Materiality: Objects and Idioms in Historical Studies of Science and Technology

Almost a year ago now, I organized a conference on materiality in historical studies of science and technology. I was inspired by the renewed interest in materiality that had seemed to take hold of scholars working in history of science and technology, and cognate fields. It seemed that after the turn to discourse and signs in the late twentieth century, recent work had revived its focus on matter and meaning, and particularly on their fusion in the concern over “things”. Although the conference was interested in the idea and the reality of things, it also wanted to recognize that concerns over materiality went much further. As an historical object; as a story of origins; as a tension with immateriality; as an effect of assemblage and argument; and as a way of thinking about scholarly work, materiality went begging for broader treatment.

The aim of the conference, then, was to explore materiality as both historical object and emerging idiom in historical studies of science and technology. On one hand, it sought to push into new sites of inquiry: How do we historicize materiality? When does materiality become a concern for historical actors and for scholars? How do the specific, local materialities of scientific and technical work figure in the wide-scale sweep of historical developments? But alongside new sites and questions, the conference set out to explore emerging research tools and modes of scholarly expression that moved beyond traditional text into sounds, visuals and objects.

The participants proved to be extraordinary. Historian of science and filmmaker, Peter Galison gave the keynote. And in addition to some fantastic talks, we had hands-on sessions in 3D printing, a film screening, photography and artifact exhibits. We also played with the materiality of the conference itself, holding our sessions in different venues, including York’s impressive fine arts performance studios. Osheen Harruthoonyan provided the stunning conference artwork and image, featured on this post.

If you’re interested in these kinds of questions, check out the original sessions and topics here. I’m hoping to organize some other events to further explore the great ideas that came out of the conference. More soon.