Tag Archive for: Max Planck Institute for History of Science

Senior Research Associate: Reconstructing Sloane

Research and Project Management, Reconstructing Sloane (2011 – present)


The vast Enlightenment-era collections amassed by Sir Hans Sloane are the foundation-stone of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum. A major interdisciplinary digital humanities research project to virtually reunite and analyse Sloane’s collections and his own catalogue inventories is now being planned, led by curators and research staff of these institutions. I am collaborating with these colleagues to design, develop and resource the Reconstructing Sloane project. My own related research, investigating collections management as a knowledge producing practice in the early modern period, is supported by both Visiting Fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a Research Scholar Affiliation at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.


Sloane’s early modern collections of natural history, ethnographia, antiquities, artworks, numismatics, books and manuscripts are now divided across the three world-class institutions which were created by his gift to the nation: the British Museum in Bloomsbury, the British Library in King’s Cross, and the Natural History Musem in South Kensington.  Over the 260 years since his death in 1753, the materials have followed the paths of the disciplines which they themselves in part had spawned: thus the integrity of the collections and their meaning as a coherent site of early modern intellectual practice has been slowly obscured.

Of course, the collections also changed a great deal, in their form and use, over Sloane’s own lifetime, as he was collecting internationally for some 70 years in a period of immense global and intellectual change. The 18th century is arguably the first period of globalisation, and the relationship between trade and intellectual life in this epoch is a subject of considerable interest in a wide range of humanities fields.  The world in which Sloane paid close attention to the messy business of organic life – irreducible to mathematics –  is also the world of Boyle and Hooke, of Locke and Newton, of Leeouwenhoek and Leibnitz.

This exciting project was first proposed in 2010, when a 350th anniversary of Sloane’s birth in 1660 was celebrated by the British Library with a conference. From Books to Bezoars was a wide-ranging two-day event that showed the astonishing breadth of Sloane’s work and influence, even today.  It was organised by Alison Walker, who has been the driving force behind the Sloane Printed Book Project, which aims to locate and identify all books owned and used by Sloane and subsequently bequeathed to what would become the British Library.  It was common practice then, as today, for libraries to sell off duplicate copies of books: a number of Sloane’s books, well used and full of highly significant marginal notes, were auctioned through the 18th and 19th century – no doubt considered at the time to be the grubbier of any two copies the Library owned!

Later that year, in August 2010, a meeting of curatorial and research staff from the British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal Society Centre for History of Science, the Wellcome Library and beyond took place at the NHM under the auspices of its  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research. I was at that time seconded into CAHR as part of its small dynamic research development team, and for that meeting I collated an overview survey of the state of Sloane collections and research across the three institutions.

Before my secondment ended in Spring 2011, we organised several exploratory meetings internally and between the institutions, and the project quickly developed momentum.  Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project development roadmap is now the backbone of the undertaking.  My current research and project management work with the three national institutions picks up from there, and we are now working on project design and resourcing. A particularly exciting prospect is that of working with digital humanities colleagues to quite literally reconstruct, albeit virtually, Sloane’s intellectual world, and to explore what a deep history of ‘information science’ might look like.

Throughout 2012, with support from an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Science in Culture’ Networking Grant to the British Museum, the three institutions led some of the most exciting cross-disciplinary seminars and meetings ever to be held about early modern intellectual life and legacy.  These events brought together dozens of disciplinary fields and areas of curatorial expertise, showing just what can be done when museums and universities work together (recordings of many of the proceedings are available online from Backdoor Broadcasting).



