Examine first, ask what it is later: The multiple interpretations of 20th century scientific artifacts

Speaker: David Pantalony, University of Ottawa and Canada Science and Technology Museum Technology Collections

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  1. Post-World War II scientific artifacts continue to present pressing challenges for museums. Artifacts from this period do not easily escape from their official scientific and historical context. One issue is that curators, scholars, students and the public do not look beyond the name and official function of the objects. As we more carefully examine and interrogate the instruments on their own terms, however, multiple narratives emerge with surprising lessons about science and culture. Open-ended study of the materials, components, esthetics, provenance and construction lead to unexpected paths of inquiry, creating fresh opportunities for display, as well as linkages to other collections and disciplines.

    In this talk I present a selection of case studies from the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Due to the relatively young history of science, medicine and technology in Canada combined with several diverse curatorial areas, the collections (and collecting activities) at our museum offer a wide spectrum of artifacts from this period. One way we are exploring this resource is to host an annual artifact workshop that brings together graduate students and faculty from across the country and disciplines to test new methods in our collections. The sessions take place in the
    storage facility, there are no lectures, and the artifacts take centre stage. These activities are modeled after an experimental collection-based seminar I run at the University of Ottawa. The biggest lesson about these exercises is that there is not one magical method for examining artifacts – it is about the diverse groups that work together on one artifact thus drawing out its abundant possibilities.

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