Reading Artifacts II - Tours, Workshops and Lectures with RASI 2011 at the Canada Science and Technology Museum

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By Charles Bourne

University of King's College, Halifax.

The second 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 Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI) took a lot of participants by surprise. The week was, most of us thought, a kind of conference. Many participants had been to countless conferences before, and had a set idea of what to expect: countless introductions and explanations of institutional association, lectures and talks, maybe some tours, and perhaps some group discussions, with some networking thrown in to be sure of the future usefulness of the week. Accordingly, on the first day of RASI there were many collared shirts. But as the week went on, more t-shirts and jeans began to show up as participants embraced the rather casual (but never unprofessional), hands-on workshop attitude of the event.

To speak to my personal experience of this trend, I actually showed up on the first day with a t-shirt and hooded sweatshirt, having not had the experience with conferences as many of my colleagues at RASI had had. I was horribly underdressed, and showed up the next day in a collared shirt to compensate. But everyone’s levels of casual and professional attitudes seemed to level out eventually, and helped us work and discuss more fluidly during the second half of the week.

As mentioned in the previous entry, the week at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) was as full-spectrum as the analysis Dr. Pantalony encouraged us to use in our artifact readings. RASI was not simply a workshop, but neither was it a conference. We spent a good deal of time on the group activity of reading our chosen artifact (which itself involved hands-on work, library and archival research, internet research, and warehouse sifting), but each day also involved presentations from the museum’s amazing team and tours of their vast facilities. The value I took away from RASI was not limited to a set of skills for reading artifacts.

A series of small presentations from assistants to the curators brought us into the museum’s giant storage warehouses, where items of all sizes littered the giant shelves and floors. These student museum workers gave us a window into their own artifact reading projects. They were looking into items that had little to no accompanying literature, or that would become important pieces for an exhibit – pretty amazing stuff for twenty-something recent university graduates (read: student summer jobs!). These talks gave us a large picture of the entire process of encountering material objects and researching their stories to coming up with conclusive ideas about their provenance. These guys had months or more to go through the process, while we RASI participants had a mere few hours total! This outside-in view on the process they provided would be useful for our own fast-paced artifact readings throughout the week.

Simply walking from presentation to presentation gave us a pretty good idea of the scale and facilities of the museum, and of a significant and important portion of an artifact’s life: storage. Items in these warehouses ranged in size from mathematical teaching tools to aircraft engines to entire locomotives. Most were unrecognizable, and there seemed to be no order to their arrangement.

As RASI participants found out in another presentation from the museum’s cataloguing staff, museum warehouses cannot possibly be as well-organized as a hardware store. Items enter the collection in no particular order, and leave to other museums or to the museum floor according to need. New items are placed wherever space permits. We are reminded that the museum is publicly funded, and that space is at a premium. But even Dag Spicer, one RASI participant who runs the new Computer Museum in California (a rarity in its well-fundedness), said that his museum also encounters organizational challenges.

Despite the inability to organize items according to some kind of order, museum staffers brought us to items of interest fairly quickly with the help of their cataloguing computer system. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the smartphone in my pocket, that these guys had the technology to call up items’ precise locations, related artifacts, acquisition photos and related documents. After leaving the beautifully chaotic warehouses that looked like something out of Indiana Jones, knowing that this resource existed was both amazing and relieving – relieving knowing that my group would be “sifting” through the collection soon after.

Looking through the museum’s computer system with some of the people who actually acquired and catalogued my group’s item gave me a sense of how an item’s life in the collection begins. Artifacts, we learned, are often brought to a museum with little but some notes or ownership history attached. Almost nothing is known about most items. And museum staff cannot research each and every item that enters the collection – there are just too many. Acquisition thus simply involves description, photography, and cataloguing before storage.

Storage, as most people know from retrieving mouldy books from basements, comes with risks, and the museum’s conservation staff work with each item that enters the collection to manage that risk. One particularly well-organized presentation was a series of stations with different conservators and their work. One, with the benevolent Erin Secord (from whom we often received slaps on the hand for touching artifacts without gloves) gave participants insight into the care put into the chemistry of storage materials: acid-free papers, archival adhesives, etc. Another conservator, who works entirely with plastics, showed us the challenges associated with stabilizing early rubbers and plastics so that they don’t turn to dust. A third station begged the question of whether to repair mechanical artifacts or to conserve them in their potentially non-working state.

