Public Science: Peepshows, Caskets and Microscopes

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Peepshows, caskets, and microscopes are all things found in vaults and back-room storage areas in UCLA Library Special Collections that have a wealth of historical value. Yet the lives of these objects extend beyond the Library.

Microscopes are a pervasive emblem of contemporary science, but the microscopic worlds that they make visible are not easily accessible to the broader public without additional technologies such as woodblock and other forms of illustration, film and photographs. The Biomedical Library’s microscopes collection ranges from the 17th to 20th centuries, and includes those used by merchants and gentleman of science, to those found in modern laboratories.

Peepshows were a mobile form of entertainment encountered in the streets and on fairgrounds. The one in the exhibit’s poster portrays the Thames tunnel, which was an engineering marvel completed in the 1843. For two decades before and after its completion, this underwater thoroughfare was a source of inspiration for peepshows in England, France, Germany, and Russia.

And lastly, caskets: the casket is a technology of collection, display, organization and conservation. Its place in the title highlights the idea that the cases are part of the exhibit, too. In the museum context, the term was first used by nineteenth century German natural history museum directors to refer to the small cases used to organize items such as shells and birds’ eggs, so that these small items didn’t get swallowed up in the large display cases.

Peepshows, Caskets, and Microscopes started as the title of the 2012 Spring quarter seminar for freshman in GE Cluster 21CW: History of Modern Thought. The students were asked to consider how and where the public and science overlap, where the distinction between science and non science blur, and they were asked to focus on the production and use of images and objects as the sites where science and the public meet. To do this, the class entered the archive and brought the archive out with them. The students’ assignment was to work with objects in the UCLA Library Special Collections to determine what history of science can be told through three-dimensional objects, and how these objects should be displayed in the libraries of a public university.

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