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Things That Talk (McGill Course)

HIST 410 / CRN 10131 (McGill University, History Department)

Things That Talk: Understanding Early Modern Objects

Fall 2010

Time: TTh, 8:35am-9:55pm
Place: Leacock 31 (and field trips!)
Office hours: Tuesday 2-4
(OR by appointment)

Instructor: Jean-François Gauvin
Office: 3610 McTavish, room 35-3
(514) 398 3130

email: Jean-francois.gauvin (at) mcgill.ca


The goal of this seminar is to look at objects (coffee, clothing, fireworks, books, air pump, tulips, etc.) and try to understand what they represented and what they meant in the early modern period. Material objects are natural, artificial, manufactured, symbolic, scientific, economic, social, political and much more. Indeed, how can a simple object such as coffee beans threaten the political spectrum of seventeenth-century England? What can we learn about the social and economic culture of seventeenth-century Holland by studying «mere» tulips? What can the use and manufacture of fireworks in the eighteenth century tell us about the close interaction of the artisan and savant communities? This course is not limited to the historical analysis of objects, seen through secondary literature. It is also about methodological approaches to the study of things: how to proceed in framing an argument centered on a material object—whether an early modern tulip or a contemporary iPhone. We live (and always have lived) in a human-built world, a world overflowing with material objects that constantly influence our life, economy, culture, and society in general. Though the subject is vast (we are not even touching on archeology and anthropology), the course has been divided into three sections, all dealing with the early modern period: everyday objects, scientific and technological objects, and theoretical approaches to things. Together, they give a very good account of things and their key role in the study of intellectual, science and social history.

The seminar is a reading-intensive course, which means there will be no written assignments. Besides what could be considered a heavy reading load, there will be «fun» outings in museums in order to be confronted with some of the things discussed in the books. What can we learn from those «museum objects» and how can we use them in our own study of history?

Note: please see me if you are concerned about pre-requisites or background. The course combines social, cultural and intellectual history, and does not require technical knowledge in the natural sciences.


(Books *13* are available at the Paragraphe Bookstore AND on reserve in McLennan-Redpath Library)

  • Daniel Roche, A History of Everyday Things: The Birth of Consumption in France, 1600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Brian Cowan, The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
  • Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2000).
  • Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2008).
  • Paula Findlen, Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  • Steven Shapin & Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).
  • Chandra Mukerji, Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  • Simon Werrett, Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2010).
  • Ursula Klein & Wolfgang Lefèvre, Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science: A Historical Ontology (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
  • Michel Pastoureau, Black: The History of a Color (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
  • Lorraine Daston & Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007).
  • Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (Verso Press USA, 2005).

Assessment Structure

1. Overall class participation (including field trips): 50%

2. Oral summaries and analyses of specific readings: 50%


This seminar is designed in such a way that all the work is focused on reading, analysing and discussing books on a specific topic. No further research or writing is expected from the students. The final grade is based only on oral assignments and participation.

In accord with McGill University’s Charter of Students’ Rights, students in this course have the right to submit in English or in French any written work that is to be graded.

McGill University values academic integrity. Therefore all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under the code of student conduct and disciplinary procedures (see www.mcgill.ca/integrity for more information) / L’université McGill attache une haute importance à l’honnêteté académique. Il incombe par conséquent à tous les étudiants de comprendre ce que l’on entend par tricherie, plagiat et autres infractions académiques, ainsi que les conséquences que peuvent avoir de telles actions, selon le Code de conduite de l’étudiant et des procédures disciplinaires (pour de plus amples renseignements, veuillez consulter le site http://www.mcgill.ca/integrity).

Class Schedule

2 Sept: Intro: Things that Talk (from a now famous book edited by Lorraine Daston)

Part one (5 weeks): Everyday Objects

7 Sept: Roche, History of Everyday Things

9 Sept: continued & bring one everyday object to class

14 Sept: Cowan, Social Life of Coffee

16 Sept: meet the author day: Brian Cowan

21 Sept: Johns, Nature of the Book (chaps 1-2 and conclusion)

23 Sept: continued but class in Osler Library (chap. 7-8)

28 Sept: Roche, Culture of Clothing

30 Sept: class held at the McCord Museum


7 Oct: Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania

Part two (5 weeks): Scientific and Technological Objects

12 Oct: Findlen, Possessing Nature

14 Oct: Continued

19 Oct: Shapin & Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump

21 Oct: class held at the Stewart Museum (meet at Metro Ile Sainte Hélène at 8:30am; TAKE TAXI for return, instructor paying)

