Reading Artifacts: Summer Institute in Material Culture Research

Reading Artifacts Summer Institute (Photo from CSTM)

For one week last August, I had the pleasure at participating the inaugural launch of “Reading Artifacts: Summer Institute in Material Culture Research,” hosted by and located at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. Bringing together scholars and experts from all over the world, the Summer Institute aimed to break new ground on approaching historical study through a direct study of artifacts. Our wonderful hosts, David Pantalony, Randall Brooks, and Anna Adamek of CSTM, organized a spectacular schedule for the participants, making sure to cover a variety of topics, including the application of objects for teaching and research in the history of science and technology, how to analyze artifacts, how objects can be used as primary sources, and even how to apply theory to artifact.

Prior to the meeting, participants signed up for the Reading Artifacts GoogleGroup to read and discuss various readings in preparation for the program, including the classics: Michael Mahoney’s “Reading a Machine,” which argues for the use of objects as teaching material and research in history of science and technology; E. McClung Fleming’s “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” which outlines a proposal for systematically examining objects and is based on the Winterthur protocol. In addition, we listened to enlightening presentations, including Rich Kremer’s (Dartmouth) presentation on how he applied a modified model of the Fleming/Winterthur protocol in his artifact seminars. What was made incredibly clear through the Institute that the old protocols for analyzing artifacts are old-fashioned and badly in need of a more modern update. In attempting to come up with new methods, as well as experiment with “reading artifacts” participants spent part of the week on group projects, focusing on a particular artifact (e.g. anatomy model, Hoover vacuum cleaner) and outlining a presentation of its history.

The take-away message of the Summer Institute is that objects reveal complex context of change, sometimes more so than textual analysis itself. And thus, objects, being an integral part of the history of science and technology, must be integrated in its teaching and research. I was thrilled to be offered an opportunity to participate in this program and thus must encourage scholars interested in the history of artifacts, history of technology, or material culture, to sign up for the next workshop. This year’s workshop will pretty much use the same formula and will also be held at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

Besides being a fun way to spend a few days in Ottawa, the Reading Artifacts Summer Institute is largely directed to graduate students, post-docs, faculty members interested in new methods of teaching artifacts, and history professionals looking to expand their research methods.  According to the announcement, participants will:

• investigate artifacts, trade literature and photographic collections as resources for research, teaching, and the public presentation of history
• work with leading collection scholars in a national museum setting to explore material culture methodologies and approaches
• use artifacts as the centre of discussion and hands-on activities
• immerse themselves in a material culture perspective of the technological past
• learn the basics of conservation, cataloguing and developing collections in local environments – a growing and essential resource for history studies.

The program will be held on August 16-20. Tuition is as follows: Students, $250; Post-docs, $350; Faculty and Professionals, $450 (cost includes cost of food and a field trip). There might be some financial support for students wishing to attend.

There is a limit of 30 participants.  To register, fill out the online registration form. Registration deadline is June 16, 2010. For further information, you can contact Anna Adamek at


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