RESPONSE #5 Leonie Hannan
On 4 February 2014, the 100 Hours team met with historian of science and expert on the history of fireworks, Dr Simon Werrett, to talk about his most recent research on recycling and re-use in early modern science. This was our final scheduled meeting with a specialist and was marked by its relaxed atmosphere. Simon has taken an active role in the project to date – attending meetings and taking part in our discussions. As a result, this session was informal – a lovely way to end this phase of the project.
Simon asked our group to think about science as a material process, drawing our attention to the techniques and artefacts used by scientists in the past. He used the evidence of broken glass vessels, scavenged metals, kitchen fires and bedroom windowsills to explore the locations (often domestic) and the practices (of making-do, repairing and re-purposing) employed by early modern scientists. In the process he de-stabilised the idea that the eighteenth century saw the birth of a ‘new’ science with novel apparatus and ideas that represented a permanent break with the past. Instead, an alternative view of ‘Enlightenment’ era science was proffered – one that allowed for mess, mistakes, breakages, and bricolage. Through this subject, Simon talked to the group about the notion of the ‘afterlives of used things’. As Tullia Giersberg put it, Simon prompted questions such as: “how did things break? How and why were they repaired and repurposed? Did this impact the circulation of knowledge in a period when scientific knowledge became embodied in material artefacts or what Simon calls ‘active relics’?”
Simon framed our meeting around an object – an old microscope given to him as a gift. But the microscope was broken, and broken in such a way that – for microscope novices – it was difficult to determine why it would not work. This was a frustrating object, which helped us to think about dissolution as well as creation.
NEWNESS, WHOLENESS & MISUNDERSTANDING INNOVATION
Elin Jones’ response to Simon’s session dwelt on the subject of newness and innovation. She juxtaposes the idea of science as a process which is characterised by the use of novel artefacts – symbolic of wholeness and innovation – with the reality of a messy endeavour involving a pragmatic combination of old and new things and ideas. Elin commented on the way Simon’s research brings to the fore the understanding that “scientific instruments must have been tried, tested, had parts replaced, removed, and even failed altogether”, that scientific practices are “piecemeal creations” – tried and tested in the home. For Elin, this prompts the question: is this a way that objects deceive us? Our experience of history of science collections in museums will usually involve the viewing of expensively mounted, perfect examples of scientific instruments, not the ‘string and sealing wax’ of J.J. Thomson’s Cambridge Laboratory.
From my own field of eighteenth-century social and cultural history, this emphasis on the new and the innovative is familiar. Histories of social life that attend to the material have privileged a narrative of consumer culture that focuses on the acquisition of new items (as opposed to the second hand or the recycled), linked closely with the notion of the consumer as fashion-seeker. This interpretation of the consumption of things dwells on the acquisition of novelty – through imported goods and the product innovation that followed them. But, of course, the world is full of re-used things, as Elin’s nineteenth-century midshipman’s chest (fashioned from seventeenth-century drawers) clearly shows.
ALLOWING FOR DECONSTRUCTION
Katy Barrett picks up on the idea of the workshop or artist’s studio as a creative space, in relation to the way some museums and galleries have reproduced the workspaces of notable individuals. She says that, in this form, they “seem to emphasise creativity through accumulation of material and objects.” These spaces point to the lifecycles of material things, employed in the pursuit of knowledge or creative practice. As Elin highlights: “understanding the object as a product of its material history and not singly of it moment of creation, allowing for deconstruction as well as creation” is really important.
Sarah Longair, on the other hand, finds parallels between Simon’s recycling scientists and her nineteenth- and twentieth-century museum creators, she says: “this focus on the apparatus of museum work draws our attention to the staff who are often forgotten recyclers of objects and purveyors of knowledge.” In this way, Sarah sees the study of material culture as a way to foreground alternative histories.
