My Job In Five Objects

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by Kristen Frederick-Frost

Editor’s note: The diversity of professional homes for historians of science is beautifully illustrated by historian of science Kristen Frederick-Frost, a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, as she takes us on a fascinating tour of some of the stuff that makes up her day job.

As a curator of Modern Science at the National Museum of American History, I want to say my day starts and ends with amazing objects. The reality is a bit less exciting, as I am more likely to greet the day with an attack on my inbox or an obligatory meeting than I am with a trip to the storeroom. What I can say with certainty is that the reason why I am a curator starts and ends with amazing objects. They are my entrée to the study of a humbling, complex, and fascinating world, one characterized by change and continuity over time. When asked to describe my job, my knee-jerk reaction was just to outline the four areas for which I am evaluated—research, exhibition, collections work, and service. But that is not really enlightening, so I thought I would turn to the collection I help curate to help make it a bit more real for the HSS community.

Davisson-Germer Apparatus

Davisson-Germer Apparatus, PH.320414

Davisson-Germer Apparatus, PH.320414

According to the museum’s records, this apparatus was the one that Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer used in 1927 to demonstrate that electrons can behave like waves. But interrogate the object and you get a different story, one that doesn’t fit with the written record. To make a long story short, the original apparatus blew up shortly after collecting the Nobel-worthy data and this apparatus is likely a precursor to that work. This fact is all the more interesting, because the information about this early work is not readily available.

I prefer material-centered research because I can pull out information that can’t be found in the publications or archival material. You can look at an object and engage with a period in time without it being mediated by another person’s words; there’s different baggage to deal with, but I will save that for another time. Certainly, conducting research that utilizes the written record is critical, but I find a raw honesty in the stuff of science that is as beautiful as it is destabilizing.

Celluloid Billiard Ball

Celluloid Billiard Ball, CH.334572

Celluloid Billiard Ball, CH.334572

This 1868 celluloid billiard ball gets a lot of attention, in exhibits and in the press. The narrative that it is often charged with revolves around early plastics and the dawn of the material age. This November, it will help us tell a different story—one about ivory. Thousands upon thousands of elephants died to meet the U.S. demand for ivory billiard balls, hair combs, and piano keys. But the switch to synthetic alternatives, like the ball above, was driven more by money than a concern for wildlife. The National Museum of American History’s upcoming exhibition, Elephants and US: Considering Extinction, will explore the history of consumption of ivory products in the U.S. and its role in the decline of the species.

The point is that an individual object can be used to tell many stories, and part of the challenge is looking at the existing collection and seeing how many places you can go. And because this exhibition will also explore U.S. efforts to combat the decline of worldwide elephant populations via legislation, conservation, and scientific study, I got to step out of the collection and visit the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Included in this visit were laboratories concerned with genetic diversity and assisted elephant reproduction, the history of which is one of the most fascinating things I have learned about in the last few years.

Box of Organoarsenic Compounds

Box of organoarsenic compounds, CH.318500

Box of organoarsenic compounds, CH.318500

In 1945, the same year of its donation, this box of organoarsenic compounds was put on display at the Smithsonian. It includes several vials of Lewisite, a chemical weapon that was developed by the U.S. in the First World War. To say that it is problematic to exhibit this object today would be an understatement. Not because we have new understandings of the capabilities of this deadly chemical and its derivatives, but because our understanding of acceptable risk has undergone a drastic shift in the last seven decades.

Curation goes beyond adding and subtracting objects to an exhibition or a collection. It goes beyond interpreting and re-interpreting these objects in various research products. It is fundamentally about caring for these objects and the people that interact with them, from museum patrons to collections managers. When running up against the deceptively simple question “Is this thing safe?”, the curator is on the front line. With unique or unusual hazardous materials, historical context and research is a precious resource that industrial hygienists and science advisors use to help us evaluate risk. And with a collection as old as ours here at the Smithsonian, there is no shortage of unique hazards or legacy issues awaiting study.

Larson Polygraph

Larson Polygraph, MG.322715.01

Larson Polygraph, MG.322715.01

You are looking at one of the most requested objects from the Division of Medicine and Science in the last few years. John Larson developed this “cardio-pneumo-psychograph” in 1921. Dubbed the “lie detector” in the press, this polygraph and the instruments modeled after it had a profound impact on American law enforcement, forensic science, popular culture, and the legal system. Members of the press, other museums, researchers—there is a diverse group of people who share an interest in contextualizing dishonesty, a very popular topic these days.

My job is to facilitate access to a collection that is held in the public trust. It could be as simple as bringing objects out of storage for a Skype session with K-12 teachers, or as complicated as embarking on a multi-year effort to have a beloved object stabilized and conserved so that people can come see it again, as is the case with the Larson polygraph. The Smithsonian collection belongs to all of us. Please use it. (More object records are available online every day. http://collections.si.edu/search/)

Blank Object Tag

Blank Object Tag

Blank Object Tag

This is a blank object tag and I am hoping to pair it with a new accession. But, what? There is so much out there. Evaluating even a small percentage of the possibilities is daunting—wonderfully so, but daunting nonetheless. As a Curator of Modern Science, I have to be ready to switch from cytology to cryogenics in the span of an afternoon, and there isn’t a moment that I don’t feel humbled by the responsibility and deliciously out of my depth.  That is where I am hoping to recruit colleagues like you—historians of science—to help build the National Collection. Let us know what you think should be preserved. Tell us about the objects you find when you are out in the field. Request objects that would further your research. We need your expertise and involvement. Our curatorial group is growing—keep an eye out for an upcoming position—but we can’t do it alone. Security measures might be tight at the museum, but don’t think for a moment that our doors aren’t open.