Tuesday, 29 May 2018

SSHRC funding for phase two: The Social Network of Early Modern Collectors of Curiosities

We are pleased to announce that we have received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada / Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines to support the next phase of our research, titled "The Social Network of Early Modern Collectors of Curiosities." Our research team for this project is Brent Nelson (University of Saskatchewan, PI), Craig Harkema (University of Saskatchewan, Co-Applicant), Lisa Smith (University of Essex, Collaborator), and Jon Bath (University of Saskatchewan, Collaborator). Here is a description of what we plan to get up to over the next three years.

Project Summary

The scholarly literature on early modern networks of collectors and collections of curiosities (precursors of the modern museum) has thus far focused on the fact of exchange: who knew and exchanged objects with whom. Similarly, network analyses of databases and documents related to early modern social and intellectual networks have employed visualizations of people and their relationships, but not to objects. This program of research intends to put a GoPro on the object, to follow these objects through these networks of exchange, moving beyond the mere fact of exchange and who knew whom within these relationships to consider the objects themselves and how they were exchanged, understood, and regarded in their changing circumstances. Focusing on an extensive body of archival materials related to collections of curiosities in England and Scotland from 1580-1700 (the "Digital Ark" described below), our research will examine the composition and function of these networks of exchange, tracing the "life stories" or "biographies" of curious objects as they travelled through these social networks. For example, one such exchange involved a strange stone voided by "a poor girl at Rawden" donated by one Dorothy Ward, a citizen of Leeds, to the collection of Ralph Thoresby, a prominent merchant of that city and Fellow of the Royal Society. In another event, a stone "in the shape of a heart, voided by an ancient person at Ardsley" was sent to Thoresby by a Captain West "with an attestation under the hand of the surgeon." In tracing these events of exchange, we will ask such questions as: Who were the people involved in these collecting networks, and from what social groups or classes? What was their relationship to these exchanged objects, and what were their roles in the production, acquisition, and exchange of these objects? And what does all this tell us about the function of collected objects in the cultural and intellectual practices of these social networks?

To answer these questions, we will model and develop new applications of computer-assisted network analysis to a large corpus of materials aggregated in the Digital Ark: an archive of surviving records of early modern collections comprised of some three dozen documents in print and manuscript, totaling over 750,000 words of text, including catalogues, inventories, and lists of collections, as well as descriptions of collections in travel accounts and diaries. These documents have been transcribed and encoded in XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and connected to a relational database of associated people, places, images, and bibliographic sources. In this phase of our research, we will develop methods of linking entities referenced in this material--not only mentioned people and places, but also the objects themselves--and of identifying and articulating the relationships between them. With these linkages in place, we will adapt and apply methods of network visualization to this linked data. What we expect to reveal is a complex network of participants, from across a wide range of social sectors, involved in a wide range of capacities in the production, transmission, acquisition,

Monday, 15 January 2018

Strange Fish: an opening gambit

I recently spotted this curiosity in the window of a basement apartment in Saskatoon, looking as if it had escaped from a cabinet somewhere. Varieties of the puffer-fish were popular items for collection in the early modern period. Nehemiah Grew, in his catalogue of the Royal Society’s collection Musaeum Regalis (1681), lists a couple of specimens in this vein. One of them is identified as:
The little GLOB-FISH. Orbis minor. So called from his Orbicular figure. Described in most Musæums. Most curiously figur'd in that of Calceolarius. He is armed with long, round, hard, and sharp Spikes or Needles all round about, almost like those of a Hedg-Hog; and is a sort of Porcupine-Fish. 'Tis probable, That the Fish swims with these Needles all closely couched down round about, for that otherwise they would hinder her swimming. But if at any time she is pursu'd, she immediately advances her Pikes, and bids the enemy come at his peril. (sig. [Pv]-P2)
Grew cites Italian collector Francesco Calzolari (1522-1609) (actually, Benedicto Cerutin and Andrea Chiocco, who compiled the catalogue of his collection) for providing a “curious” figure of this fish. Two specimens are also visible hanging from the roof of his “cabinet.”

Images of Calzolari's collection and image of the porcupine fish,
from Benedicto Cerutin and Andrea Chiocco, Musaeum
 Franc. Calceolari Jun.
(1622), fold-out and sig. N2.

