Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A New Series on Renfusa: Entangled Objects, Week 1: Introduction

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Renfusa's been on a fairly fallow posting schedule due to a big change in my life a year ago. It's been just about a year since I took a part-time position at Harvard's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. In the past year I've worked on a few ongoing projects, including the provision and devising of content for our gallery iOS app, now available on the App Store.

Also in the past year, I've formally joined the Master's program in Museum Studies at the Harvard Extension School . And this semester, I am taking a course as a Special Student at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It's called History of Science 289: Entangled Objects: Or the Stuff of Science, Culture, and Society. As its final project, my classmates and I will be putting together an exhibit in the History of Science department, and so this course is directly applicable to my Museum Studies degree.

This course also has a good chunk of reading, and all of these books are the type of thing I'd probably read just for fun. So as a part of my course prep this semester, I'm planning to write up short reviews (probably not as long or as formal as my "Five Things I Learned" entries) on the books and articles I'm reading.

So, to begin, a very quick link to and look at our first reading, on the favorite objects of Harvard professors: rich in personal meaning, these objects are pretty much all one-of-a-kind, even Jamaica Kincaid's bag of Mohave sand. After all, no random sampling of sand will have precisely that mix of granules ever again, or will have been gathered on that particular Mohave sojourn.

Does an object need to be unique to be favored or loved?* How is Professor Hu's gallium arsenide model different from any other molecular model constructed from this particular off-the-shelf brand of teaching tool? The rust and wear on the model indicates its age and the fact it is being used well beyond its normal lifespan, so in one sense it is "vintage," having survived past its expected use-life. But it is a also tangible connection to her former research team.

All these objects evoke and preserve emotions, passions, and memories personal to the individual. Does an outside observer's recognition of the objects' beauty or worth depend upon these stories? Certainly, the observer is going to appreciate these objects on a vastly different, and perhaps lesser, level without the backstory.

What do we choose to save or preserve? What is the role of remembering or emotion in these decisions? How can we decide what to preserve in a world with multiple frames of reference for "value"? These are fascinating and fundamental questions to consider in collection curation, and in museum display, in object description and labeling.

*I'd like to look in future class sessions at the idea of value in mass-produced objects, or in objects designed expressly to be "collectible"; I have a feeling that William D. King's Collections of Nothing will be very useful in exploring these questions.

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