Reading Artifacts III - Material culture, objects as texts, and the wonderful group at RASI 2011

By Charles Bourne

University of King's College, Halifax.

The third of three 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.


The Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI) was an intense week of engaging with artifacts, participating in workshops and listening to some very engaging experts talk about their work. The week also comprised a great deal of tours, as mentioned in my previous entries. Tours of an institution are often instances of shepherding through unmemorable places while struggling to hear the tour guide down the hall or at the end of the room. But, just as with many other aspects of the week, the tours during RASI were made far more rich than would be otherwise because of the amazing group of people participating in (and running) them.

Tours of the facilities at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) were very cool. They spoke to my inner nerd, as we walked through aisles of plastic-covered aircraft engines in a warehouse or were pointed to the massive refrigerated photographic materials storage room at the archives. This institution was not unmemorable in itself. But “coolness” aside, the tours were made really amazing because of the questions and comments that came from RASI participants. We drew information from our expert guides that may only have arisen because we were all intelligent and curious scholars. Questions were asked that seemed to often take our guides by surprise, and rich discussion followed. The diversity of our backgrounds made questions all the more interesting. Our guides were experts, and gave impressive tours on their own, but RASI was free of mute meanderings through corridors. What made the experience of touring the CSTM (and, for one afternoon, the Canada Conservation Institute) most valuable was the group itself.

The people at RASI – staff and participants – influenced heavily the week’s atmosphere and substance. The week’s agenda was packed full of activities, and would be valuable even if taken in as a solo participant. But getting into the mindset of material culture happened through talking about artifacts with everyone at RASI and being around the people who work with them on a daily basis. As much as we were rudimentarily prepared to read an artifact after the first mock reading of the Swinger (see first entry!), we were more effective as group artifact readers because of the discourse around material culture between talks or lectures, over lunch, and in our groups. Our success in reading our respective artifacts grew substantially from this immersion in a museum environment and material culture enthusiasts. The group presentations at the end of the week can speak to this fact.

RASI’s guide, Dr. David Pantalony (curator of the physical sciences and medicine), made it clear to us that our artifact readings were a “caricature” of complete and thorough artifact research. We had less than ten hours total set aside during the week for artifact research. A museum worker might have many times that number of hours to complete work on a given artifact. This caricature was a perfect way to see the process of encountering objects as texts (that is, as sources of knowledge and/or information and/or history) in the space of a week. In this short time, we lived through the first encounter and the speculation and educated guesswork that followed. We had the chance to acquire accompanying literature and read it. We did the detective work through the museum’s collection for related items. We did text-based research to fill gaps in our knowledge and to provide context and personal provenance. And we came to meaningful conclusions about our initially obscure artifact and the people involved in its use. All the while, we picked up plenty of other important aspects of artifact research by having experts look over our shoulders. In short, we ran from start to finish at full-speed, but stopped to take it all in whenever we could. Even though it was a kind of artifact reading “sample”, our impressive groups drew enough from the week to produce exceptional presentations about our objects.

The last day of RASI was billed as a day for showing each group’s artifact readings to the entire group of participants and staff that had been with us through the week. Some guests included the museum’s curators (other than Dr. Pantalony, of course) and the museum’s CEO. The slot of time allotted for presentations was challenging to keep, because each group had so much to say about their artifact. Over the week, we had a chance to grow exceptionally passionate about our respective artifacts, and about learning and telling about artifacts generally. This certainly showed in the presentations. There has been talk, too, of some groups continuing their research and potentially seeking publication. In light of the energy and quality of the last day’s presentations, I can say with confidence that the week was a success in all its facets. In retrospect, the quality of the presentations most clearly meant the week was a success in that we successfully did a kind of research with which we (and most scholars) were completely unfamiliar.

As mentioned in the previous entry, the intellectual community generally lacks the material “language skills” necessary to read anything other than texts, and this is a problem. Material objects carry enormous amounts of information within them. At a minimum, they are equally as important in historical research as are texts. They fill gaps in history not held in text, especially in the study of pre-literate societies or illiterate laypeople. They tell different stories than textual sources because of various priorities in history of what should and should not be written. There are many reasons beyond these for the importance of material literacy. The regularly text-bound scholar ought to have the basic skills to encounter an artifact. Not because he or she is likely to complete a research project based entirely on an artifact, but because their field of study is likely to be far more comprehensive if they “speak” artifact. Just as a scholar of Plato is unlikely to understand his field completely without a knowledge of ancient Greek, so the text-bound scholar is likely missing out by omitting artifact language from their vocabulary.

Our immersion in the language of artifacts gave us the confidence to approach objects as texts, and provided the rudimentary skills to do so successfully. Nothing can supplant further reading (see bibliography below) about material culture or a degree in museum studies or conservation. But RASI served as a crash course in artifact reading by showing us the value of artifacts as beyond being museum display items, and by showing us the basic ins and outs of the artifact reading institution that is the CSTM. Running through the gamut of an artifact reading gave us an appreciation for artifacts as valuable research tools, and for the skills necessary to use them in research. Our newly minted but crude artifact-reading skills will likely come in handy when we find ourselves confronted with the objects that are intimately tied to our fields of study. And rather than circumvent them, we might enthusiastically meet them out for an up-close and personal encounter with an intellectual resource so often overlooked.

For further reading, see these excellent resources suggested by Dr. David Pantalony, curator of the physical sciences and medicine at the CSTM, and guide for RASI 2011.

I highly recommend the Nabokov short story!

Baird, Davis. Thing Knowledge. A Philosophy of Scientific Instruments. University of California Press, 2004.

Caple, Chris. Objects: Reluctant Witnesses to the Past. Routledge, 2006. Daston, L. ed. Things that Talk. Zone Books, 2005.

Fleming, E. McClung. “Artifact study: A proposed model.” In Material culture studies in America, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth, pp. 162-73. Nashville, 1982.

Hood, Adrienne. “Material Culture: The Object,” in History Beyond the Text, ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna Peniston-Bird. pp. 176-198. Routledge, 2008.

Michael Mahoney, “Reading a Machine”.

Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “A Visit to the Museum.”

Pantalony, David. “Altered Sensations: Rudolph Koenig’s Acoustical Workshop in Nineteenth-Century Paris”. Springer, 2009 ---------- “What is it? Twentieth-Century Artifacts out of Context.” HSS Newsletter, July 2008.

Schaffer, Simon. “Object lessons.” In Museums of modern science, ed. Svante Lindqvist, pp. 62-76. Canton, MA, 2000.