Archive for April, 2012

Opening Traces

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

On April 23, 2012, 30 people gathered at the History of Science Museum in Oxford to celebrate the opening of Traces.


Pictured above are the proud organizers of the exhibit, who were overwhelmed by the turnout and the positive response to the objects and narrative after their months of hard work.


We were also very excited about how many people had comments about the different objects and their organization in this particular exhibit. People found the Objects Without Trace section especially thought-provoking, as we had hoped. We have already received multiple comments on the blog with suggestions as to what these mysterious instruments might have done, and who may have used them.


All in all, it was a great night full of discussion, wine, and appreciation for these historical objects. We are sad that the curating process is over, but excited to continue this work through our blog and see how other visitors react to Traces!

Our instruments without a trace

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

We chose three artifacts for display in the “Instruments Without a Trace” case, for which we have little or no information regarding their use.  Photos of these mysterious items and their exhibit labels are shown below.  Maybe you can help us identify them.  Please share your ideas with us!





Sometimes traces left on instruments can actually provide more confusion than clarity.  This piece of wood seems ordinary but it was wrapped and labeled ‘Keep | Of historical interest | FAB’.  It is unknown if this refers to the piece of wood itself or an object that the piece of wood was part of.  It might have come from Oxford’s Radcliffe Observatory because it is likely FAB refers to F. A. Bellamy who worked at the Radcliffe Observatory in the late 19th century.  If not for the label, this piece of wood would have not made it into the museum’s collection.  In this instance, the trace created an unknown historical object rather than helped with the identification process.


Islamic Gauge


This gauge dates from circa 1200.  The writing on the side of the gauge tells us the name of its maker followed by an inscription stating ‘There is no god but God [and] Muhammad is the Prophet of God.’  It is numbered along the side from 1-19 and so may have been used as a measuring device.  An object might have been placed between the two end-stops, which have the ability to rotate 270°.  However, neither the shape of the instrument nor the inscription give any hint as to what it was used to measure.


Unidentified Pivoted metal Plates


The name really says it all for this mysterious instrument.  The two bars can snap together or be separated.  Is something supposed to be pressed in between?  Why do the holes in one plate align with six dimples below?  The questions are numerous, the answers few.



Practice Makes Perfect

Monday, April 23rd, 2012


On April 2, 2012, while the museum was closed to the public, we got together to assemble the “Traces” exhibit.  Since most of the items came from storage, it was our first time to see them in person.  There were some surprises.  Some things, like the penicillin samples, were much smaller than expected.  Others, like the recording voltmeter, were much larger.  We settled on the layout for the three cases.  We also made a list of supports/mounts needed to display the artifacts in the best way possible.  Label sizes were defined and fun was had by all.  Hopefully this will pay off when we set up the exhibit in its final form!

Choosing A Typeface

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

As we get closer to the opening of our exhibit we must turn our attentions to the trace that we will leave on this project: our exhibition labels. Though seemingly a minor point, choosing the typeface for these labels is proving difficult. The labels are not large, and as such we must pick a font that is legible and clear, even if printed in small letters. Moreover, we do not want a font that is too flashy, lest it detract from the message on the label, or the objects in the exhibit itself.

We have decided to limit ourselves to the easily accessible MS Word font collection. So far, the fonts Georgia, Perpetua, Garamond, Didot, and Bell MT have all been listed as possible contenders for our final typeface. 

What do you think? E-mail us at if you have any suggestions or opinions. We’d love to hear from you! 

Waxed-Paper Photo-Meteographic Recordings from the Radcliffe Observatory

Sunday, April 1st, 2012


These baro-, thermo-, anemo-, and electrograms were recorded using meteorological instruments at the Radcliffe Observatory (currently, the main building of Green Templeton College) from 1861-1874. They were recorded on waxed-paper using a method developed by William Crookes in 1854 when he was a meteorological assistant at the observatory (1854-1856). Crookes was particularly interested in how the new technology of photography could be applied to scientific endeavors. 

Though there are few traces left on these images to tell us how to interpret them correctly, we know based on their packaging to which meteorological phenomenon each of the images relates. The different waxed-paper recordings are stored in envelops that are labeled with the type of “gram” they contain. As examples, here (top image) is an example of an electrogram:


And here is an example of a barogram:


The file also contains “sun-recordings” which trace the intensity of the sun on certain days, by positioning a cardboard cutting with markings and having the sun burn through it over the course of the day. Here, is one such example:


We find these traces particularly haunting because they record something so transient: the daily weather. No two days are exactly the same, and it is difficult for us to retrospectively determine with any sort of accuracy past weather on a specific day. Though these objects are not entirely useful since we are lacking the knowledge necessary to read them properly, we do have a vague understanding of what they are trying to convey due to the markings on the images themselves and the envelopes that contain them. Using these waxed-paper photo-meteographic recordings (and sun-recordings), we can get a glimpse into Oxford’s very own forecast of over a century ago!


Unidentified Piece of Wood Marked “25 Aguilas”, Mexico?

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

We came across this object in the museum’s collections very early on, and it immediately struck us as an obvious contender for the ‘objects without trace’ category. This piece of mahogany wood has the letters ’25 Aguilas’ stamped on one side. It would seem therefore that this piece of wood might come from Las Aguilas in Mexico, and the museum label suggested that it was perhaps part of a cigar case. This is all we really know about it. What this object really shows however is the power that the whimsical decisions of curators have over our understanding of the past. No one knows how this piece of wood, which would otherwise probably have ended up in the rubbish, ended up in the museum collection, but it has been diligently stored and catalogued and so survives to this day for us to ponder over.

This piece of wood is an enigma in so many ways- when was it made? Who stamped the letters on the side? What do the letters mean? What was is it used for? Did someone scoop it up into their pocket, paying the cigar salesman as the ferry was leaving, transporting it across the ocean? Did  they exhibit it proudly at Oxford dinner parties as they regaled their colleagues with tales of their Mexican adventures? Did it slip out of their pocket in Broad Street one rushed morning, to lie helpless on the ground, crushed into pieces by a passing vehicle, until only the proud frontispiece testifying to its heritage remained? Was it spotted by a young curator assistant on his way into work, entranced by its exotic markings, who begged his employer that it deserved a place in the museum’s collection, only for it to be shut up in the depths of the store room, labelled and quickly forgotten as more exciting finds came in?

Sadly the vision of this zealous curator will not be ratified by this exhibition: it would seem that at one time the Museum had a great fondness  for conserving mysterious pieces of wood, and we have found a piece of wood even MORE enigmatic than this one (coming soon). For now, at least, this piece of wood will remain in obscurity. But we’re certain there’s a story there somewhere.

If you have an alternative suggestion of where this piece of wood came from we’d be delighted to hear it! Please leave a reply below or email us at