Exhibit traces science's path from lab to marketplace
A phrenology bust used by cranium readers as a reference. Presumed late 19th century.
With each cool new gadget, there’s an equally cool scientific breakthrough that made it possible. But face it: carbon filaments, magnetos and cathode ray tubes didn’t get people excited the way electric lightbulbs, cars and televisions did.
You might think that turning theoretical science or laboratory experiments into bankable consumer products is a relatively new phenomenon, but it’s a process that’s almost as old as science itself (think Archimedes and catapults).
Perhaps that’s why a library exhibit currently on campus is exploring the history of such transformations, and how private science has gone public for the last 300 years.
“Public Science: Peep Shows, Caskets and Microscopes” is a student-curated exhibit running until September that highlights artifacts from UCLA Special Collections. On display are items that span the 17th to 20th century and document how people learned about, interfaced with and even recreated the scientific advancements of their time.
Currently, the exhibit is spread out over three libraries across campus: Powell Library (in the rotunda and lower floor stacks), in Special Collections at the Young Research Library and in the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library’s History and Special Collections for the Sciences.
Marissa Petrou, a doctoral student in the history of science, medicine and technology, guided students enrolled in her seminar, GE Cluster 21CW: History of Modern Thought, through the curatorial process.
“The first seminar I taught, in spring 2010, focused on the visual culture in the history of science,” said Petrou. “This time I wanted the students to also focus on working with three-dimensional objects as primary sources, in addition to texts and pictures.”
A peepshow entitled, "Interior of the Magnificent New Crystal Palace at Sydenham" (1851).
Petrou first approached the library with an idea to use its objects collection in an exhibit three years ago. She then connected with Genie Guerard, a manuscripts librarian with Special Collections, who helped her and her students access the materials and design their show.
Visitors can see microscopes ranging from simple cardboard constructions to elaborate metal-and-glass devices, packets of miracle medicines from the 19th century (that often contained opioids), and a WunderCabinet with curios like shells, feathers and glass eyeballs.
All of the items are examples of how people interacted with the technology of their time. In the Victorian era, for example, wealthier families often had their own microscopes to recreate experiments they heard and read about. Patent medicines were widely advertised, distributed and used. And WunderCabinets were essentially a way to introduce people to the natural sciences, conveniently packaged in a box.
While people who see the exhibit will undoubtedly learn something new, putting the exhibit together was also a learning experience for the students. Since GE Cluster classes are designed for freshmen, many of the students were doing research in Special Collections for the first time.
An early pair of 3D glasses that were distributed with an advertisement.
Kelly Miller, director of teaching and learning services and head of the College Library, said that student-curated exhibits like “Public Science” are one way of introducing undergraduates to the wealth of resources that are readily available to them through the UCLA Library system.
“One of the things we're now aiming to achieve is student engagement with rare and unique cultural heritage materials,” said Miller. "Working with librarians and archivists in special collections allows students the opportunity to learn about how our cultural history is collected, organized and preserved for future eras.”
And the students said they liked seeing the fruits of their hard work exhibited to library visitors instead of just to a small circle of faculty and teaching assistants.
Although an exhibit like “Public Science” — with its relics of phrenology and World War I bandages — might seem removed from the modern era, visitors will learn that contemporary marketing tactics, social media and scientific breakthroughs are not as unprecedented as they might think, said Miller.
“Especially in our digital era,” Miller explained. “It's remarkable to see examples of how people in earlier centuries used instruments and technologies to study the world."