To return to the notion of ‘object afterlives’ – Emily Orr asks “is this the point after which the object has use? Or, when it drops out of circulation?” In the microscope’s ceasing of use as an instrument, Emily sees a new (after) life for it as an object in our discussion. Liz Haines, on the other hand, finds the microscope’s weighty materiality suggests a new life as “an elaborate doorstop”. She also mulls the possible afterlives of her lantern slides (were they not in the care of UCL Collections) – suggesting that they might become “brittle bookmarks”, patches for a stained glass window, or – otherwise – find their fate in a different glassy form – melted down and re-used to some other end. Emily identifies vulnerability in her otherwise sturdy and durable stool – the carved patterns on the seat, which leave it open to attack by fire, insects of rot and a decayed future life. Conversely, Katy sees the manufacturing of her weather plates as a ‘pre-life’ – a time before their key moment of being: when print met page.
OBJECT AGENCY & THE CONCEPT OF ‘USE’
Questions of ‘pre-lives’ and ‘afterlives’ bring us to the issue of usefulness in relation to the lifespan of an object. Katy asks: “what makes an object whole?” Likewise, Kate Smith asks: when do things cease to be useful? Who is the judge of this and how does it affect our understanding of the ‘agency of things’? Kate applies Ian Bogost’s work on ‘metaphorism’ to her dog whistle, showing how string and putty made sense of each other through their material properties – “they are of use to each other”, not only to their human maker. As such, Kate argues that “objects negotiate use with each other, as well as with humans.” Kate believes that by acknowledging this and by understanding that objects cannot be seen simply as process, historians will be able to ask new questions of material culture.
HOMES FOR THINGS
This session got Liz thinking about her lantern slides in relation to Francis Galton’s household, wishing “to think of his study as a site with its own materiality and imperatives.” Liz says that she has been made aware of what the slides are not: they are not hand-made or bespoke objects, but mass-produced commodities. However, despite their ordinariness, their material presentation is telling. Encased in uniform boxes that resist “dissolution and decay”, the lantern slides “pre-empted an archival impulse”. Katy has also wondered where her weather plates (also from the Galton Collection) originally resided – did they come from Galton’s home or his laboratory? and she is keen to trace the links of place and person that connect her object with those of other 100 Hours researchers.
ONE OR MANY?
Tullia’s response discussed how the drawing of the Death of Seneca “exists with, and forms part of, an extensive network of artworks and ideas which have migrated across different material media and artistic techniques.” Tullia traces the circulation of materials and objects relating to the Death of Seneca image and finds that “repurposing played a huge role in its several afterlives – the process continues to this day as the drawing features on the museum’s teaching bundle on human anatomy.” “Art has become an instrument of pedagogy once more.” Tullia is troubled by the way this latest approach to the research has led her away from her one object, to the very many other manifestations of this visual image. She says “to attend to the object as an autonomous entity is to remind ourselves that knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that it is embodied in artworks, in books, on hard drives, servers, and brains; to situate it within a critical, scholarly narrative is to generate context, and to contribute to its circulation. One prompts us to ask ‘what’ and possibly ‘how’; the other prompts us to ask ‘why’. Perhaps the response to my object shouldn’t involve a decision circumscribed by ‘either/or’ at all.”
Conversation flowed easily at this meeting – a warm familiarity has grown up not only between our researchers and their various objects but also between us as members of a group. But, as a group, we return to some key questions: what role does intimacy play in the process of research? Can new knowledge spring from intimacy with the material facts of an object? How can we attend to the material without becoming overwhelmed by the contextual? How should the experience of 100 Hours inform our future research practice? A tension has emerged between the ‘object is all’ approach and the urge to collect information from other sources; between a mute communion of person and object and a wider conversation between many people and many things. In response to this, I will be holding a series of conversations with people around my chosen museum object: Number P.45 – a plaster cast of a child’s foot, exhibiting the symptoms of Talipes Equino-Varus (club foot), which resides in UCL’s Medical Collections having originally come from the Great Ormond Street Hospital. I am hoping that by talking with this object, I can test out another version of our emerging methodology.