Temple Burling, professor of physics, astronomy, biology and great ideas at Carthage College, has been part of the Object Lab team since 2009. He first connected with Chipstone staff through a shared interest in cabinets of curiosities, an example of which is our Rooms of Wonder exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Since we first got to know him, Temple has been bringing his museum studies class up to Milwaukee every year (yes, he is a biophysicist that teaches a course on museums), as well as discussing possible collaborative projects with us. The opportunity came up when Temple was awarded a sabbatical, and he asked if he could spend this year’s fall semester in Milwaukee studying the Chipstone Foundation’s collection.
We jumped at the chance to have a scientist interpret our collection. Since his sabbatical is almost over, I asked Temple to write about his experience these past few months. View an object in the Chipstone collection through the eyes of a brilliant scientist, in part one of two posts, below.
Origins of a little blue and white tea bowl
What is this thing? Where does it come from? What is its natural habitat? How did it acquire its physical features (in this case its shape, its colors, the material it is composed of)? What is its relationship to other objects in its native environment? How is it classified?
These are the sorts of questions I regularly ask myself and my students about the objects we study in the biology courses I teach at Carthage College.
The little ceramic cup in this picture would be quite out of place in the collection of objects my students and I encounter in my cell biology and molecular biophysics courses. In these classes, we study the structures, functions and interactions of the vast panoply of biological molecules in the cell–proteins, DNA, RNA, and others.
If I were to bring this cup into one these classes, the first thing a biology student would note is that it isn’t alive, it never was living, and, in fact, it isn’t even made of carbon-based molecules, the stuff of all living matter on earth. On the face of it, it would seem that this little cup is as out of place in a biology class as I have been for the last several months while on sabbatical from Carthage, working with Chipstone Foundation Decorative Arts Curators Claudia Mooney and Jon Prown.
Carthage College is a small liberal arts college in Kenosha, WI, about an hour south of Milwaukee. Carthage, like the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Chipstone Foundation, boasts a shoreline location with magnificent views of Lake Michigan. But other than that, one might ask the question: what do these institutions share in common–and why might a molecular biophysicist like myself want to spend a sabbatical studying and learning about colonial American furniture and 18th century British ceramics? Perhaps more pointedly, why would Claudia and Jon invite a scientist into their world of decorative arts curation and scholarship?
The answer to this in part lies with our mutual fascination with objects, and the multiple stories and understanding objects can reveal about the milieux from which they originate. Museum curators like Claudia and Jon approach objects from a very wide-ranging, trans-disciplinary set of perspectives. This approach strikes me as very similar to the collaborative cross-disciplinary methodologies used today by many scientists.
Early on in my work this fall, I asked the admittedly naive question, “Why are there so many pots in your collection and in museums in general?” Jon answered my question with a question. Taking the little cup shown above off the shelf, he asked, “You’re a scientist; what do you see?”
I came up with something like this:
“The object is a blue and white cup, made of some sort of clay and used for drinking tea. Its membership in a class of objects called teacups suggests that it existed as part of a set. Based on comparison with other known objects of its type, its markings and shape suggest that it originates from China or Japan.”
Compare this with an analytical decorative arts description of the object that we might find on a museum label:
“Tea Bowl, Maker John Bartlam, American; 1765-69; 1 5/8 x 2 7/8″; Porcelain. Printed in underglaze blue with an oriental scene depicting two men in a boat; another man looks on from a fenced hut. The reverse is printed with huts on an island with ‘Palmetto’ trees issuing from rockwork. The base of the interior has a ‘Palmetto’ tree printed in the center, and a painted diaper pattern border on the interior edge.”
This curatorial description agrees with some parts of my simple ‘scientific’ view, but also reveals some potentially interesting subtleties and contradictions. For example, the tea bowl is of 18th century American origin, not Asian, and it is made of porcelain.
This information led me to the question, “How did a porcelain tea-cup with an Asian inspired shape and decorative scheme come to be made in 18th C America?”
Stay tuned for part two to find out!
Claudia Mooney worked for Chipstone, the Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. She researched objects and created relevant programming for Chipstone’s exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the community.