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, and observation of objects, and thus many different kinds of relationships between people and objects.

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