Those who enjoyed listening to Sam Alberti’s excellent keynote address at the Connecting with Collections Symposium (posted on this blog last week) may be interested in another presentation from that day.
This is my paper on “King Arthur’s Table: Learning From a Replica Scientific Instrument“. I have added the slides I used to an audio recording from the day. I hope you enjoy watching it – please leave any feedback in the Comments section below. You can find the abstract below the video.
“King Arthur’s Table” is not a table, nor has it anything to do with King Arthur. It is a twentieth-century reconstruction of a fourteenth-century astronomical instrument: a planetary equatorium described in a manuscript attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. Conceived by historian of science Derek Price as a huge, tangible realisation of Chaucerian astronomy for Cambridge’s then-newly-opened Whipple Museum of the History of Science, it was displayed, discarded, stored, catalogued with that rather whimsical name, and finally rediscovered.
This paper will use the biography of King Arthur’s Table as a route to understanding the early, inchoate years of both a museum and the discipline of history of science. Its construction in the Cavendish Laboratory, under the patronage of Sir Lawrence Bragg, and its first display at the Royal Society allow it to tell us much about the significant scientific institutions and figures of that period. Intended both as a replica instrument and as an homage to the life and work of a great historical figure, its own life story has reflected changing research priorities and curatorial attitudes, especially concerning reconstructions.
New exhibition panels have recently been installed at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, based on my research into the plaster casts produced by D. Brucciani & Co. They include a general introduction, timeline and interpretive labels for six of the objects in the collection. Cumulatively they are intended to add a supplementary narrative that engages with their manufacture, authorship and function in the context of nineteenth-century material culture. In other words, to provide another ‘way in’ to the collection by revealing what the object is rather than (or in addition to) what the object is of. This was a rare opportunity to manage every stage of the process, from research and writing to design and installation. Being essentially a one-room museum with a (broadly) chronological display based on the age of the ‘original’, it was most practical to work with and around the existing arrangement of objects.
Back in June, Mark Elliot and Sarah-Jane Harknett from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Victoria Avery from the Fitzwilliam Museum, led a workshop session for the Connecting with Collections group on writing text for exhibitions, which informed my approach to this set of tasks. Although writing labels was not completely outside my experience, it was illuminating to hear from museum professionals from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives, sharing their experience of the shifting consensus on what is considered ‘good practice’ over time. We were also pointed in the direction of a particularly useful document, ‘Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide’, which helped me to frame and distill what had become a cumbersome amount of primary material.
I would like to thank the curator of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Susanne Turner and Mick Cafferkey, senior illustrator at PandIS, for printing and mounting the panels with such precision.
The Connecting with Collections Symposium took place last Friday (27th September), and it was a great success.
We were lucky to have Sam Alberti, Director of Museums and Archives at the Royal College of Surgeons and Curator of their fabulous Hunterian Museum, as our keynote speaker. The title of his presentation was Objects of Knowledge: Using Material Culture in Twentieth-Century Museums.
Sam kindly allowed us to record his paper, so that you lovely people can listen to it right here. The abstract of the paper is below.
The way we use objects in collections of science, natural history and medicine has changed significantly over the past hundred years. In the early twentieth century, while natural science museums were are the peak of their prestige and influence as sites for the generation and reproduction of knowledge, other collections (especially of instruments) were deployed to commemorate scientific achievements. This heritage function expanded in the second half of the century as other sites challenged museums’ teaching and research roles.
Using national, university and medical school collections in the UK this paper presents episodes in the history of twentieth-century museums, from the well-documented interwar years to the historiographical terra incognita of the second half of the century. When and why do objects move from active use to reverential display? How did the relationship between museums and (their) universities change over the century? What role did material culture play in science, medicine and their histories in post-war Britain? Such questions help us to understand the use (and disuse) of museum objects in the construction, perpetuation, and professional identity of disciplines.