I had the chance to talk with Pamela H. Smith about her current research and her engagement with material culture studies during her visit to Bern for a public lecture. The lecture was given in the interdisciplinary lecture series on key concepts (i.e. “Knowledge”), which is part of the Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies doctoral program at the Graduate School of the Humanities of the Walter Benjamin Kolleg at the University of Bern.
Michèle Seehafer: When and why did you become interested in material culture studies?
Pamela H. Smith: I am a historian of science and I have always been interested in craft and craftspeople and how things work and how things were made. When I was writing my dissertation on Johann Joachim Becher, a late seventeenth century writer on economics and alchemy (publ. as The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire), I realised that he had understood crafts and craftspeople in a new way. Drawing on some of the vocabulary of Paracelsus, he saw them as the productive part of society. Paracelsus, of course, made craft the core of his intellectual reform of medicine, of surgery, and of religion. This prompted me to look more closely at what kind of knowledge craftspeople actually possessed. Based on this interest in craft products and texts, I wrote The Body of the Artisan. There I argue that artisans made claims in their works of art and in their texts—as they increasingly became writers—and they began to present themselves as possessing a special type of knowledge that could even be considered a new experiential or experimental philosophy. When I finished The Body of the Artisan, I suddenly realised that although I was sure about the kind of claims artisans had made, I did not really know how those claims were materialized. More precisely: what process did they use to enable them to produce the artworks in which they made those claims? I realised that I had to learn more about how things were made and how they actually worked. At that point I was a fellow at the Getty Research Institute. I shadowed Jane Bassett, conservator in the Department of Decorative Arts and Sculpture Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum, for a couple of days, and found it extremely useful to talk with her about historical techniques and materials. At the same time Malcolm Baker was a fellow at the Getty as well. He and I talked about the Victoria and Albert Museum and its role in educating people about the making of objects. The outcome of this year at the Getty was that I went to the V&A in order to work with conservators, to follow them around. When I got to the V&A they suggested I should attend – as some of them do – classes on historical techniques. Among other courses, I took a silversmithing and a blacksmithing class at West Dean College – which I can highly recommend. When I was there I met Tonny Beentjes who was one of the instructors in silversmithing. After I moved to Columbia University in New York City in 2005, I began to work on a sixteenth-century French manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, known as Ms. Fr. 640. I started to try to read its detailed descriptions of life casting, but I could not really understand the description of process, and I realized that, in order to do further research, I needed to find somebody who knew the actual techniques. I contacted Tonny, and he and I collaborated for several years on recreating the life casting techniques described in that manuscript. The more I read the manuscript, the more I realised how incredibly full it was of interesting information about techniques, materials, daily life, and… just all kinds of unexpected things. I decided that there was a need for a critical edition to make it more accessible.
How has the field of material culture studies and your interdisciplinary work with other scholars influenced your research over the last years?
It is now all I do—it has basically consumed me! It has changed my research entirely. I guess this happened when I realised that this manuscript, Ms. Fr. 640, needed a critical edition. I knew I could not do it by myself. I mean, if I would transcribe, translate and try to reconstruct the 962 entries in it, I would die long before I got to the end. Tonny and I did some reconstruction with his MA students in the metalwork conservation program at the University of Amsterdam. We worked for two weeks and we were able to do dozens of experiments in a way that was impossible when just the two of us were working on it. That is when I realized that if I produced a critical edition, I would need to make it—as we now call it— a “grad-sourced” endeavour. In 2013 I was lucky enough to be able to get a lab at Columbia University and to start an extensive project which I called The Making and Knowing Project. I named it this because it is really about the intersection of craft making and scientific knowing. It explores both the historical intersection of craft and science – that is, how craft making became interesting in the seventeenth century to the new experimental philosophers who saw craft engagement with nature as a method for the new science – as well as the overlap between craft and science in that they both incorporate experiential knowledge. In the three years that the Project has been at work, I have become totally convinced that for people who study materials from the past, it is important to be exposed to materials and techniques, in order to begin to understand them. It seems to me a really important part of their training that they should do some hands-on research in materials and techniques.
