Reflections on the first Making Visible Workshop

By Sietske Fransen and Katie Reinhart

On June 17 & 18 the Making Visible project organised its first project workshop. Coming towards the end of the first year of our project, it has been especially useful for us (the postdocs on the team) to summarise our work so far and to see where we stand in relation to the major project questions. To be able to answer questions about the use of scientific images in the early Royal Society (1660-1710) we are inventorizing the visual material in the Royal Society’s manuscript and printed sources, by entering all our findings into a database. This database will be used both to support our ongoing research and to make this material publicly available through the Royal Society’s Picture Library.

There were many great discussions both in and out of the formal panels
Enjoying informal discussions

To fill a database with visual material seems more straightforward than it turns out to be, mainly because of questions of classification. What do we call an image and how do we organise them are therefore not only questions on a pragmatic level – in relation to our database – rather they make us wonder how scientific images functioned on a larger scale in the seventeenth century. And exactly for that reason we invited speakers who work on Royal Society materials, and/or similar archives containing early modern materials in other parts of Europe. Around the themes of taxonomy, translatability, and intelligibility of scientific images we discussed early modern uses of images, as well as contemporary strategies for cataloguing and understanding these sources.

Discussing the diverse role of scientific images
Discussing the diverse role of scientific images

The workshop was successful thanks to the wonderful papers by all of the speakers and the discussions that occurred both formally and informally. Getting our heads out of the archival material and talking to so many scholars who are also working with scientific images was probably the most exciting part of the workshop for us. Even though we have the luxury of a five-headed team to discuss our findings and problems on a very regular basis, the fruitfulness of talking to scholars outside our team has once more become very clear. One benefit is the potential for direct collaborations, for example with the German equivalent to the Royal Society, the Leopoldina. Both Wolfgang Eckart and Heinz Schott gave papers about the use of images in the Miscellanea curiosa medico-physica Academiae Naturae Curiosorum (the journal of the Leopoldina) which provided us with rich material for future comparison between this journal and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

The conversation continued out of the sessions
The conversation continued out of the sessions

Stephanie Moser made us think about the classification of images, and she showed how the field of archeology has been dealing with these issues recently. In his talk about images of Palmyra, Scott Mandelbrote questioned the sometimes grey-line between language and image, imaginative languages, and the role of visualisations in the transmission of information. What has also become very clear from the many talks is the amount of material that is somehow related to the Royal Society, but today kept somewhere else. Think about the collection once owned by the Dutch physician, traveller and Fellow of the Royal Society Nicolaes Witsen: his archive is now spread out over the world, but contains some important material that can tell us more about the function of images in the transmission of knowledge as discovered in previously unknown parts of the world. Another much larger collection is that of Sir Hans Sloane. We already spent a day at the British Library and British Museum several months ago to explore the vast amount of material related to the Royal Society that is part of the Sloane collections. However, the talks by Felicity Roberts and Kim Sloan, but also those by Eric Jorink, Floriana Giallombardo and Noah Moxham showed once more that we will need to connect to other institutions to get an even better sense of the activities of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century.

Summing up the workshop with a roundtable discussion
The closing roundtable discussion

Fortunately we have several more years of funding left on our project, and once we have finished cataloguing all the Royal Society materials we will continue our research in other places in London and abroad. And since one of our project questions addresses what was the influence of the Fellows’ lives outside the Royal Society on their activities within the Society, we look forward to continuing our conversations with scholars of science and art who work on late seventeenth-century material.