Kits for Cultural History

Last week, Jentery Sayers visited WSU from the University of Victoria, BC. He teaches in the English Department there and collaborates on a number of critical making projects at the Maker Lab. His presentation on Thursday featured some of those projects, specifically on prototyping as a practice for academic inquiry. Prototyping usually lets inventors and innovators develop a preliminary model of a new product. They use a prototype to present their new idea to others, letting the prototype serve as a first manufacturing step toward mass production. For that reason, prototypes tend to be associated with future objects, commercial production, industrial innovation—all realms of work normally set apart from humanistic inquiry.

Sayers and the folks at Maker Lab, however, use prototyping to think about the past. They prototype cultural objects that we no longer have access to, either because they’ve all disappeared or because there are so few of them left that museums and libraries keep them under lock-and-key. In some cases, the folks at Maker Lab cannot be sure the objects the prototype ever existed at all, beyond the traces of documentation the idea motivated. A blueprint or patent may be all that’s left. The work of prototyping such objects takes the Maker Lab team through a process of research and design that lets them ask how such objects might have worked, lending new insights to the history of technology and culture that reading and writing cannot provide us.


Thursday’s presentation introduced the WSU audience to three different prototypes: a piano-wire magnetic recording device, an optophone made from a digital processor, and battery-operated stick pin brooch. That last one got the most attention in his presentation. It also serves as an example of one the Maker Lab’s “kits for cultural history.” Instead of just writing papers, the Maker Lab operates according to the philosophy that building historical objects can teach us about our material past. They built a version of the battery-operated brooch and documented the entire project. Sayers even wrote a paper to analyze the value of the project and contextualize the brooch’s place in cultural history. You can explore the documentation at GitHub.


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