What is a complete object?

In the summer of 2009, I took part in a workshop at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) during which we were shown a number of objects from their collection. One was a console from a SAGE computer system, once used by NORAD to detect and track soviet aircraft entering Canadian airspace over the arctic. This is an important object representing a significant application of early computers, as well as Canada’s early Cold War status as an enormous frontier in which to prevent Soviet bombers from reaching the United States. David Pantalony, Curator of Science and Medicine, pointed out ashtrays that had been built into the console. He also noted that, when the object was first acquired in the 1980s, there were cigarette stains visible on its surface—a trace of the operators whose job combined tedium and incredible responsibility. Since its acquisition, however, the object had been cleaned, the traces of its human operators removed.

It could be that no object is ever complete. No matter what you feel that you know about it, some aspect of its meaning will escape you. Whatever interpretation you give it, or how you choose to represent it, some other narrative will be obscured or distorted by your claims.  Curators, like historians, are essentially storytellers. The act of discussing the past involves selecting certain details over others, deciding which voices are too peripheral to matter, reconciling conflicting views according to your own weighing of the evidence. Both curators and historians tell stories that adhere to professional conventions meant to make this process of weighing seem fair and reasonable. Conventions change over time. One generation of curators might restore a given object to match an ideal form that existed when it was new, another might find significance in its brokenness or incompleteness.

A control stand from a Victor "Snook Special" combination deep therapy and diagnostic x-ray machine. It was purchased in 1926 for the University of Toronto physics laboratory run by  John Cunningham McLennan (1867-1935). On the left is part of the schematic that was sent with the original unit. On the right is the unit as it appeared when it was finally decommissioned in the early 2000s. The modifications could either represent damage to a classic instrument or evidence of a remarkably rich provenance.

A control stand from an Victor “Snook Special” x-ray machine. It was purchased in 1926 for the University of Toronto physics laboratory run by John Cunningham McLennan (1867-1935). On the left is part of the schematic that was sent with the original unit. On the right is the unit as it appeared when it was finally decommissioned by the Department of Physics in the early 2000s. The colourful modifications to the original faux marble panel could represent damage to a classic instrument, or evidence of a remarkably rich provenance.

 

The U of T’s Chambers’ Micromanipulator is a particularly incomplete instrument, but it doesn’t seem to me like an object whose incompleteness is meaningful since we know so little about its past. Given the relative simplicity of its mechanism and missing parts, it seems reasonable to consider representing it as a complete object  while acknowledging that, whatever the result, it will be only  one possible representation.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my goals is to recreate missing parts to produce  a kind of sculptural representation of what the Chambers’ micromanipulator looked like when it was used—one, but certainly not the only, notion of a “complete object”. In future posts I hope to show that this kind of representation involves a creative process.  The object itself seems to grow and change as your understanding of it increases. Parts become visible that weren’t visible before, or perhaps had been lost to view as the object became obsolete and the people who made and used it passed away.

A very early rendition of the "complete" Chambers' Micromanipulator on display at a medical exhibition in 2012.

A very early rendition of the “complete” Chambers’ Micromanipulator on display at a medical exhibition in 2012.

There is a second, more ambitious, goal that I’d also like to pursue. Historians of science sometimes attempt to recreate scientific  effects from the past, a process that requires a considerable understanding of the technologies involved, but can produce insights that can’t be obtained any other way. In my next post, I’ll discuss the possibility of actually making the U of T Chambers’ micromanipulator functional again, using period equipment,  to reproduce (something like) experiences that were last felt many decades ago.

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