At the Network meeting which took place at the British Museum, I led a breakout session about cataloguing as research, and research into cataloguing itself.  What is of interest to me with Sloane is the unique triangulation between history of science, history of collections, and history of the book – three fields I have always found highly productive.  Sloane’s world is one which could be called ‘pre-disciplinary,’ and requires a highly interdisciplinary team if we are to understand, in the 21st century, what exactly that might mean.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I first heard about Sloane from the man who first brought the history of collections to the attention of other humanities disciplines, Dr Arthur MacGregor.  Arthur edited the volume Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary (1994), which has become the bible of those of us working on the meanings and use histories of Sloane’s collections.  In a more recent publication, Arthur’s Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries (Yale 2007), we read:

“A parallel evolutionary process can be traced between the development of the cabinet and that of the catalogue.  More than mere inventories, catalogues had a dynamic of their own that contributed not only to the formal registration or recording of collections but also to their analysis and explication at several levels.  Furthermore, the catalogue developed a distinct literary and philosophical programme through which it evolved into a genre that, even if (at least normally) dependent on the collection, was more than merely reflective of it.”

I have been investigating the implications of these ‘evolutionary processes’ between the cabinet and the catalogue during research fellowship periods at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and as an Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science of the University of Cambridge. This is essentially a study of collections management as science, and though my research remit is not limited to Sloane’s work alone, his meticulous attention to the documentation and organisation of his collection is a major focus.



Three Collaborative Doctoral Awards focusing on Sloane’s collections are now underway:

Collecting and Correspondence: Sloane’s Papers and Scientific Networks (Supervised by Dr Arnold Hunt, British Library and Dr Anne Goldgar, King’s College London)

Putting Nature in a Box: Sloane’s Vegetable Substances (Supervised by Dr Charlie Jarvis, Natural History Museum, and Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary University of London)

Visualizing Natural Knowledge: Sloane’s Albums of Natural History Drawings  (Supervised by Dr Kim Sloan, British Museum, and Dr Elizabeth Eger, King’s College London)


Further Links:  Sloane’s Treasures British Museum; Sloane’s Treasures Natural History Museum; British Library Foundation Collections; Sloane Printed Books Project; From Books to Bezoars; British Museum Collections Online; Backdoor Broadcasting Sloane Workshops Podcasts

[Image References: Onyx Cameo of a Goat (16th-17thc, Sloane Collections), British Museum; view of the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum; page spread from Sloane’s own catalogue of Miscellanies, British Museum; cabinet drawer (c1670), Centraal Museum, Utrecht.]

Thinking Through Objects

Thinking Through Objects, presentation at The Exhibition as a Product and Generator of Knowledge, Deutsches Museum, Munich (2008)


This conference explored the contribution exhibitions make to research culture and research methodology, particularly in relation to history of science and science museums. My contribution outlined some of the parallels between text-based and object-based scholarship in history of science, identified a range of methodologies unique to exhibition-making, and addressed some of the influences of these methodologies on the form and content of the scholarship which is produced by them.

The conference was convened jointly by the Deutsches Museum — one of the greatest science museums in the world — and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science — the pre-eminent research centre in the field. The Deutsches Museum has a research institute embedded within its library, and the MPIWG has effected both exhibitions (Einstein: Chief Engineer of the Universe) and object-based research programmes (the five-year History of Scientific Objects).

This is the outline of the issues at hand, as described in the invitation to speak that I received. It went far beyond the ‘material turn’ in humanities in general:

No exhibition without scholarship: Object based studies and the exploration of the cultural context of the object are prerequisites for the intelligible show. However, exhibitions do more than merely visualize the results of research. They have the potential of stimulating scholarship and generating knowledge by posing new research questions.

How can researchers take advantage of this opportunity? In which way can scholarly arguments be translated into spatial arrangement and at the same time kept serviceable for reading and citing by later recipients? What might the results of the scholarly examination of an exhibition look like? Unlike for printed texts, the traditional publication media of scholarship, common standards of terminology and argumentation for exhibitions have yet to emerge. What exactly is the role of the objects on display? Recent history of science and technology has intensively interrogated the epistemic quality of these material sources of research. Yet how do the objects unfold their properties in being staged for exhibition purposes?

Our conference aims to bring together exhibition makers, museum experts, designers, artists, historians of science and technology, experts in cultural studies and journalists to engage in a discussion about their experiences and expectations regarding the exhibition as product and generator of scholarship.


