Reflections on Reading Artifacts Summer Institute 2012

The week of August 13-17 I attended the Reading Artifacts Summer Institute 2012 (RASI) at the Canada Science and Technical Museum (CSTM) in Ottawa. Many of the participants were museum professionals and scientists who came to gain knowledge and experience about working with, recording, and displaying objects; others, like me, were concerned with obtaining a deeper understanding of how to work with artifacts as primary documents. We spanned a variety of disciplines, but what we had in common was that we were there to learn how to read and analyze material culture. The process we used borrowed generally from the Winterthur program: the steps included being aware of our first impressions, physical examination of the object, historical research of the object, authentication, classification, and cultural analysis. 


RASI was a very dynamic and hands-on learning experience. The first day we had two short talks pertaining to the theory and practice of reading and analyzing material culture. After that we were asked to wander about a dozen or so objects to consider and at the end of the day we chose one we wanted to work on for the rest of the week. We worked in small groups, usually amounting to three participants. Thereafter, we attended workshops and took tours of the Canadian Conservation Institute and the CSTM’s research facilities. Despite many of us having strong backgrounds in historical research, we were presented with information most participants had never even considered in terms of storing, documenting, preserving, and sometimes restoring artifacts. At the end of the second day we were given our object’s acquisition file and applied that and the information and knowledge from our field trips to read and analyze our artifact all in preparation for a group presentation on Friday morning. The group presentations used multiple forms of media that spanned the past couple decades – from VCR tapes to YouTube – to demonstrate the function and history of each object.


I consider myself a Social Historian with an Adult Education background. I have to rely on material culture in my research to help tease out the history of the men and women who do not often make it into the textual records. However, the artifacts I am used to working with do not include electronics and vacuum tubes! There were times I felt out of my element navigating artifacts that focused on science and technology. That played a large part in my decision to choose an odd object that had no moving parts. However, I was happy to discover that even these artifacts had a cultural story to tell not only about the men and women who designed, manufactured, and used these objects but also where the object was used and for what purpose. As guest curator and keynote speaker Allison Marsh noted, objects have a myriad of stories to tell from a variety of perspectives; they live many lives over time. Indeed, my group’s object was very illustrative of this summation; it went from a pattern for a locomotive part, to a commemorative art piece, to a teaching tool in a museum collection.  This learning experience was a clear indication for me that objects do more than “illustrate” history – they are, and should be considered primary documents right alongside the textual documents that historians privilege so much.