What is the most fascinating aspect of the specific materials you are working with?
My main question in The Making and Knowing Project is: how did artisans in the past understand their own knowledge and understand the processes of nature that they were able to manipulate? I think that working with materials gives us insight into the mental and intellectual world of early modern artisans and into their ‘theories’ about nature. These theories are not necessarily codified in writings, but were also codified in tools, in the workshop space, or in certain techniques or practices.
I will give you just one example of the kind of insight we can gain into the mental world of the early modern person: There is a recipe for a salve for treating burns in the manuscript Ms. Fr. 640. It is one of about 40 medical recipes in the manuscript and it seems to be gathered from first-hand experience because it says something like “I got this from a gunpowder maker whose whole face was burned, but I saw no evidence of scars”. It is quite unusual among all the entries in Ms. Fr. 640 because it has a clear religious ritual dimension (which other entries do not). The process of the recipe begins by mixing together linseed oil and wax as you recite the pater noster (a usual way to measure time in artisanal workshops), at the same time stirring in and washing the mixture with holy water. You repeat the pater noster first nine times, and then you pour off the water, then put in new holy water and repeat the pater noster eight times – reducing it by one pater noster each time you add new holy water. At the beginning, the mixture is a dark yellow colour, but as soon as you start mixing it with holy water – I must admit that we did not have time to buy holy water on Amazon.com for our reconstruction – it turns whiter, and it expands about five-fold in the vessel by the end of 45 pater nosters. Doing this turned out to be revelatory, because, before your eyes, it is as if the material is inspirited as the pater noster is chanted over and over. It is also purified by the holy water as the salve expands dramatically and becomes whiter. Of course, we can explain it in absolutely mundane terms today: it is an emulsion. But to be able to see the way this religious ritual was materialized in the salve gave us a sense of what the behaviour of materials might add to the meaning of a ritual, or what the material components of a religious belief might be. It gave us a sense of the worldview of the gunpowder maker and the author-practitioner of the manuscript. We would never have known or appreciated this if we had not recreated the process. In this example, you can see how working with materials can give you an insight into not only the material world, but also the mental world of people in the past.
How do you understand and evaluate the relationship between objects and emotions?
I think that is one of the most interesting questions historians can ask, and the example I just gave on the burns salve does help us to see how research on material things can lead us to the emotional or spiritual dimensions of life in the past. I think that historians, and especially historians of science, tend to ignore the emotional dimension, just as they used to ignore the bodily dimensions of life in the past. I do think that materials can lead us into that emotional dimension of life. Let me give you an example of an artistic response to a making process where the relationship between objects and emotions played a major role. In a collection of essays I edited, the very thoughtful artist Jane Wildgoose wrote an essay on hair and memory and the way that human hair was incorporated into mourning artefacts during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries as a memento mori (“Ways of Making with Human Hair and Knowing How to ‘Listen’ to the Dead,” in West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 23, no. 1, 2016, 79–101). Wildgoose went to learn this elaborate technique of making sculpture of braided and curled hair from a current practitioner named Leila Cohoon. Cohoon herself had learned the techniques and started collecting hairworks as a young woman, finally founding a hair museum in Independence, Missouri. After Wildgoose was taught by Leila Cohoon, she then made a sculpture, entitled “Lost but Not Forgotten”, a kind of memorial of hairworks that people had sent to her. Wildgoose really brought out in her writing how much the process of production made her think about the hair of the individuals that she was using, and this “interaction” with the bodies of the people memorialized brought up all kinds of emotions from memory and loss, to intimacy. Those kinds of intimate engagement with peoples’ possessions and peoples’ body parts – in the case of Wildgoose with hair – is one way we can get into a dimension of human experience that is hard to enter as a historian.