And here is a quote from my response:

Good curators, artists and designers are all of necessity highly skilled researchers and answer already to a rigorous and demanding process of evaluation outside the groves of academe, some aspects of which are shared with humanities researchers and some of which are not. Here, finding complementary parallels between these mediums is more important than finding similarities: it is not in examining the use of object-images in publications, or of text in exhibitions that we can gain a deep-structure understanding of what a show can do that a book cannot. Further, there are analytical and rhetorical methodologies deployed in creating an exhibition just as there are in writing a scholarly paper: it is not enough just to look at the final products in our exploration of the exhibition as a generator of scholarship. How does one learn the visual, spatial and phenomenological skills of exhibition making as a humanities scholar?


It was an exciting meeting, with outstanding presentations on all sides. Of note were those by German colleagues Thomas Schnalke (Director, Charité Medical History Museum, Berlin) and Ulrich Raulff (Director, Deutschen Literaturarchivs Marbach), which both particularly interested me because I was at the time working on the exhibition Split + Splice at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, and because of the exhibition I had effected at the Book Museum of Bayntun’s (Bath, 1994, with Lyne Lapointe) entitled The Spirit and The Letter and The Evil Eye.

It was not the first time that these material culture and exhibition issues have been addressed between museum on the one hand and research in history of science on the other. I also spoke in 2001 at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris at a fantastic conference jointly organised by Jim Bennett of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and MAM, entitled Les Rêves et Les Choses (Dreams and Things). History of science has had its own hierarchies, though these are breaking down — there used to be ‘instrument people’ who were considered rather geeky, and ‘real’ historians, who were interested in epistemologies and concepts. Museums straddle both objects and ideas, and have been central to showing the ways in which they are intertwined.

In a German context, the Munich conference took place in parallel with the launch of the Volkswagon Stiftung’s programme to support Research in Museums. In the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Board had, in becoming a full-fledged Council in 2005, opened the way for a renaissance in museum research by creating the status of Independent Research Organisation, obtention of which would mean museums would be eligible for AHRC research funding. Articulating the specificity of object-based research and its value becomes rather important in this light.

It is in the wake of the creation of IRO status that I counselled the Science Museum (London) on fundraising for research in 2003, and then much later held a strategic development role at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum (London) from 2009-2011.

Of course, the sort of work that museum curators of collections effect on a daily basis — acquiring, cataloguing, evaluating, caring for, interpreting, and exhibiting the objects in their care — involves research and research skills of the highest order. That this is not fully understood and recognized as such is something that needs to change. A catalogue is not a found object, or a transparent container: any researcher who has tried to consult an inadequate museum catalogue will know how much time, work and knowledge must go into a well constructed one. That work is effected by museum curators — when they have enough infrastructural support, that is.

One of the strategic issues tabled at the Munich meeting is related to this recognition problem: how do researchers get their work acknowledged, evaluated and respected if it is formed and formulated in an exhibition rather than in a book? The lack of serious reviews of scholarly exhibitions in history of science journals is a missing link in the citation chain, and it is hindering the development of essential object-based methodologies for research in the field. After all, scientists ‘think through objects’ and instruments all the time — in fact, it’s the key activity that produced the scientific method.



Most of the conference presentations are available in pdf form as Preprint 399 from the MPIWG:  ‘Thinking Through Objects’ by Martha Fleming in The Exhibition as a Product and Generator of Scholarship, Susanne Lehmann-Brauns, Christian Sichau and Helmuth Trischler, editors. Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2010.

Further Links: Deutsches Museum Research Institute, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Einstein Exhibition, History of Scientific Objects, Volkswagon Stiftung Research in Museums, AHRC IRO status

[Images References: a page-spread about lock design from Giedion’s magisterial Mechanisation Takes Command (1948) an almost-exhibition in book form, also reproduced in my talk; a slide from my talk, ‘Thinking Through Objects’; a close-up of some of the prosaic materials with which Hahn and Meitner discovered nuclear fission in 1938, on display at the Deutsches Museum; a display of photographic lenses with x-rays of their structure from the ‘Foto + Film: Von Daguerre bis DVD’ gallery at the Deutsches Museum]

Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime

Painting by Numbers: Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime in Late Twentieth Century Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (May 2006)


Very large data sets are ‘collections’ too: in an increasingly digital world, we need to understand their materiality as continuous with other forms of material culture.  We need to understand how they are generated, how they are analysed, how they produce knowledge, and what this means in epistemological terms.