26 Oct: Murkeji, Impossible Engineering

28 Oct: Movie day: Ridicule

2 Nov: Werrett, Fireworks

4 Nov: Guest Lecture: Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University


11 Nov.: Klein & Lefèvre, Materials in Eighteenth-Century Science

Part three (3 weeks): Conceptual Approaches to Things

16 Nov: Pastoureau, Black, The History of a Color

18 Nov: Movie day: Secrecy

23 Nov: Daston & Galison, Objectivity

25 Nov: Continued

30 Nov: Baudrillard, System of Objects

1 Dec (not 2 Dec): class held at the Fine Arts Museum, David and Liliane Stewart decorative arts room, instructor pays for it. Meet at entrance at 6:00pm.


August 26, 2010 Posted by | Courses, Instrument, Museum | Leave a comment

The Astrolabe Syndrome

Early 15th-century astrolabe by Jean Fusoris

Early 15th-century astrolabe by Jean Fusoris, from the Adler Planetarium, Chicago, USA.

During the Wandering Seminar, a spectacular traveling journey through Europe organized by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (see the official website) to which I participated, the astrolabe became the symbol of everything that is hopeless, mind-numbing, ominous, tedious, unconstructive, un-museological — in short dead-boring — about scientific instruments and, more generally, historical objects. The talk we had in Berlin on this sophisticated piece of scientific knowledge and craftsmanship certainly did not help alter or challenge the opinion of the group. Why? Because it was no more than a hasty overview of the astrolabe’s purpose and mode of operation. Whatever the socio-historical and scientific importance of this instrument, the astrolabe remained for the group 15 wanderers one of the most uninteresting artefacts of the Grand Tour.

How can this situation be explained? Had it been possible to transform this instrument into a knock-out historical object? Or is it “mission impossible”? (One of the 2006 summer blockbuster movies I watched in the little free time we had. Another blockbuster, X-Men, had a different impact on my thinking. See my Mutant Object entry.) Since then, the Florence Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza created a pedagogical website (in Italian for now) about the astrolabe, replicating for the latter the kind of didactical approach they developped for Galileo’s compass. (See this nice and rich website here.) Through this innovative teaching method, some of the most difficult and “boring” aspects of the astrolabe have been removed. Will a website, however, make the astrolabe more popular and user-friendly? That is the ultimate challenge.

What is true of the astrolabe, however, is also true for most scientific objects. What do we do with a 16th-century pair of terrestrial and celestial globes? What about a 17th-century microscope? An 18th-century dividing machine? A 19th-century spectrograph? A 20th-century bubble chamber? Are these instruments of science less boring and easier to understand than an early 15th-century astrolabe by Jean Fusoris? With objects of art, visitors are happy just looking at them and taking away what they want (more so if it deals with Renoir, Monet, Michelangelo, etc.), even though they have usually no clue at all of the cultural and socio-historical genesis of these same works of art. Going to Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and seeing the most important collection of astrolabes in Europe doesn’t have the same impact, as one can easily imagine.

Whether an astrolabe or a bubble chamber, scientific objects are still untamed beasts. They are strange and difficult, even though astrolabes have intrinsic esthetic qualities (which explains why they are too often exhibited as decorative art objects, without any explanation whatsoever). How can they be disciplined? How can they become as interesting as an object of art? In other words, can we find a cure for what I would like to call the “astrolabe syndrome”? At least we know the origins of the disease: science museums and museums of the history of science.

One could argue of course that it is rather a societal problem, one dealing with a general decline of interest in science. Yet, science is systematically taught in schools at all levels, whereas art is not. We are hammered all the time by governments about the importance of science and technology to the development of a strong economy and, therefore, to the welfare of the nation; not so adamantly regarding the arts (which I agree is a pity). I’m convinced that art itself would be as “esoteric” and difficult as science had it not been for art museums. They were the ones who established the “artistic authority” of Monet, Giacommetti, Rodin, etc. Without them, we would have a different understanding of art. With the recent opening in Paris of the Musée du quai Branly (Musée des arts premiers) I strongly believe that ethnology and anthropology will acquire their lettres de noblesse as never before. It is, therefore, to science and history of science museums we have to turn to if we ever want to find a treatment to the astrolabe syndrome.

