A Historian in a Lab?
When I was learning how to study history during graduate school, I had no idea that I would end up teaching it in a laboratory for three years…
From 2014-2017, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow and a team member of the Making and Knowing Project (M&K) directed by Pamela H. Smith, Seth Low Professor of History and Director of the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University.
M&K undertakes the textual and practical analysis of a late 16th-century anonymous French manuscript compilation of artisanal recipes on deposit at the Bibliothèque nationale de France known as Ms. Fr. 640.
The graduate laboratory-seminar, “Craft and Science: Objects and Their Making in the Early Modern World” is an integral part of M&K, co-taught by Pamela and the postdocs working on the project. Our students come from various disciplines: Art History, Anthropology, Architecture, Creative Writing, History, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and English Literature.
Students reconstruct manuscript entries that integrate their hands-on laboratory experiences into annotation essays. Topics cover fish glue, silkworm cultivation, making a self-playing spinet, imitation gemstones, life casting butterfly wings and pansies, and a host of other unexpected things. These essays make an argument about what their research reveals about process, materials, and 16th-century culture and society. They are presented in the open access online edition of Ms. Fr. 640 hosted by Columbia University Libraries.
One of the most significant take-aways from my experience on the M&K project is a healthy respect for the utility of failure.
… in the course of their reconstruction experiments, M&K students encounter failure in an amazing variety of forms. In working closely with the students on their projects, I’ve had the chance to come to terms with its transformative power. I now understand failure as a catalyst for curiosity, and how embracing it as a teaching and research methodology opens texts and materials up to new kinds of questions.
Come see what we historians have been up to in the laboratory…
© Donna Bilak and dbilakpraxis.com (2012–2021)