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A cold day in Ottawa

On Friday, January 25th, York University Science & Technology Studies graduate students from Katey Anderson’s Science & Technology as Material Culture course (plus a few hangers-on, including yours truly) got a behind-the-scenes tour of the artifacts at the Canadian Science & Technology Museum, courtesy of David Pantalony.
The grounds of the CSTM
David Pantalony (right) and the muddy-footed tour group 
We checked out the collections in storage, as well as the “artifacts in the wild” on display to the public. In addition to performing material analyses of artifacts, we explored storage warehouses, skulked around in backstage areas off-limits to the public, and toured the museum’s library. In this post I’ll describe our time at the CSTM, as well as David’s approach to artifacts, material culture, and his curatorial work.
The storage warehouse
An exciting... something.
The CSTM is a little off the beaten track as far as Ottawa’s museums go. Like York, it doesn’t have a “big, sexy, downtown” presence, and it’s a long bus ride out there. Also like York, it benefits from a slightly outsider’s perspective.

As the curator for physical sciences and medicine, David focuses on scientific instruments, makers, and materials, as well as on collections of things. In addition to the objects themselves, he’s interested in their provenance, or the history and chronology of their ownership, use, collection, and/or storage. This context fleshes out each artifact’s story, and as a curator David attempts to weave these stories together into a coherent public narrative while showcasing the particularities of each artifact. There is always a balance between having an openness to surprises and to preselected themes; always a back and forth between what you expect and what jumps out at you. For example, when searching for artifacts for a heart-themed exhibit, he came across a rare record containing the first sound recording of a beating heart.
This green tile from a mental hospital is a psychological instrument
Our first group material analysis
We all contributed to the material analysis of this yellow buoy-looking artifact; giving our impressions of its design, material makeup, condition, possible function, and other details. This kind of exercise tries to tease out our impressions of an object, and in that vein David kept things as open-ended as possible while we brainstormed. We paid particular attention to how the object was stored; it seemed "embalmed" or "shackled" in its strapped-down state. It turns out that it's a measuring device from early climate research, which eventually washed up on shore and made its way to the CSTM.  

The conventional Canadian museum experience involves exhibits celebrating Canadian “firsts” or our historical innovations, inventions, and progress (while there, we saw a display on canoes and an entire section devoted to Canadian inventions), but David is more interested in using artifacts and collections to tell stories about ourselves. 

Planes, trains, and automobiles
An important stacking-related warning
When working with objects and collections, David stressed an essential tension between presence and provenance; between the object currently on display in the museum and its context, the trail that brought it there. Of course, the fact that an object is on display or in storage at the CSTM is part of that provenance, in that someone judged that it belonged in a museum celebrating our national scientific and technological history. People assume that extant collections have been miraculously saved, whereas their presence tells you a lot about the culture of science and what actors have considered to be significant enough to keep.
Another important warning
Angela looking through the spectroscope.
Working with real collections lets you encounter the object not merely as an example of x, or a category, but as unique. The spectroscope (above) came from Gerhard Herzberg's lab, but it was no longer an accepted scientific instrument at the time of its provenance. Normally, museum spectroscopes originate from a gentleman's estate or a physics department. So instead of being categorized as an instrument for x, it's instead a toy or totem from the lab of the man who brought spectroscopy to prominence in Canada. This makes it different from an otherwise identical spectroscope from a working laboratory context.

In addition, close work with material objects offers something beyond the written word or even the professional literature. Katey described how she was surprised to look into an archival spectroscope and see colour effects, after only having encountered black-and-white images. Objects themselves, stressed David throughout the day, always have the capacity to surprise us, and these surprising details aren't to be found in the specialized literature or in a Google search.

Material analysis in pairs
The first laser, on display
Our next activity was material analysis in pairs. We followed an artifact analysis protocol worksheet with prompting questions about the object's  history, material, construction, design, function, as well as about our interpretive experience with the object. David described how he prefers to work with objects he's less familiar with, to avoid an "Antiques Roadshow" situation where students ask questions and he provides his already-known answers. There's a great value in having multiple voices describing an object, because we all bring different perspectives and different vocabularies for the subtleties of design.

I don't entirely remember the details of the objects pictured above, except that the students working on the "Macbeth" machine on the left discovered cleaning instructions and extra lightbulbs (which David hadn't seen before), and that the laser on the right was once from a working lab but then resided as a display on top of a base, another totem from Canada's scientific history.

No visit to the CSTM is complete without a trip to the crazy kitchen!
This way to the science zone

The most exciting part of the trip for me was sneaking backstage to get a close-up view of a giant, slowly-rotating globe that the public sees through a window. Watching the globe slowly spinning, from a perspective that the museum-going public would never experience, was uncanny. It felt like we were in space, looking down at the world (albeit one with Cold War-era place names).
VIPs get the rail-hopping treatment
The impressive globe
Our final stop of the day was the CSTM's library, which David recommends as a resource for scholars working on Canadian scientific or technological history. While scholars generally don't have the same curatorial access or the freedom to browse, we do have in this library an underutilized archive of trade and marketing literature, which offers a unique window into the culture of science.
The library had an extensive bicycle section
The trade literature archive, full of catalogs
David also had advice for budding scholars about taking advantage of the CSTM. We ought to consider it to be our museum; how do its artifacts complement our own research? Examining artifacts isn't about easy answers, but about raising questions to take you on research paths. The museum also inspires us to think about our own research as though it was an exhibit: how would you lay it out for family, for the public, for scholars? What’s the best way to display your work? How would your thesis be a novel?
The end of a long, cold, great day.
David’s also a great example of an HPS scholar whose work includes public outreach and social media. He encourages student interactions in the blog and scientific instrument community, which help us share our research, as well as enjoy the fun of being "out there" in the public eye. He calls email his “second job,” and with a young family he appreciates how a sane work-life balance takes lots of effort.

We all left the CSTM with an enhanced appreciation for how material culture can benefit our own research, as well as for this gem of a museum with so much to offer us. We also had a great deal of gratitude for David who spent the day showing us around his museum, and to Katey for setting up our field trip. Of course, it was a delight to spend a few days away from my work in Toronto and to have time with Ottawa friends Chris McLeod and Louisa Haché, who are working on exciting projects of their own.


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