We saw all kinds of exhibitions during our wanderings, ranging in price tags from a few thousands euros to millions of euros. Yet they all failed, in my opinion, in conveying the enthusiasm one single painting from Klimt or Raphael does in an art museum (for example, the new Klimt acquired by the NYC Neue Gallery, for the whooping 125 million dollars!). I’m sure we can find a treatment to the astrolabe syndrome, but in order to do so we will have to reconsider in toto the practice of museum exhibitions. What does it mean? I’m still not certain. One thing I know, however: we need to scrap altogether the current exhibition practices; nothing short than a tabula rasa will do. The new exhibitions will have to integrate a comprehensive understanding of historical, sociological, and cultural agencies that will link science and its material culture to our past, present, and future daily life. New technologies will be necessary; new didactic skills will have to be invented; new spaces designed; etc. Without such a revolution in exhibition practices, I’m afraid the astrolabe syndrome will soon become an uncontrollable pandemic. The wandering seminar certainly has not solve this problem, endemic too all the museums we have visited over the course of two months during the summer of 2006.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Instrument, Museum | 1 Comment

“Robert Whipple’s Most Beautiful Acquisition”

From the Whipple Museum, Cambridge, UK

From the Whipple Museum, Cambridge, UK

Can you guest from the picture which instrument the title-quote above is referring to? Not really a trick question, n’est-ce pas? The equinoctial ring dial on the left was made ca 1715 by John Rowley, “Master of mechanicks to the King.” According to the Whipple Museum’s label, where the instrument was on display when we visited it during the 2006 Wandering Seminar, this ring dial is similar to the one commissioned by George I as a sumptuous gift to Peter the Great, but personalized for a (wealthy) French client (hence the French inscription on the instrument). This is, in short, a very expensive and elaborate sundial, an instrument to measure time.

But what does this instrument really tell us? Is it truly conceivable to think that Peter the Great would double-bend (he was 6′ 8″ after all!) over such an instrument everytime he wanted it to tell time? Likewise with the French aristocrat, who bought it with plenty of Louis d’or? Maybe once or twice, for the kick of it — and to show they were not as dumb as they were rich and powerful. Then where would such a ring dial go? Most likely on a shelf, ostentatiously reflecting light from its polished brass, bathing onlookers in the glory of its owner.

Thus, one may ask, what was the “real” purpose of this instrument? Was it a “scientific” instrument, or simply a prestigious object of decorative art? Could it be both? Then again, can it be a “scientific object” if the “user” never employed it to tell time? If the latter is true (as I suspect), i.e. if this instrument was essentially perceived as a beautiful and status-granting piece of decorative art, does it really belong in a museum of the history and philosophy of science?

Those are some of the questions that came to mind when I saw this instrument. In fact, they have been with me for a long time. We tend to forget that the majority of instruments found in museums bear a special stamp: they were kept preciously because they were believed to be significant to the history of a scientific discipline (or generally to the history of mankind). This is why we (too often) discover object descriptions with headings such as Masterpieces (Deutsches Museum), Star items (Hunterian Museum), nation’s treasures in trust (Fitzwilliam Museum), historical artefacts of the finest quality (Science Museum, London), etc. They all tell, of course, very interesting stories (and often very important ones). Still, one is left to wonder what happened to “ordinary” stuff of daily life, the simple things  — the non-masterpieces, the choses banales (Daniel Roche) — that were used all the time but never made it to a museum. If you think, for example, that brass astrolabes (back to our syndrome!) are rare in museum collections, think again: paper astrolabes are much rarer. Yet paper astrolabes were in abundance in the Medieval East and in Renaissance Europe, since they were more affordable and easier to produce (with the printing press) than the brass ones. Why then have we more brass than paper astrolabes today in museum collections? I believe the answer is quite obvious. The tough issue is rather the following: can we fully understand the history of science with the kind of museum collections we possess today? Masterpieces propose valuable narratives for sure, but is it the whole story? Can we fully understand what it meant to do natural philosophy during, say, ancien régime France if we study esteemed objects such as this ring dial?

