Must objects have meaning?

This week, I was in Winterthur, Switzerland. Lina Gafner and Siegfried Bodenmann of Universität Bern kindly invited me to present a paper at a workshop for young researchers sponsored by the Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für die Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften (SGGMN). The workshop was titled Objekte der Wissenschaft, Wissenschaft der Objekte, which roughly translates as Objects of Science, Science of Objects.*

My paper was based on one of my thesis chapters; the one about the bead-decorated preparations of human foetuses in the Leiden anatomical collections. I am not going to elaborate on this specific topic now, as my thesis will hopefully get attention elsewhere once I have defended it. What I want to share with you today is what we discussed at the workshop. It might seem a bit abstract (I know, strange as it is supposed to be about concrete objects) to those not in the field, but I find it so interesting I’ll take the risk of sharing. J

During the workshop, all kinds of objects starred in the papers: the white doctor’s coat, Indonesian keris daggars, seventeenth-century herbal guides, barometers, brain scans, models used in biology classes, even radiation, and of course the Leiden preparations. In the closing discussion, we saw that although we say that we write the history of things, what actually happens is that the materiality of objects is a way to access their meanings (which can change over time) and their reception history. This, to me, confirmed what I have thought for a while now, namely that although objects do have agency –  they can influence what happens in a network of things and people – but that that agency is of a different nature than that of human actors.

Another interesting issue we encountered was what happens with things that have lost their previous meanings, i.e. because they have been taken out of their original context and the new network they are part of does not remember and cannot (or will not) retrieve the original context. For example, the Indonesian keris one participant told us about had all kinds of magical, social and ritual meanings in certain parts of Indonesian society, but are now mere decorative exotic objects in some Western households. Of course, they may gain new meanings there; for the family who brought it with them from vacation it may be a beloved souvenir. But is that really a meaning?

Kant would say that if you appreciate das Ding an sich, without caring where it comes from, who made it, or what purpose it might serve, that is the essential disinterested aesthetic experience. Fair enough, but in the case of objects we historians of science know or suspect to have had a meaning in the past, like instruments and preparations, this seems unsatisfactory: we want to know why the thing was made, how it functioned originally, influenced the people around it throughout time. We feel we have to in order to do these objects justice, and to answer questions regarding their preservation and display in a museum setting.

Next week I’ll write about something more concrete: something peculiar that I saw at the workshop location, the Naturmuseum in Winterthur.

*Here the annoying problem returns that in German and Dutch Wissenschaft/wetenschap can also include the humanities, whereas in English they are more or less excluded by the use of the word ‘science’.

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