The conservators left me with one of the most important set of questions that I took from RASI: is it the responsibility of people working with artifacts to repair and, perhaps, use and make work the artifact at hand? or do we conserve it in the state in which it was acquired, ensuring the preservation of its disrepair, rot, or otherwise as part of its provenance? The conservators made it clear that stabilization was key in acquiring artifacts: items that are unrecognizable or would melt into dust necessarily require some kind of physical or chemical repair to ensure their value to a collection, even if this means invasive procedures. But the provenance that comes from, for example, a rusted old car could be more valuable as an artifact than a if that car were shiny and repaired with unoriginal parts. The station at the conservation presentation whose theme was this question sported an egg-sorting machine. It had been repaired with new motors, a new switch, and new wheel belts. The argument these conservators made with this artifact was that the artifact served a better pedagogical purpose in a working but unoriginal state than if it had remained broken and static: watching it work was worth destroying its integrity. This question ran through my head for the rest of the week any time I encountered an artifact. Did the museum’s Model T Ford cars merit reconstruction? Everyone ought to hear and smell the old things! The museum’s nuclear reactor pieces, on the other hand, were maybe best left preserved as non-working…

The group took a field trip to the Canadian Conservation Institute, a block away from the CSTM, as part of the series of presentations and tours. The institute, we learned, is an incredible resource for those working with artifacts in Canada. Schools and museums can request their services for restoration, conservation, and artifact research for whatever project they’re working on. These services are usually free, assuming they are for a non-profit organization. As most organizations do not have the facilities necessary to properly conserve their artifacts, this institution is a very valuable resource indeed.

One presentation took us into the beginning of an artifact’s life as an object, rather than its end, as we had done at other times during the week. We were taught in a small workshop how to “wire wrap” circuit boards. This involved threading a small tool with the end of a tiny wire, and spinning (wrapping) it around the nib of a chip on a silicon board, followed by connecting the other end, and proceeding to do the next several wires the same way. We were shown larger circuits that had thousands of these wires on a single board. Questions abound! Who did this kind of work? Were they paid well? Was the work outsourced to countries with cheaper labour? Why were these boards produced at all?

Our hands-on encounter with this artifact was supplemented by an excellent talk from Steve Cain and Robert Muller, two former Gandalf Computers employees, each of whom used to be involved in producing wire-wrapped circuits. Their personal stories gave us insight into the process of their production (women, in fact, did most of the wrapping) and their role in the computer industry. It turns out that these were just prototype circuits used to test hand-drawn circuit designs before the design was sent to the factory for production in hard circuit boards. This RASI event brought together the experience of encountering material objects and asking questions about their provenance with the experience of getting whole, personal stories from people who actually produced, worked with, and used those objects. Though of course it isn’t always possible to get personal accounts about an artifact at hand, this exercise brought to our attention the importance of the personal histories of artifacts, of the value of finding personalities attached to artifacts, and the potential research value of getting in touch with those people.

Though many of the participants of RASI were people who currently work in museums in Canada and abroad, and whose experience at the “institute” would be immediately practical, others such as myself were there to enrich our respective studies that seemed unrelated to material culture. This assumption that our disciplines are exempt from material culture studies, or that material culture is an isolated field of study, may hold potential dangers. In one presentation, Cindy Stelmackowich shared her experience of finding herself thrown into the need to work with artifacts during her research. She works in the History of Medicine, and found herself confronted with rare and beautiful medical atlases and encyclopaedias during a research project. Without any real artifact training, she had to confront the world of non-text-based research on her own. From her presentation, it seemed as though she was very successful in her research. She argued that trends in the understanding of the body changed in accordance with trends in demands for the aesthetics of medical texts. She could not have come to this conclusion without intimately working with the image-based atlases she encountered.

Cindy’s presentation, as well as the others throughout the week, served as reminders to our group of scholarly people that our text-based learning culture may sometimes be limiting. Our world is not made up of text (to state the obvious), and our culture is very much rooted in the material. Most scholars do not have the skills necessary to read artifacts or to work within material culture, and as RASI drew on, the more I understood that this is problematic.

These various tours and presentations gave us some great insight into the usually-hidden process of acquiring collections, conserving them, researching them, and displaying them to the public. This was all incredibly valuable in terms of learning how to encounter material objects and the institutions and resources necessary to do so well. But the most valuable part of RASI may have been the change of mindset and critical eye for material objects made possible through these presentations and by being surrounded with so many of the processes in the museum.

More on this in the next entry!