One other thing I wanted to say is that economic history has usually been thought about as something quantitative that does not deal with such human values as desire and desire for objects, although it has obliquely touched on those in terms of market demand and so on. The kind of work that some scholars are doing now in economic history, for example Giorgio Riello and some of Lorraine Daston’s work, is pointing to this new form of material economic history that will tell us much more about the workings of the market and the human experience and human intentions that go into creating markets.
How do you think material culture studies profits from a strengthened focus on recipe books?
It is really hard to investigate material objects just from the objects themselves. It has to be an integrated study of objects, texts, and remaking or reconstruction processes. Recipe books are the textual way in. They do not tell you everything – at least most of them do not – but they allow you to start trying to understand. I think that recipe books are interesting as a codification of making practices in the past, a piece of evidence from the past. Although they can be misleading – that has to be said – they can also help us to understand something about experiential knowledge. One example is this: Many recipes are written under a heading, and then below them on the page are further recipes for the same product that have the headings “in another way, in another way”. What this tells you is that workshop practice is very much about what kinds of materials you have. It is about testing the materials you have, experimenting with them, finding out which ways they can be worked. So a recipe book that provides alternative recipes, materials, and techniques invites the reader or, better, the “user” into that world of experimentation. Probably the biggest intersection between craft making and scientific knowing is in fact experimentation. Especially in a period of non-standardised materials and non-industrialised procedures and production, humans absolutely must experiment with what is around them.
It is frustrating to my students when they are trying to reconstruct from the manuscript or from almost any early modern recipe because exact quantities are not often given. At the beginning of the project, we approached this as something we had work around, and told the students they at least should measure exactly and record the quantities. In the middle of the first year we realised that what the manuscript was telling us is that you have to experiment to find out what quantities actually work best. Of course, most materials were not standardised at that time, so you might have materials from a different source with different properties, or you might have a furnace which is not quite as hot one day as it is on another. We realised that exact measurements would not be useful in an early modern workshop – you have to experiment in order to find out what works best with the tools and materials that you actually have. What recipes actually codify is this need to explore the environment to find the materials you require and to experiment with those materials. Recipes are thus a kind of codification of what experiential knowledge consists in – improvisation and experimentation and the gaining of experience that is the work of craft. It is really interesting to read them from this perspective, rather than just as straightforward “how to” instructions.
Our “Materialized Identities” project examines how early modern objects were able to establish and communicate affective spheres. In your opinion, what will be the chances and future trajectories of this field of enquiry?
I already talked about the intersection of economic history and affective life. I think that your project on “Materialized Identities” brings together different disciplines in a brilliant way, and, for that very reason, I think it is a very fruitful endeavour. I looked at Ann-Sophie Lehmann’s interview on the blog and I think she made a good point – that material culture studies can be a way to foster interdisciplinary interaction, a way to bring together the natural sciences and the humanities. The way forward for the future is a deep interdisciplinary engagement. I am trying to do that in The Making and Knowing Project. We try to introduce people from the humanities to laboratory procedures, and make them familiar with working in a lab. Even though we do not have the same kind of deep scientific analysis as in a conservation lab, it still gives the students contact with laboratory procedures and with the world of the sciences, putting them in touch with experts, which I think is extremely valuable.
At the same time that I founded The Making and Knowing Project, I also founded a Center for Science and Society at Columbia University, of which The Making and Knowing Project is one of the cluster research groups. In that Center I try to bring together the different disciplines to talk and think about serious problems like climate change or epidemics in a new way. You cannot study climate change only from a natural science perspective. It has to be a multiple interdisciplinary perspective and has to take into account the world of human actions – the social sciences and the humanities. For a couple of centuries now the epistemology and the methodology of the natural sciences has been seen as the road to certainty. I think the humanities and the social sciences also possess very powerful methodologies and epistemologies. It would be much more effective if all these fields worked together on these challenging human problems.