Personal Artifacts in a Scientific Instrument Collection

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Erich W.

Aug 28, 2011, 4:51:50 AM8/28/11
to Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (RASI ) Canada Science and Technology Museum
Dear All,

I’m involved with a group working with historical instruments at the
University of Toronto. Several of us attended the workshop several
years ago and have really benefited from the help of the CSTM and the
instrument community generally. I thought I might solicit your
opinions on an issue that we sometimes deal with: objects not
necessarily meaningful for their own sake, but rather as mementos of
significant careers.

Some examples: at one point we were going through a storage cabinet
in the Physics building with David Pantalony and took tennis racket
that had belonged to a Physics Prof for our collection. We have a
cabinet that once belonged to Frederick Banting’s Toronto laboratory.
Recently we were offered a set of optometrist’s lenses that had
belonged to Davidson Black, an early Canadian paleontologist.

This last item got me thinking—do we really need a set of
optometrist’s lenses even if they were once owned by a significant
scientist? Is there a hagiographical element to this kind of
collecting and, if so, is there anything wrong with that? Of course,
most objects are inherently interesting. I’m sure if we dug deeply we
might discover a way to connect these lenses to some interesting
aspect of Black’s career.

I wonder if anyone here has thoughts about the value of such objects
in terms of research, or their applicability to (reasonably)
sophisticated museum displays. Are they the material equivalent of
the everyday documents and personal letters that an archive might

Best wishes,
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