Labs on the Go: Scientific Tools for Collecting Empire, 1600 – Present

When: July – September 2013

Where: UCLA Library Special Collections

Labs on the Go examines the reciprocal and productive relationship between science and empire from the Age of Exploration, through the Age of Empire and into the present-day. Drawing on the strengths of UCLA Library Special Collections’ images and objects, the items on display highlight the technical materials developed and utilized by men and women of science for the purposes of examining and documenting unknown landscapes, botanicals and peoples. The instruments range from microscopes to botanical specimens to photograph albums.

As the students’ research demonstrates, the final products of exploration and empire reflect more than just colonial and scientific exploits. Each item is the result of collaboration with native knowledge and native techniques of recording. Students examine how knowledge practices developed abroad were then applied to local botanical and zoological investigations. Finally, students consider how the language of empire has permeated the scientific discourse of the present day in the event of public health crises, such as the 2002 SARS outbreak.

Labs on the Go: Scientific Tools for Collecting Empire started as the title of the 2013 Spring quarter seminar for freshman in GE Cluster 21CW: History of Modern Thought. This is the second year of a pedagogical experiment which seeks to teach history of science through the history of primary source objects, in addition to texts. Students analyzed the history of the development and use of scientific tools in the context of western and eastern imperialism and examined how science prospered through the enterprise of empire building. The students were asked to consider how and where the histories of science and empire overlap, where the distinction between science and politics blur. To do this, the class entered the archive and brought the archive out with them. The students’ assignment was to work with objects in 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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