Student Curated Exhibits
Labs on the Go
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.
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.