Category: Collections

Anything to do with collections of things and museums.

Pre-Modern High Tech

Last month the Washington Post ran a short article by Erin Blakemore on medieval scientific instruments, “Think smartphones are astonishing? Discover the ‘high tech’ devices of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” It was a little light on details, but nicely highlighted Epact, an on-line collection of pre-modern scientific instruments. It is easy while away a bit of time browsing the collection.

Erin Blakemore‘s recent article on Epact and pre-modern scientific instruments.

Since the article was illustrated with a Sloane astrolabe from the British Museum, I thought I’d draw attention to another great resource: The Astrolabe: An Online Resource. The website gives you access to every astrolabe in the History of Science Museum’s[1] collection, which is the largest single collection of astrolabes in the world. Astrolabes in the collection range over a millennium and much of the Northern Hemisphere, from the late 9th-century Syria (one of the oldest surviving astrolabes) to the 20th-century England. Most of the instruments date from the pre-modern period. While perhaps not the most flashy of websites, it is probably the single best resource for studying astrolabes.[2]

The Astrolabe: An Online Resource is the best collection of astrolabes available.

Browsing the collection always turns up something new. Just a few highlights:

  • astrolabe 37148, which has amazing engravings of the constellations on the back;
  • astrolabe 48213, which has an ingenious set of gears (the oldest complete gear train) that show the phases of the moon and motion of the sun and moon;
  • astrolabe 45359, which is a so-called “Chaucer astrolabe” because it resembles the illustrations in Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, especially the cute little dog’s head star pointer at the bottom of the rete;
  • astrolabe 49687, which is the only surviving spherical astrolabe (there are various descriptions of spherical instruments, but only this instrument survives)
The only (known) surviving spherical astrolabe. It’s truly beautiful.

While I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s author’s conclusion—“a visit to Epact is a glimpse into a bygone world — one in which scientists dared to dream and discover”—I do agree with her earlier statement that spending a few minutes browsing the items on Epact or The Astrolabe: An Online Resource will “make you appreciate the artistry and intricacy of now-obsolete scientific tools or leave you starry-eyed over each instruments’ function and a role.”


  1. The museum formerly known as the “Museum of the History of Science”  ↩

  2. If you need a quick introduction to astrolabes, see my “An Introduction to the Astrolabe.”  ↩

Corporate, Personal, and Neon Museums

For more than 500 years people, governments, churches, and other institutions have used their collections of things to assert, display, and establish their own authority and standing. Arranged in cabinets of curiosity, cabinets of wonder, Kunstkammern, Wunderkammern, or museums, the artifacts in such collections often reflect a logic of display idiosyncratic to the collector’s own system of values, the collector’s ideologies and goals. This system of values is embodied in the answers to a host of questions that most visitors never stop to ponder, inter alia:

  • What gets displayed? Of the possible objects in a collection, which ones are elevated to the status of displayable?
  • How? In what sort of display case? How are the labeled? How are they illuminated?
  • Where is the collection located—in a basement, a person’s house, a small apartment, an annex to a corporate or governmental complex, a storage lot, a purpose-built structure?
  • Who gets to see the collection? When is it open? Does it cost money or require special permission?
  • Who pays for the maintenance?
  • How is the museum portrayed or marketed in brochures, pamphlets, ads?
  • How is the visitor’s path through the museum directed—by the layout of cabinets and displays, by some sort of self-guided tour, by a human guide?

Three recent museums allow us to think again about how collections are still used to create identity and assert authority.

The Carpigiani Gelato Museum celebrates gelato (Source:Screen shot from the museum.)

Carpigiani’s recently opened Gelato Museum tells the noble story of gelato from ancient Mesopotamia to 20th century. Like many museums, this represents a particular history in order to create or embellish or celebrate the founder’s own story. In this case the founder, Carpigiani, uses the museum to generate historical authority for its own products—gelato machines and it gelato university courses. The museum is at the Carpigiani headquarters in Bologna. See The Guardian’s article.

Mr. Koch will allow historians and school children to tour his Old West town (Source: Screenshot from “Political and Class Issues Complicate a Colorado Land Dispute” in the NY Times.)

In Colorado Bill Koch’s personal wild west museum is nearing completion. He has been creating his own vision of an Old West town, a patchwork of relocated historic buildings stand amongst new structures, designed to look old and fill out Koch’s vision. When the buildings are finished Koch will fill them with his collection of Western memorabilia. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction insofar as it never existed and much of it isn’t authentic, if we assume authenticity extends beyond the surface and includes such characteristics as age. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction created to realize some boyhood dream, to undergird his own autobiographical fiction. Koch resembles a modern Emperor Maximilian I, who created histories out of whole cloth to legitimate his cultural authority. Koch, like Maximilian, has created the artifacts he needs to fill in his picture. For Koch as for Maximilian authenticity is measured not by the artifact’s historical origin but it’s role in completing the picture of the past, its ability to fill in an otherwise missing visual or conceptual detail.