Shortly after the completion of my NESTA residency at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, I was invited to present my research findings at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Under the direction of Professor Lorraine Daston, the ‘History of Scientific Observation’ project had just got underway, and I chose to make a contribution to this project with an extensive paper about numerical databases in recent astrophysical research.  In particular, the paper concerns the coming into being, use and impact of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine which for thirty years had been at the heart of data generation in UK astronomy.

This pivotal instrument was designed by Ed Kibblewhite on the cusp of the 1970s and operated by Mike Irwin at the Institute of Astronomy until 2005, when it was finally decommissioned.  The photograph you see above, taken by IoA Graphics Officer Amanda Smith, shows it leaving the building that was constructed to house it.

The main function of the APM was to scan very high quality all-sky survey photographic plates of the near universe and turn the numerical data generated into coherent, searchable databases. Its use precedes the wide use in telescopes of particle detecting CCDs (charge couple devices) which deliver a constant stream of numerical data. As such, it was the machine that produced an entire algorithmic lexicon for understanding the universe.

Here is an abstract of the paper, which I am currently preparing for publication:

What does “observation” mean in a digital age and how is this related to its origins in eras when visual culture was more physically tangible? Beginning with the material culture of astronomical photography and extending into current computational astrophysics, this paper traces the intertwined evolutions of data and image in astronomical practice. I will argue that, far from there existing a philosophical or methodological split between those practitioners who use images and those who use logics as ’observational’ tools, in astronomy image and logic are synonymous, collapsed into each other.

I will explore this phenomenon in part through its origin in traditional observational practices of technical and computational data extraction from photographs of the sky over a hundred year period, showing how this ’tribal memory’ affects not only contemporary astronomers’ relationship with avalanches of post-digital data, but also in turn culturally informs the production of present-day images synthesized from the accumulated data itself. The paper pays close attention particularly to the 1970s, a period in which overlap between the material culture of ’sky survey’ photographs, the design of automatic measuring devices and the rapid evolution of computer power — all functioning at the very limit of their capacities — created a nexus of image-data systems which enshrined the mobile equivalence between the two.

This evolving relationship from image to data and back again to image via scanners, computers and display technologies is a very important one for science in general and for culture at large in the last 40 years. In astronomy, the build-up of large data sets in what has been a supremely visual science of light extends the very notion of what the adjective ‘visual’ means and thus it is a good test case to examine these cultural changes.

Starting with an overview of recent historical, sociological and art historical attention paid to late 20th century astrophysics, I show different approaches to the visual culture of astronomy and to notions of aesthetics. I conclusion, I propose a mathematical sublime at the core of the production of photo-illusory visualisations of the universe produced for public consumption, and suggest that the feature missing from a clear understanding of all image-making in contemporary science is the still undeveloped context of a logic of aesthetics.


This project is one of several outcomes of my NESTA residency at the IoA: another was the assistant curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

It was to be the first of several visits to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science as a guest researcher. On that occasion in 2006 it was fantastic to be able to compare notes across astronomical image and data with photo historian Dr Kelley Wilder (now running the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University) and historian of 19th century physics and astronomy, Dr Charlotte Bigg (now a senior researcher at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris), both of whom were at the MPIWG at that time.

I have also more recently been a guest researcher again at the MPIWG in March of 2012, developing an exhibition project and giving the Institute Colloquium on 21 March 2012 — about the very different subject of natural history museums.


Further Links:   Institute of Astronomy University of Cambridge; History of Scientific Observation, MPIWG; Dr Kelley Wilder; Dr Charlotte Bigg

[Image References: the decommissioning of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine (Amanda Smith, 2005); black and white photo of the prototype automatic plate measuring machine by Ed Kibblewhite]