Saturday, November 19, 2011

Putting Science on Display at HSS 2011

Posted by Darin Hayton on 11/19 at 12:43 PM

“Public Places and Pictured Spaces: Putting Science on Display” gathered together four papers that explored the role of visual display in science between the 17th and 19th centuries, and looked at displays ranging from spectacle to anatomical engravings to maps. Display played a different role in each, from evidence justifying condemnation to ambiguity intended to encourage exploration.

In her paper “To ‘Better Conceive the Exact Shape of This Wonderful Animal’: The Role of Pictures in Edward Tyson’s Anatomical Descriptions,” April Kiser argued that Tyson’s anatomical images formed a key part of a natural history project. Tyson’s goal was to use his anatomical engravings to uncover for readers the internal structures in order to reveal knowledge of humanity and God.

April Kiser discussing one of Tyson’s engravings (Source: Author’s photo)

Not only did Tyson draw on his own anatomical experience but also by evaluating previous anatomical engravings tried to construct his own expertise. He praised previous engravings when he claimed they captured the true, life-like structures. He was equally quick to condemn others for failing to represent clearly the natural state of the animal, particularly when certain features seemed to him to reflect a dead animal rather than a living one. Two features of Tyson’s program emerge: anatomical expertise was an essential part of natural history and natural history was acquiring characteristics of natural theology.

Mark Waddell’s “A Baroque Sensibility: Spectacle, Public Demonstration, and Ambiguity in Early Modern Science” challenged a historiography that characterizes Baroque art and science as incompatible with the New Science of 17th-century England. Rather than accept this dichotomy, he tried to show how it arose from the efforts of people around the Royal Society to distinguish their work from that of Athanasius Kircher and the Collegio Romano. He recounted how for like like Henry Oldenburg and Margaret Cavendish spectacle and display were philosophically suspect and lacked rigor precisely because they distracted from the real workings of nature. Kircher, by contrast, considered spectacle as useful precisely because it kindled philosophical speculation and inquiry. Despite their objections, as Waddell pointed out, members of the Royal Society regularly used controlled display to convince observers of philosophical claims. This division between the Royal Society and Kircher seems to reflect a broader aesthetic that existed between Rome and London and, perhaps, has something to do with religious ideologies and the role of spectacle in Catholicism and Protestantism.

Carin Berkowitz used her “Beyond the ‘Book’ of Nature: Putting Pictures in their Place in Systems of Visual Displays of Anatomy” to continue her argument against Daston and Gallison and the proper interpretation of atlases in the 19th century.

Carin Berkowitz talks about visual sources in 19th-century anatomy (Source: Author’s photo)

Instead of privileging atlases, Berkowitz argued that anatomy was taught through a visual system of displays that included books, wax models, instruments, and other forms of material culture. The system arose, she claimed, because anatomists realized that dissected bodies very rapidly became a brown soupy mess and therefore useless for teaching anatomy. She wants to see these systems as dynamic and interactive—teachers and students passed objects around, they created new wax models, they assembled collections of objects and books. She argues that in making wax models anatomists “were preserving nature” not in some idealized sense but as it actually was. Likewise, their engravings did not rely on some idealizing drive. Turning to atlases, she suggested that the large, elephant folio type atlases captured nature because they included “actual-size engravings” and were made to display “a natural distribution of parts.”1 Her main argument focuses on what she considers a two-fold misreading of atlases by Daston and Gallison in their book Objectivity: first, atlases only make sense in the context of broader systems and, second, they are not idealizing but rather capture nature.

The last paper, Thomas Anderson’s “Mapping Madagascar: Maps as Visual Interpretations,” recounted how maps of Madagascar had shifted over the centuries as their functions had evolved.

Thomas Anderson talking about a mid-19th-century map of Madagascar (Source: Author’s photo)

Initially, popular maps of Madagascar served to make the island part of the known world. These early maps also served to encourage exploration by mapping a largely unknown interior of the island. Fictional mountains and rivers were placed throughout the interior. Then, early travelogues reproduced these fictionalized maps in order to lend authority to the narrative. In these cases, accuracy was not a meaningful question. Instead, a visual representation conveyed a certain authority. By the mid-19th century, cartographers and explorers were increasingly trying to bring scientific credibility to their work by providing “accurate” maps of their journeys into the interior of the island. Accuracy here was conveyed through precision and the use of instruments. These maps become proof of scientific progress. Throughout Anderson’s paper maps are enlisted larger social projects. Representing Madagascar always served ulterior motives—encourage exploration, undergird authority, demonstrate the power of science and, by extension, the cultural supremacy of Europeans.
1Berkowitz skipped “pedagogical books because they are simple as are their uses.” What would this story look like if “pedagogical books” were included?.

Tags: anatomy, april kiser, athanasius kircher, atlases, carin berkowitz, displaying science, edward tyson, hss 2011, mark waddell