The equinoctial ring dial pictured above is truly a remarkable instrument, no doubt one of “Robert Whipple’s most beautiful acquisition[s].” The story it tells is one of skilled craftsmanship, patronage, trade, and science. But is it a “scientific instrument”? Visitors would probably recognized it as such if it were displayed in an art museum. Yet it begs the question: what gives it its so-called “scientific” character? Why would visitors state it is scientific in comparison to, let’s say, an early modern automaton? (The Musée des arts et métiers in Paris has by the way the most exquisite gallery of such devices). If the chief purpose of this ring dial was finally to faire le beau on a mantelpiece, as a result of a very complex and influential process of gift-exchange, why should we bestow on it a deeper scientific value than, e.g., Vaucanson’s famous flute player or mechanical duck (remember Pynchon!)? Are the “users” responsible for awarding an instrument its “scientific” label? Could it be the instrument maker, on the contrary, who gives an object its scientific character? In other words, does an instrument “become” scientific (due to its users), or is scientificity an “in-built” quality given by instrument makers and the science they embody (here astronomy and timekeeping)? Is this ring dial a representation or an embodiment of science? Therein lies a large part of my sleepless inquiries…

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Instrument, Museum | | Leave a comment

Einstein’s Blackboard as a Mutant Object

From the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, UK

From the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, UK

To the experts (historians, collectors, and curators), Oxford’s Museum for the History of Science is known for having one of the best European collections of Renaissance and early modern scientific instruments (including the best collection of astrolabes in the World — the Wandering Seminar’s fetish object). To the general public, however, MHS is perhaps better known for possessing a rather peculiar object: Einstein’s blackboard, on which he gave a well-attended lecture at Oxford in 1931. It has become to some extent a relic, people coming in just to see it-virtually disregarding all the rest. Why an old blackboard, showing a set of field equations that few understands, has such an alluring — compelling — power of attraction?

To acknowledge such an unusual fact, Jim Bennett had the highly original idea of producing an exhibition around Einstein’s blackboard in order to celebrate the centenial anniversary of the special theory of relativity (1905-2005). The Bye, Bye Blackboard exhibition intended to combine “science, art, celebrity, and nostalgia” by inviting more than a dozen artists, scientists, and scholars to draw anything they wanted on similar blackboards as Einstein’s. The result was one of the most successful exhibitions in the history of the museum.

One obvious question arises from this experiment: what kind of “instrument” is this? What can we make of it? I would argue that this blackboard is not a scientific instrument (I think this is rather obvious), but an exceptional mutant artefact. Indeed, this blackboard cries out a truth that is too often forgotten, i.e. the significance of an object is frequently associated to sociological factors far beyond its original and intended ontological essence. In the case of blackboards, one writes on it with white or colored chalk, inscriptions meant to be erased almost immediately as a calculation or the explanation of a concept is completed and/or understood (or not). The nature of knowledge found on such blackboards is thus ephemeral; the intended ontological essence of blackboards is thus not to preserve knowledge, but rather to ascertain and replicate knowledge over and over again. Its ontological purpose is not passive long-term memory but rather short-term active replication. (Andrew Warwick has shown brilliantly in his Masters of Theory: Cambridge and the Rise of Mathematical Physics (2003) how training for the Cambridge mathematical tripos changed with the 19th-century introduction of paper and pencil, which merged both concepts of memory and replication.) Einstein’s blackboard at the MHS, therefore, is a contra naturam aberration, a socially produced “mutant artifact” because its ontological essence — its basic DNA function — has been fundamentally altered.

The significant and consequential alteration of Einstein’s blackboard did not come from an ontological breakdown (inherent principle) but from a sociological onslaught (outside environment) — i.e. preservation of Einstein’s aura of greatness. This sociological alteration has rendered Einstein’s blackboard both stronger and weaker than a plain blackboard. Stronger due to its new acquired fame and power of attraction to the museum, which a plain blackboard would obviously not warrant; weaker due to the simple fact that Einstein’s blackboard is no longer a “real” blackboard, it has lost its most fundamental ontological or genetic essence. Indeed, if you erase the equations on Einstein’s blackboard in order to recover the original ontological function of the blackboard — i.e. the replication of knowledge-you completely loose the socially-created artifact known as Einstein’s blackboard. The sociological metamorphosis at the origin of this celebrated artifact has completely destroyed its intrinsic nature. It has mutated genetically into something else. Einstein’s blackboard has become an object of memory, an object of collection modified at the ontological level by a social desire to celebrate the achievement of a great man.

