Science & Education

, Volume 22, Issue 5, pp 1167–1189 | Cite as

Reading Instruments: Objects, Texts and Museums

  • Katharine Anderson
  • Mélanie Frappier
  • Elizabeth Neswald
  • Henry Trim


Science educators, historians of science and their students often share a curiosity about historical instruments as a tangible link between past and present practices in the sciences. We less often integrate instruments into our research and pedagogy, considering artefact study as the domain of museum specialists. We argue here that scholars and teachers new to material culture can readily use artefacts to reveal rich and complex networks of narratives. We illustrate this point by describing our own lay encounter with an artefact turned over for our analysis during a week-long workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The text explains how elements as disparate as the military appearance of the instrument, the crest stamped on its body, the manipulation of its telescopes, or a luggage tag revealed the object’s scientific and political significance in different national contexts. In this way, the presence of the instrument in the classroom vividly conveyed the nature of geophysics as a field practice and an international science, and illuminated relationships between pure and applied science for early twentieth century geologists. We conclude that artefact study can be an unexpectedly powerful and accessible tool in the study of science, making visible the connections between past and present, laboratory and field, texts and instruments.


Scientific Instrument Material Culture Material Object Torsion Balance Analytical Operation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors would like to thank the Canada Science and Technology Museum, its curators, conservators, and staff and the organizers of the 2009 Reading Artifacts: Summer Institute in the Material Culture of Science, especially David Pantalony, Richard Kremer, Roland Wittje and Randall Brooks. We are moreover indebted to the anonymous referees who provided us with insightful and useful comments. Thanks also to J. Cameron Roberts for his research assistance on the project. Mélanie Frappier would also like to acknowledge financial support from the SSHRC Strategic Knowledge Cluster Situating Science for her participation to the workshop and the development of similar initiatives in Nova Scotia.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katharine Anderson
    • 1
  • Mélanie Frappier
    • 2
  • Elizabeth Neswald
    • 3
  • Henry Trim
    • 4
  1. 1.Science and Technology StudiesYork UniversityTorontoCanada
  2. 2.History of Science and Technology ProgrammeUniversity of King’s CollegeHalifaxCanada
  3. 3.Department of HistoryBrock UniversitySt. CatharinesCanada
  4. 4.Department of HistoryUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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