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 Scholar and a team member of The Making and Knowing Project directed by Pamela H. Smith, Seth Low Professor of History and Director of the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University.
The Making and Knowing Project 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 the Making and Knowing Project, co-taught by Pamela and us postdocs working on the project.
Our students reconstruct manuscript entries that integrate their hands-on laboratory experiences into annotation essays (topics thus far have covered fish glue, silkworm cultivation, making a self-playing spinet, imitation gemstones, life casting butterfly wings and pansies, and a lot of other unexpected things).
The annotations make an argument about what their research reveals about process, materials, and 16th-century culture and society, and will be part of an open source online critical edition of Ms. Fr. 640 hosted by Columbia University Libraries.
Our students come from various disciplines: Art History, Anthropology, Architecture, Creative Writing, History, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and English Literature.
One of the most significant take-aways from my experience on the M&K project is a newfound perspective on the utility of failure.
… and in the course of their reconstruction experiments, our students encounter failure in an amazing variety of forms. In working closely with our 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:
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