Reading Artifacts at the Canada Science and Technology Museum

By Charles Bourne

University of King's College, Halifax

The first of a few entries about my experience at the Reading Artifacts Summer Institute this summer, a week-long event at the Canada Science and Technology museum focused on exploring material culture and its related fields.

August 15-19, Ottawa.

The beginning of the Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI) was like walking into a toy store. I circumvented the museum’s main public entrance, tracing the facility’s own rail track to one of the collections of warehouses where we would be spending most of the week. We were warned that we were entering a work space – conservators had their things strewn about the large, fluorescent-lit lab among the various cabinets labelled with safety warnings. Finally, we entered a warehouse full of things. Glorious things! (Rather large things). The giant room was dominated primarily by the presence of antique fire engines – gleaming red machines, likely a hundred years old, peeked out from under plastic tarps that give the impression of ghosts. One that looked particularly old was from a Nova Scotian fire department. This bluenoser felt right at home.

The ground floor was covered in these and other giant artifacts, including a massive full-sized electric locomotive. It was clearly a well-used space: super-sized storage shelves, like something out of a Home Depot aisle magnified by three, were home to giant parts from U.S. Air Force defence computers from the 1960’s. Others were, to my great interest, packed with motorcycles. These items surrounded the small space cleared for the 20-or-so people who had come to learn about artifacts, and about how to learn from artifacts.

Our guide for the week was Dr. David Pantalony, curator of the physical sciences and medicine at the Canada Science and Technology museum. Dr. Pantalony (or David, as he preferred to be called) is the perfect museum personality. He is both scholarly and knowledgeable about his own specific field(s) of interest, and is a skilled speaker adept at engaging with an audience unspecialized in the topic at hand. His charisma is likely invaluable in a museum context, where scholarship and conservation meet a demanding, distracted public. He encouraged us immediately upon gathering that our group of disparately-related scholars, teachers and museum workers were all fish out of water when it came to artifacts – comforting news for the only undergraduate in a room full of PhD students, professors and museum curators form around the world.

Our encounters with artifacts began with Dr. Pantalony’s insistence that we immediately “read” an artifact as a group after introductory business. Nobody quite knew where to start with the object he showed us, revealing our cluelessness about the act of reading artifacts. This was, I think, the intention of the exercise. The idea of “reading” this particular object was simply to decide on what it was, with no outside information other than the form and material of the object itself. After a lot of guessing based only on our collective experience of things that looked similar, Dr. Pantalony gave us some information on its acquisition – just a snippet of context to help us: it was found in the basement of the Harvard Observatory. But Dr. Pantalony surprised us with the item, and purposefully misled us with its context: the strange glass vase-thing, hung by a shiny chain, turned out to have been a joke gift to someone at the observatory in the 1970s – a beverage container-necklace coloured disco purple. It was not, as many of us had guessed, some kind of functional device or scientific instrument used in astronomy at the observatory. The exercise revealed an important part of “reading” artifacts: it cannot be done through assumption and uneducated guesswork. Context and preconceived notions can easily cloud the reader’s judgement, despite their potential usefulness. No single piece of information, it would seem, can lead to a complete understanding of an artifact. A kind of full-spectrum analysis, Dr. Pantalony explained, is the only way to be sure to read an artifact completely. Context, materials analysis, stories of provenance, and broad outside research each play a part in understanding artifacts. By approaching them “non-linearly”, so to speak, no possibilities are left out. The purple drinking necklace (called the Swinger, “leaves your hands free for better things”) was the first of many times when what could have been an easy bit of guesswork would be made purposefully more complicated for the purposes of reading an artifact successfully.

The Swinger was a great introduction to the actual act of encountering unidentified objects, and the process of reading them. The demonstration was a relatively high-speed run through, and gave us a general overview of how an object’s stories and provenance can come to be told. But identifying objects was not the only thing we would be doing throughout the week. RASI, I learned, was a kind of conference workshop. We would be learning about artifacts hands-on, and would be doing our own research on objects that, unlike the Swinger, had little to no stories associated with them – really “cutting edge” stuff, as Dr. Pantalony put it. One of the most important aspects of the week was that we did this with the fascinating group of people who were there for the week.

The group at RASI 2011 was incredibly varied. Some participants already had some experience working with artifacts, while others attended the “institute” because they anticipated the need to do so at their own institutions. They hailed from as far away as the University of Athens. Some participants currently work in the artifact-rich environments of museums in the Ottawa area. There were scholars in various stages of their careers: professors of the history of science and medicine, a graduate student from London who works weekends in the Natural History Museum, and a high school teacher in Ontario, to name but a few.

Despite the group’s disparate roots, we all found ourselves confronted with the same feeling of curious cluelessness when presented with the artifacts Dr. Pantalony chose for our own “readings”. The home-base warehouse was set up with half a dozen stations that displayed (en plein air!) an artifact we could choose to work with for the week. A good chunk of the week’s intense eight-hour days, I noted on the well-organized RASI schedule, would be dedicated to working with the artifact we chose. We only had a few minutes to choose our artifact. I chose carefully, wandering in blue nitrile gloves between the black-clothed tables that bore the artifacts, poking at them curiously. I stayed away from artifacts that I recognized in any way: the saw and the Babbage calculator seemed too obvious. Three other RASI members and I settled on a grey standalone computer-looking station thingy (to coin a technical term) with a strange rotating drum protruding from one side. I chose the object because it was just strange enough to rouse an intense curiosity in me, but was recognizable enough to provide a starting-point. The device also had some interesting marks of use: rings from coffee cups on its surface, and a sticker that read “academy award winner 1848” – a joke, perhaps, from one of the operator’s boring shifts at the machine? My group’s speculations ran wild. Though some of our guesses would end up in the ballpark of correct, it would take us a great deal of focus and research to discover its detailed story.

The week was not, as mentioned above, entirely built around artifact reading: lectures, talks and tours made up a substantial portion of RASI. Tours of facilities at the Museum gave RASI members a useful peek into the guts of museum workings. Museum Mechanics 101 was not new to some RASI members who hailed from similar settings. But for all of us, speaking to members of the museum’s staff along every step of the process – from acquisition and cataloguing to conservation to public display – gave us the opportunity to discover useful methods and unique perspectives on those processes.

RASI was an incredibly rich experience, packed with good stuff. My exhaustion at the ends of RASI days can speak to this fact. And the synthesis of the whole experience by the end of the week will stick with me for a very long time. The huge variety of things we saw and did at RASI are worth recounting – and reading about– in the days to come, so stay tuned.