In becoming this sacrosanct object of collection, Einstein’s blackboard has turned into what Baudrillard calls an objet abstrait de sa fonction. Baudrillard explains in Le Système des objets (1968) that every object has two functions: one is to be used (être pratiqué), one is to be owned (être possédé). In our case, when the blackboard was used before Einstein, it was simply a blackboard. Now that it is in possession of a museum, it has become an object, Einstein’s blackboard, an artifact that has lost its functionality, its intrisic function having been forever abstracted from the actuality of its ontology. This blackboard is no longer a specific instrument of social practices: its inherent qualities have transcended to the realm of subjectivity. As Baudrillard explains: “l’objet pur, dénué de fonction, ou abstrait de son usage, prend un statut strictement subjectif: il devient objet de collection. Il cesse d’être tapis, table, boussole ou bibelot pour devenir ‘objet’. Un ‘bel objet’ dira le collectionneur, et non pas une belle statuette. Lorsque l’objet n’est plus spécifié par sa fonction, il est qualifié par le sujet.” (p.121) When objects are possessed, stocked in private or museum collections, they become “masterpieces,” “star items,” or “artefacts of the finest quality.” This may help explain why we have so much trouble defining what type of object, for example, is the Whipple Museum’s ring dial discussed elsewhere. When used and manipulated, the ring dial is a scientific instrument; when seen behind a museum’s glass window (or, in the past, found on the shelf in an aristocrat’s cabinet) it becomes a “most beautiful acquisition.” Subjectivity trumps social (and especially scientific) practices.

In fact, understanding this struggle between “to be used” and “to be owned” could illuminate at least one aspect of what I dubbed the astrolabe syndrome. Baudrillard mentions that for everyday objects, functionality and possession are in a constant state of flux: “L’environnement habituel garde … un statut ambigu: le fonctionnel s’y défait sans cesse dans le subjectif, la possession s’y mêle à l’usage, dans une entreprise toujours déçue d’intégration totale.” (p.122) One uses a car, a computer, a fridge, a television, etc. and has the feeling of owning these objects, yet when comes the time to “upgrade” them, though a sentiment of nostalgia may step in, in the end they are simply discarded. Complete subjectivity towards objects is thus never reached by individuals, though owing to their familiarity with these objects, they know how to use them, they can relate to their subjective abstraction when seen in a museum.

It is not the case with scientific instruments. Most people are just not accustomed to use them. They do not know how to relate to scientific instruments because they simply have no clue how to manipulate them. They never have developped the habit of using them. Consequently, when the instrument’s use has been abstracted upon entering the realm of the museum collection, visitors just cannot see the subjective “beauty” of these scientific objects. Again, Baudrillard explains very well this relationship between objects and habits: “Chaque objet est à mi-chemin entre une spécificité pratique, sa fonction, qui est comme son discours manifeste, et l’absorption dans une série/collection, où il devient terme d’un discours latent, répétitif, le plus élémentaire et le plus tenace des discours. Ce système discursif des objets est homologue de celui des habitudes… L’objet devient d’ailleurs immédiatement support d’un réseau d’habitudes, point de cristallisation de routines du comportement. Inversement, il n’est peut-être pas d’habitude qui ne tourne autour d’un objet. Les uns et les autres s’impliquent inextricablement dans l’existence quotidienne.” (p.132) Learning how to use a scientific instrument and seeing its inner and exterior “beauty” go hand in hand. Without the habit — habitus, tacit knowledge — the scientific object means nothing to someone seeing it behind glass, as s/he would a familiar decorative art object (such as a chair, armoire, lamp, etc.).

Science museums throughout the world are trying to educate people about scientific principles, with a vast array of hands-on and computerized activities, but they do not create the habitus of using instrument. Knowing everything about astronomy does not help in understanding how an astrolabe works-and see its subjective beauty. Same thing with an eighteenth-century vacuum pump, a nineteenth-century saccharimeter, and a twentieth-century bubble chamber or coincidence counter. Children learn through play, through object manipulation. It is high-time museum visitors learn about scientific instrument by touching accurate replicas (and the real thing when possible), not just virtual ones.

March 9, 2009 Posted by | Instrument, Museum | , , | 3 Comments