For the second ‘Things’ Session of term Professor Simon Schaffer from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge was joined by Dr Anna Maerker from the Department of History at King’s College London for a discussion of ‘Model Things’ in the eighteenth-century.

Dr Anna Maerker was first up with her talk: “Model Bodies and Model Experts” which explored material that she has written on extensively in her book: Model Experts: Wax Anatomies and Enlightenment in Florence and Vienna, 1775-1815 (Manchester University Press, 2011). Anna opened with several thought provoking questions considering the tension between ideal and exact replication of human anatomy in models as well as how these models were viewed in the eighteenth century and how knowledge of this effects the way that historians regard them today.  Dr Maerker’s paper focused on the Royal Museum of Physics and Natural History ‘La Specola’ in late eighteenth-century Florence which housed a famous collection of life-sized wax models of the human body which was established and funded with the enlightenment ambition of furthering public happiness through education. The talk gave a vivid and insightful account of how the collection came together and maintained itself, both at the level of the assemblage as a whole and the construction of individual pieces; taking us from state funding issues and ambitions to an account of the processes involved in the production of wax models in the workshop. Conclusions of the paper related to modes of expression in model production as well as the relationship of expertise and public understanding in the space of the collection.

Dr Meaker’s talk was followed and well balanced by a talk by our second speaker Professor Simon Schaffer on Automata and their wider role in late eighteenth-century society as objects used to display skill, satirise, admire and unmask. Professor Schaffer raised questions regarding the functioning of seemingly self-moving things in a culture fascinated by the workings of the theatre and of the market, especially in juxtaposition with other mobile things of the period, such as spring clocks and water pumps. During the course of the talk, Professor Schaffer discussed three different historical narratives that automata could potentially be part of: orientalism, anatomy and enlightenment. Favouring an enlightenment narrative, Professor Schaffer worked towards a discussion of Kant’s ‘enlightenment’ as man being more than a machine. To finish his talk Professor Schaffer asked an open ended question about the narrative that still functioning automata can have in the context of being filmed in the modern day; what is the best way to film them? We were treated to a short section of Simon Schaffer’s next BBC programme on automata which will be airing in spring! Watch out for it, but for now check out the podcast and the live tweets!

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