Grew also lists separately a “Sea-Porcupine,” citing this time Jan Jonston’s illustration in his Historiae naturalis de piscibus (1650).

Jan Jonston, Historiae naturalis de piscibus (1650), Tab. 45.

It is sometimes difficult to sort out the nomenclature for natural specimens in these collections, owing to naturalists’ and collectors’ habit of naming species by analogy: for example, the “tobaccopipe fish” (with a long, slender body, “from whence its name” says Grew) or the “swallow fish” for a flying fish. The pufferfish, blowfish, globefish, and balloonfish (to name only a few variants) all belong to the “tetraodontidae” family, so named (says Wikipedia) for their four large teeth fused into an upper and lower plate. But in the minds of early modern naturalists and collectors, these fish were associated because they have in common an inflatable body. But while the porcupine fish is closely related and was often, in such collections, conflated with these other expandable, globous fish, it is not actually part of the same family.

Strange fish of all kinds continue to fascinate, in part for all the strange shapes they come in and the comparisons they inspire. They also fascinated then, as now, because they came from a place that is utterly remote to most human experience, a natural black-box yielding a variety of unusual and surprising forms, and then only reluctantly. Watch this space for further explorations of strange fish from the cabinet of curiosities.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

New publication and project documentation

The project has a new publication, on "Curating Object-Oriented Collections Using the TEI," recently appearing in the Journal of the Text Encoding Initiative. In it, I provide a framework for tagging material objects in documents using the TEI guidelines, which forms the basis for our own approach in the Digital Ark. Here is the abstract:
This article considers the possibilities and challenges in using TEI-based XML markup for curation of objects mentioned in historical documents such as catalogues and inventories, but also in unstructured forms such as diaries and personal correspondence. It takes as a case study documents related to early modern collections of curiosities. It first considers how far the current guidelines for manuscript description can be generalized for encoding other kinds of material objects and their contexts. It then examines what more is required for treating mentions and descriptions of objects in historical documents. It argues that the core affordance of curation for such materials is the ability to identify and select what constitutes a mention of an object and to relate that mention to its immediate context, including its relationships to object groupings.
On the occasion of this publication, it seems a good time to draw together some documentation from this and our project Guidelines for preparing transcriptions to give a fuller account of how we are processing our documents in the Digital Ark. So, we have started a new page (a work in progress) where we will gather documentation for the project, starting first with transcription preparation, and then adding other relevant technical features. Over the next few months (with the benefit of a sabbatical leave), I hope to continue to update this document and provide other project updates.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Gimcrack gets last laugh

They laughed at Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a late-seventeenth-century virtuoso, for his scheme of bottling fresh air from around England, storing his stock like wine in a wine cellar, and then breaking it out on special occasions for the refreshment of special guests. Now, a company in Alberta is commercializing Gimcrack's idea, bottling air from the Rocky Mountains and selling it worldwide for $15 per bottle.

Gimcrack is a character in Thomas Shadwell's play The Virtuoso, performed by The Duke's Company at London's Dorset Garden Theatre in 1676. In it, Gimcrack is the butt of gibes and jokes by other characters for his many experiments and activities (including his collecting of curiosities) which very closely parallel the reported activities of members of the Royal Society of London. And London audiences laughed along at the crazy antics of this early modern egghead. Except Robert Hooke, fellow of the Society, who was not amused by the performance, clearly seeing himself behind the portrayal; however, it was probably Robert Boyle that Shadwell had in mind with this allusion. Boyle had built several air pumps and was experimenting with pressurized cylinders, and he had sent his agents to various sites to measure air pressure at different altitudes using an early form of barometer (from Tenerife to the Isle of Dogs). Shadwell's treatment of the Royal Society and the culture of curiosity is remarkably prescient in many respects, now very particularly so given a new enterprise by Vitality Air, recently reported by CBC Calgary. Like Gimcrack, who offers his guests choice of a variety of airs ("Gentlemen, what country air do you like best?" 4.3.231), Vitality Air comes in three flavours—grape, strawberry, and root beer—although it derives from only two locations, both in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a man ahead of his time.

