Fun Camp for Adult Researchers: Reading Artifacts at the Canada Science and Technology Museum

By Ioana Teodorescu

You may have heard of it. Or not. Its official title is Reading Artifacts Summer Institute at Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa and this is the third year when it happens. Jaipreet Virdi gave it a serious review in June last year on this very blog and I totally agree with that. I won’t repeat what Jai said, but rather take a more personal approach.

Set: the conservation division of the museum.
Time: 5 days
Basic work: figure out an object with very little external information, if any.
Process: whatever you can think of – beside actual artefact research.
(Never done artefact research before? All the better. They’re quite good at explaining it.)
Frame: the organizers carefully select some really cool things in the collection that don’t look like anything you’ve ever seen before (and believe me, Sci & Tech is just the place) – they lay them on a few tables or, if they’re way too big (which happens with technology), they place them casually round the corner of your chair. They don’t look very intimidating because the actual collections are just a few meters away anyway.

Big day comes:
You walk in, stiff as any proper researcher, don’t-give-away-all-at-once attitude. You see the objects but you don’t bother too much. They’ll explain, right? Right. You look around: new faces obviously. Try to strike a conversation or two before it all begins. I’m in history of computers. (to your right) And you’re in…? Sociology – really? (to your left) And you’re an artist? Fancy that. You have no inkling they might end up in the same team as you – for figuring out one of those objects scattered around, that is. And that’s where all the fun begins. First day, you’ll (delicately) toss and turn the things around, hoping that hints will miraculously appear. They usually don’t. Do not despair though; just go by the saying that, like people, some objects are easier to read than others. Relax. Talk to the sociologist. Oh, she’s drawn to the other side of the room, another object. But hey, the artist is interested. They have good ideas, these artists. You guys start talking – I mean, you really talk. History, philosophy, science, art… you name it. Depends on what the object evokes to you. You go around the room in search of the perfect object (read: I don’t know – what’s the perfect object in this case?) And then you settle for that intriguing triangular shape – you’ve always had a weakness for geometry… or not.

Yes, you’re given some indications in the following days (the curators and conservationists are excellent). But by then you’ve already googled it impatiently. Yes, there are some readings to do and lectures to hear – which are quite amazing, mind you, given the high quality of the guests. There’s also informed visits and short presentations on the museum floor from the said curators. As with any respectable camp, there is a field trip whose location is usually kept secret until the workshop starts, just to increase suspense.

Lunches? Noteworthy.

By the end of it, you’d made friends and learned about conservation issues, cataloguing, museum displays, and what-not. Oh, I nearly forgot: there’s no way to escape making a presentation of your “research” on that no-clue artefact which you willingly selected. (yeah, I know) That’s on the last day, Friday. One week too soon? Maybe. But trust me, it’s like fireworks, the best part of the show: people’s imagination is boundless.

I loved it and so will you.

Talk to David if you want to register:

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