Scientific Instruments as “a History with, of, and Through Things”*

Cathode contents 5The “Reading Artifacts: Summer Institute in Material Culture Research” at the Canada Science and Technology Museum is another symptom of the growing trend in history and philosophy of science studies to include scientific artifacts as a resource for historical investigation and argumentation. In Leviathan and the Air Pump, Shapin and Schaffer argued scientific instruments are integral to the making of the scientific life. The history of medicine is rife with works discussing how instruments played a significant role in changing the diagnostic acumen of doctors and revolutionizing concepts of disease.  A special issue of Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (2007, vol. 38, no.2) even discussed how objects and images can construct three-dimensional understandings of the scientific past.

It is apparent that there is a new historiographical tide sweeping scholars and encouraging new studies and methodologies for working with scientific artifacts, objects and images. Having examined all sorts of hearing aid devices and instruments for my own research, I was automatically drawn to the “Reading Artifacts” Institute and participated in the inaugural launch last August. As anthropologists and scholars of material culture are aware, artifacts are tangible incarnations of the culture from which they emerged, providing unique information on the attitudes and behaviors of the past.

Examining artifacts as a historical source is one thing. Using artifacts as three-dimensional substitutes for the two-dimensional pages of a text is another. One of the primary goals of at the Institute was to develop a modern methodology suitable to teaching with artifacts. The successes of Rich Kramer’s seminars at Dartmouth and David Pantalony’s at University of Ottawa have demonstrated that artifacts are attractive and popular additions to general history of science courses. As participants—myself included—learned at the Institute, in practice it is often difficult to “read” an artifact without the proper methodology to guide the reading.

So how does one “read” an artifact? Moreover, is “reading” even the correct metaphor for analyzing artifacts, as a museum blog discussed recently? Fleming’s 1974 paper, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,”** presented a comprehensive model for interpreting an artifact, and remains a staple for material culture seminars. The Fleming framework is two-fold: classification, which can be broken down further to include the artifact’s properties (history, material, construction, design, and function), and analysis, which consists of a cultural understanding of the artifact, identification, evaluation, and interpretation. What remained clear at the Institute, however, is that the Fleming methodology is badly in need of an update, but the question remained as to how it should be modified for history of science.

Being a specialist in the history of medicine and the general history of science, I pondered whether the epistemology of artifact-reading is different for historians of science than those teaching or researching general history or material culture studies. I don’t have an answer to this question yet, but I also wonder when it even matters, since it seems to me that artifacts contain innate properties, so to speak, to dissolve the boundaries between disciplines. Thoughts on this?

*phrase from Sam Alberti, “Objects and Museums,” Isis 96 (2005): 560.
**E.M.C. Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” Winterthur Portfolio vol. 9 (1974), p.153-173.

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