Friday, 4 November 2016

New Project on Sir Hans Sloane's Manuscript Catalogues

We are delighted to hear news of Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane's Catalogues of His Collections, a new research project based at the British Museum in collaboration with the Department of Information Studies at University College London, with funding from the Leverhulme Trust. Sir Hans Sloane was a a crucial figure in the history, marking the transition from the seventeenth-century collector of curiosities to an early modern builder of a museum that would become the monumental British museum. The project is led by Dr Kim Sloan as Principal Investigator, together with Co-Investigator Dr Julianne Nyhan and Senior Research Assistant is Dr Martha Fleming. The researchers provide this description of the project:
The objective of Enlightenment Architectures: Sir Hans Sloane’s catalogues of his collections is to understand the intellectual structures of Sloane’s own manuscript catalogues of his collections and with them the origins of the Enlightenment disciplines and information management practices they helped to shape. The project will employ a pioneering interdisciplinary combination of curatorial, traditional humanities and Digital Humanities research to examine Sloane’s catalogues which reveal the way in which he and his contemporaries collected, organised and classified the world, through their descriptions, cross-references and codes. The project will draw on the research framework that emerged from the 2012 AHRC-funded 'Sloane's Treasures' workshops, and findings will make significant contributions to histories of information science, histories of collections, and philosophy of knowledge, and will benefit a wide range of other disciplines as well.
The project will transcribe and analyze six major manuscript catalogues from 1680-1753 involving remnant collections held at the British Library, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum. Watch this space for notice of the project website, coming soon.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Cabinet of Curiosities as Knowledge Environment

In my work on INKE: Implementing New Knowledge Environments (www.inke.ca), much of my focus was on the history of the book as a knowledge environment and its implications for the way in which we think about developing new, digital knowledge environments (see for example ArchBook). In my recently published article on "The Museum as Knowledge Environments", I pursue this idea in the context of museum history and the implications for delivery of museum content on the Web. In the early days of what would become the modern museum, the cabinet of curiosities was a site for the serious pursuit of knowledge. These were multi-faceted and dynamic environments, closely related and often integrated with other kinds of spaces for the pursuit of knowledge, including libraries, botanical gardens, laboratories, and other work spaces. The University of Leiden, for example, incorporated a cabinet of curiosity in its anatomy theatre. An English catalogue of this collection includes ethnographic objects ("Some Indian Darts"; "A Pair of Sandals or Slippers from the Kingdom of Siam"), remnants of exotic and strange animals ("The Hide of a Sea-Horse"; "A Little Box, wherein is some blood of a Crocodile") and the simply bizarre ("The Entrails of a Man of which is made a Shirt").

In the English context, the Royal Society's collection (or "Repository") served as a database of objects gathered, examined, and discussed by its members and associates in their meetings and their Philosophical Transactions. In this article, I focus on the interplay of textual and empirical modes of knowing as exemplified in a couple of cases from Nehemiah Grew's catalogue of the Royal Society's Repository as a basis for providing a framework for thinking about the representation of museum objects in new kinds of knowledge environments.

Abstract Early modern cabinets of curiosities (precursors of the modern museum) were sites for collecting and generating object-centred knowledge in the early days of empiricism, but they were equally dependent on text-based ways of knowing and disseminating knowledge. These collections thus provide an important historical point of reference for thinking about the possibilities of new knowledge environments for representing cultural heritage objects on the Web, which presents new possibilities for textual and visual representation. After elaborating the historical context of early modern collections as knowledge environments, this paper concludes with some principles for representing cultural heritage objects to support scholarship in the humanities.

See the full article in Scholarly and Research Communication.


Blancken, Gerard. A catalogue of all the cheifest rarities in the publick theater and Anatomie-Hall, of the University of Leyden ... which are so set in order that all may easily bee found in their places. London, 1697.

Grew, Nehemiah. Musæum Regalis Societatis, Or, a catalogue & description of the natural and artificial rarities belonging to the Royal Society and preserved at Gresham College. London, 1681.

Nelson, Brent. "The Museum as Knowledge Environment." Scholarly and Research Communication 6.3 (2015): 1-15. http://src-online.ca/index.php/src/article/viewFile/225/438