The Stardust casino’s neon sign is now an exhibit at the Neon Museum (Source: Screenshot from New Museum Shows Off Las Vegas’s Neon Side in the NY Times.)

An open-air museum of neon signs just opened in Las Vegas. The article in the NY Times makes it sound more like a graveyard for neon signs or, as the museum’s own website describes it, a neon boneyard. Like the gelato museum, this one seems to have been founded at least in part to celebrate a business, the Young Electric Sign Co. donated dozens of signs for the initial collection. From the YESCO website:

The history of ancient cities was written in stone. But for Las Vegas, stone just wouldn’t do.
No American city has a past as colorful or as flamboyant as Las Vegas. The city’s story was blazed against the desert sky. Handed down over the decades in brilliant color, incandescent lights and the glorious glow of neon. YESCO is proud of its contribution to the legacy of light in the most razzle-dazzle city in the world.

Along with reinforcing YESCO’s own history, the museum is a conscious effort by some people to claim for Las Vegas some measure of cultural influence. The chairman of the museum’s board hopes the museum will begin to appreciate Las Vegas’s history: “Las Vegas has made many significant contributions to pop culture, as well as culture in the United States. We need to stop thinking that Las Vegas is simply a kitschy town.

If it worked for Renaissance princes and monarchs, why can’t it work for Las Vegas, Bill Koch, and gelato?

[Cross posted at PACHS.]

Ciba Pharmaceuticals and Mid-Century Marketing

A Ciba Symposia pamphlet on Greco-Egyptian Alchemy from 1941.

I know nothing about Ciba Pharmaceutical Products and had never heard of the company until I found this pamphlet in a box of old books.

Apparently, Ciba Pharmaceuticals produced pamphlets on various topics related to pharmaceuticals and chemistry. This one contains a number of articles by William Jerome Wilson, who contributed to a number of Ciba Symposia on alchemy—one on Chinese alchemy in 1940 and one on the mystical developments in alchemy in 1942.

The Ciba Symposia was clearly a vehicle for marketing Ciba pharmaceuticals. Here’s a large ad for Coramine.

These pamphlets were clearly a vehicle for marketing Ciba’s pharmaceutical products. This pamphlet includes three large ads for different medicines: the stimulant Coramine, the steroids Metandren and Perandren, and the antispasmodic Trasentin.

Ciba’s two steroids, Perandren and Metandren.

I can’t help but appreciate the detail and care of the ads in this pamphlet. Everything from the typography to the stylized images conveys both authority, efficacy, and modernity. I am, therefore, intrigued by Ciba’s use of alchemy here as a means of marketing its pharmaceuticals. This wasn’t the first or the last time a Ciba Symposia focused on alchemy. What made alchemy useful in this context?

Anybody interested in pursuing these questions should start at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Not only do they appear to have a number of other Ciba pamphlets, as this search indicates, they have other Ciba materials and, no doubt, boxes and boxes of other mid-century pharmaceutical literature.

Collecting Memo Books

Aaron Draplin arranges his memo books according to whatever suits his fancy, size, color, or just in stacks of roughly the same height.

Aaron Draplin has a large collection of memo books—mostly mid-century advertising material for seeds, fencing, fertilizers, and other farming related products. In a video posted at Field Notes he talks about his interest in and motivation for collecting memo books and about the arbitrariness of collecting and organizing anything. The video is at The Memo Book Archive as are scans of 300 or so of his memo books.

From Trash Collecting to Collection of Trash

Nelson Molina poses with his collection, from NY Times slide show.

Another article in the NY Times raises questions about the nature of features of a museum. This time, a NYC sanitation worker, Nelson Molina, has spent the last 20 years collecting things that other people have thrown away. His collection now includes around 1000 pieces of art that he has arranged in the second floor of a Sanitation Department garage.

Molina’s theory of art is both straighforward and unassailable. When asked to explain how he decides whether or not to include a piece, he replied: “It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it’s cool, I can hang it up and I’ve got a place for it.”

The endowment effect apparently makes us value things we possess or can imagine possessing.

Over at Smithsonian.com’s Smart News blog a recent post tries to explain why we collect things, or at least why we hoard things: Why We Hoard and How to Stop. The basic claim seems to be we value things we own or wish to own—there may be a circularity here that tends toward vicious. Researchers call this the endowment effect.

I am not convinced this the endowment effect is acting in Mr. Molina’s case. He doesn’t, after all, owns any of the objects he collects and arranges.