A Visit to the Making & Knowing Lab

By Sietske Fransen & Katie Reinhart

As the start of the respective second and third years of our research projects, the Making Visible post-docs and the Genius before Romanticism team visited the Making and Knowing project last week at Columbia University in New York. The Making and Knowing project, led by Professor Pamela Smith, has the aim to reconstruct the sixteenth-century artisanal workshop as to understand more about the practice of making and knowing in the early modern period.

Oyster ash and cuttlefish bone are just a few of the things one will find in the Making & Knowing lab
Oyster ash and cuttlefish bone are just a few of the things one will find in the Making & Knowing lab

Based around an anonymous manuscript (BNF Ms. Fr. 640) the project transcribes and translates the manuscript and then reproduces the recipes and experiments as described by the author-compiler. The final outcome of the project will be a fully annotated and translated online edition of the manuscript. To do all this, the project’s director, the project manager, and three post-docs work closely together with a large group of experts (from the digital humanities to expert makers), while the reproducing of recipes mainly happens in a learning environment. The latter means that the research group offers graduate courses to students at Columbia University in which the students work with the manuscript, and re-create the described recipes.

A drawer of imitation coral
A drawer full of imitation coral

Since the theme of our current (second) year of the project is ‘expertise’, especially how expertise could be gained by the fellows of the Royal Society, and how expertise would help and influence their visual practices, a visit to the laboratory of the Making and Knowing project has been very insightful.

Every semester, the Making and Knowing project runs a graduate seminar where students from different fields can learn about early modern artisanal practices through hands-on participation in the lab. But, like any craft process it is hard to fully grasp without doing it yourself, so we donned our lab coats and joined the class for a day. The day we were observers, the subject under investigation was making and casting from bread moulds.

Scientific laboratory or modern day cabinet of curiosities?
Scientific laboratory or modern day cabinet of curiosities?

The day began with a seminar-style discussion of assigned readings; then the students discussed the various trials and tribulations of their attempts to bake bread from early modern recipes, which they completed ahead of time at home. Students followed various recipes, but unlike modern instructions, most did not include specific amounts, times, or temperatures leaving students to follow their best judgement (or guess) on how to proceed. A few students experienced with bread baking followed their instincts, but the rest had to wrestle with recipes that assumed a high degree of tacit knowledge. After baking, the students made moulds from the bread by impressing small objects (a key, a toy, a magnet) into the warm bread. As the bread dried out, they formed the the hardened mold which will later be filled.

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Bread moulds ready for casting

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After lunch we headed to the lab, where, after safety instructions and donning the appropriate gear, we were ready to get casting. The Making and Knowing lab uses the early modern materials described in BNF Ms Fr. 640 (bread, beeswax, cuttlefish bone), but modern equipment (hot plates for heating; fume hoods for safety). Over the next few hours, students slowly melted down the beeswax and sulfur (in the fume hood), and created a steady surface by cutting a flat surface into their bread or securing them with clamps or sand.

Melting the beeswax
Melting the beeswax

Once ready, they poured the molten sulfur or beeswax into their moulds. The pouring needed to happen quickly enough that the substance did not begin to harden, but slow enough that it did not splash out (as happened to Katie).

Katie tries her hand at pouring sulfur into a mould
Katie tries her hand at pouring sulfur into a mould

After filling, the moulds were left to set and harden. After fully setting, the bread was removed to reveal the finished cast object. The finished objects revealed that, as promised in the manuscript, bread was a surprisingly good medium to take an impression. In our excitement, we realised that we failed to take a picture of a final object from the bread moulding experiment, but the entire process was probably more interesting and important than the final product!

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The second day of our visit to the Making and Knowing team consisted of an afternoon seminar in which all present participants of the three projects, presented on their work and experiences as researchers on these collaborative and interdisciplinary projects. The discussion was wide ranging, but over the course of the afternoon several themes and key questions arose. We talked about the knowledge that could be gained only be doing – knowledge of materials and processes that the Making and Knowing team learned over the course of their recreations.

However, how do we, as historians, study and communicate our ideas about what Pamela Smith calls ‘experiential knowledge’, if words are insufficient to explain or encompass this type of knowledge? It was interesting to hear from one of the new Making and Knowing postdocs, Tianna Uchacz, that she also found gaps or tacit knowledge in the descriptions of recipes by students. She experienced this by following their essays on the making of bread to bake her own bread for the bread moulding experiment. Would there be other ways to communicate and report our experiences? Not just verbally, but also through videos, drawings, and informal forms of writing? It is clear that these new forms of historical investigation might also call for new or alternative ways of communication.

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A busy day in the Making & Knowing lab

One of the other major points discussed was the importance of failure. The importance of failure to learn and understand a process but also the reporting about failure to be able to understand and keep open the possibility of re-tracing one’s steps. Unfortunately many mistakes and failures are not written down and are therefore forgotten as essential steps in the process of knowledge creation.

Another part of the discussion centred on the value, and problems, with historical recreation. The Making and Knowing lab has gone to impressive lengths to obtain early modern materials, but they use modern heating, lighting, and laboratory equipment. Thus, how faithful can we consider the outcomes of their experiments to what might have happened in the past? This discussion resonated with us in relation to the slow start of our own intaglio project. We are using early modern engraving tools, but we are undertaking the project and learning to engrave in a very modern context. If we can’t devote the time and resources to truly becoming early modern engravers (which we can’t, we’re already historians) then is the whole endeavour pointless or can learning this skill, even in a modern way, still inform how we look on and understand the printed images we study?

Our visit to the Making and Knowing lab allowed us to reflect on and discuss these issues, and we thank Pamela Smith and all of her team for the invitation and for allowing us to join the lab for a day!

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Ready for some history