka included in the exhibition make this point well: they are of a doll he had commissioned from a dress maker to look like his former lover, Alma Mahler, but, over time, he seems to have developed an attachment to the doll itself.

In identifying the shift from the mannequin as a tool to an icon, muse, or fetish, Silent Partner locates the historical point in the modern period at which the status of the mere object is elevated to that of a powerful material thing. Here, the mannequin is a symptom of our modern fixation on inanimate human forms, and their intrinsic animating potentialities. And as the mannequin makes clearer as a fetish, a thing, a commodity, a possession, and an obsession, so it highlights how its magic might act upon us, how it might become for us an object for adoration and devotion, and even one of desire, lust, and sex. The exhibition includes the exemplary instance of this: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Pygmalion and Galatea (1890), the artist’s rendering of a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the sculptor is compelled to fall in love with his sculpture because he has made her so beautiful and, once he has prayed to Venus, he brings it to life with touches, caresses and kisses.

This new understanding of mannequins, of inanimate human forms more generally, confirms a need to attend to our own obsessions with, devotion to, and desire for things. The mannequin, like the uncanny itself, leaves us with feelings of uncertainty. The reason for this is because of a profound quandary: as we idolise things so we objectify ourselves. Taken as a whole, this particular shift from mannequins as tools to mannequins as icon, muse, and fetish identifies a more general shift in the relations between persons and things: persons become things and things become persons.

In anthropomorphising things, in making them more human-like, we in turn make ourselves more thing-like. We see it every day in our frenzied consumer culture, evidenced endlessly in our own intimate relations with things, and especially in our encounters with one another. We need to look out for this before we, like Edison’s Talking Dolls, start emitting strangled, grating noises from our mouths, babbling inanities, and voicing unsubstantiated opinion as fact. Before we begin to sound like ventriloquised versions of our more familiar selves, repeating the same thing endlessly until we ourselves sound more and more like stuck records.

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