Camille Leadbetter tells the story of her first encounter with the portrait of Sir John Chardin, currently hanging at the top of the stairs in the History of Science Museum in Oxford.
Hello! My name is Camille and I’m a History of Art Undergraduate at the University of Oxford.
Since the start of 2020, I have been researching the provenance and connotations of the portrait of Sir John Chardin that is currently placed at the top of the stairs in the History of Science Museum.
In this blog series, I will guide you through the process of my research and present you with the tools to reimagine this portrait and what it means in the contemporary age.
I will also encourage you to develop and share your own thoughts about the portrait.
I hope you enjoy!
My first encounter with Chardin
I first came across this portrait during a trip to the History of Science Museum in Oxford with my cohort in the History of Art department.
It did not strike me as a particularly stunning or well executed work of art but its dominant positioning and frame demanded my attention as I ascended the stairs to the second floor of the museum.
The eccentric frame that accompanies the portrait, complete with astronomical and navigational devices and spherical globe on the top, is carved in wood and painted bronze.
I did not recognise the man in the portrait, seated and staring out towards his audience with confidence, nor did I recognise the young black boy standing meekly behind him and holding up a 17th century map of the Middle East to which the seated figure points.
There is no reference to the boy in the accompanying label.
The Museum as a frame
As part of my Art History degree, I have studied the concept of the museum being as much a frame of an image as its physical frame. The art historian Paul Duro established that the positioning and whereabouts of a painting hold ‘institutional, ideological and perceptual’ connotations, all of which contribute to how a work of art is received by its viewer.
Therefore, the museum and what it chooses to display can often have underlying effects on how its core values are characterised in the public eye.
Especially for a museum not specialising in art, choosing to show this as one of the only paintings on display to the public could be misleading about its curatorial mission.
This project has involved giving the boy the thought and consideration he has not been afforded in the past — which is all the more crucial now in an age when the traditional museum role of gathering and displaying collections to be consumed and interpreted by viewers and conservators is now being reframed in the light of an evolving relationship between the institution and the contemporary public.
Camille Leadbetter is a History of Art student at the University of Oxford.
Rhiannon Jones, Head of Public Engagement and Programmes at HSM, introduces a new blog series from Art History student Camille Leadbeater, which will focus on decolonising the HSM Collection.
On visiting the History of Science Museum I was struck by many things – the beautiful historic building, the extraordinarily rich and fascinating collection, and also a painting that hangs at the very top of the Museum.
Immediately, the younger figure in this painting jumped out at me — a young black boy with a silver collar around his neck and what appears to be a tear on his cheek.
When I read the label next to the painting, it makes no reference to this young boy.
Instead it talks about the white man next to him, Sir John Chardin, (1643–1713), who I presumed must be a famous scientist but is in fact a jeweller and travel writer.
When I came to interview for my role in late 2019, I felt compelled to raise this painting and its place within the Museum. My nieces’ father is from Uganda, the eldest is four years old and if they were to come and visit me in my place of work how could I explain this painting to them? The only black person they would see would be what appears to be a slave; what kind of message would this send to them about their role in STEM?
I was nervous, but suggested the painting’s removal in my interview and the panel challenged me to offer other solutions. As well as changing the interpretation on the label, I suggested having a similar-sized portrait of a modern scientist, such as Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, an inspiring black female scientist; even if the interpretation were changed my nieces would not yet be able to read that and it would be much more powerful to have a visual counterpoint.
At the time I did not know how these suggestions were received, but I have since been told that it actually helped me in securing the role and that the Museum had already been discussing this painting.
Since joining the Museum in December 2019, I have been passionate about starting a project around this painting to discuss its reinterpretation and its place in the Museum.
When I heard that an Art History student from Oxford had chosen to focus on this painting for her Object Essay, I was delighted. Camille Leadbeater has done brilliant work exploring the cultural and historical contexts surrounding this painting and seeking to answer the question of who this boy could be, foregrounding his story. She has brought her own story to bear on this, as a young black person, and has rightly challenged the Museum on the display of this painting.
At HSM, we believe that museums have a responsibility to our communities and our shared history — we stand with Black Lives Matter. We acknowledge that Museums are not neutral spaces and we have much work to do in order to tackle structures of racial inequality.
It has been heartening to see how the HSM Team has got behind this project. Now our Top Gallery is open again, we’re sharing this story with our visitors, showing how we are working to reinterpret this painting as part of our commitment to decolonise the HSM collection, and asking for their thoughts and feedback.
With this blog series, we want to start this important conversation about our collection with all of you.
I hope you will follow Camille’s journey of discovery and share your own thoughts with us.
Over the last year the Young Producers voluntary group at the History of Science Museum, made up of Ellie Martin and Sam Hudson, has been working with the collection of scientific instruments from the Islamic World display in the top gallery creating new designs based upon feedback from an earlier public consultation project Curate, run by the learning team, which enabled us to identify specific objectives needed for the improvement of the interpretation of the Islamic World collection.
This collection contains many unique instruments including astrolabes. The History of Science Museum holds the largest collection of astrolabes in the world, so we thought it important that these beautifully crafted scientific instruments were highlighted in a more modern and accessible way.
The current display had remained largely the same for at least 20 years and desperately needed a revamp to make it more vibrant and engaging. Previous interventions by our group had added new information cards and a map, but this time we hoped to do something more ambitious.
As a group the Young Producers narrowed down some core themes that we wanted to reinterpret with our new displays; craftsmanship, religion and science, cosmology, diversity and knowledge exchange. In groups of two or three we split our work. Our group consisted of Sam Hudson, Ellie Martin and Phoebe Homer, and together we chose to develop an intervention on the functional aspects of the instruments; specifically, how they would be used when performing daily prayer within Islam.
In the cabinet, there already existed a small section that dealt with this theme (figure 2). However, we saw a few problems with it. Firstly, despite mentioning how some astrolabes contained prayer lines and gazetteers that would help you find the times for prayer and the direction of Mecca (qibla), neither were visible. This was because the front (rete) and plates (tympans) of the astrolabes had not been removed and so obscured the visitors’ view of both. Also, as the astrolabes were fairly small, any close study of them was difficult. We also felt that the current display lacked a fundamental human element, which made it hard for the viewer to connect to the objects. For instruments that were so crucial for facilitating Islamic beliefs, we decided that this was something that needed to be altered. Lastly, we agreed that the current labels were too complicated making them inaccessible, and that the whole display needed to be more eye-catching. Our section of the case is located right next to the gallery door and we wanted to utilise this location, providing a vibrant, engaging display that will draw the visitors’ attention.
To solve the first problem, we chose two new astrolabes to add to the display. The first – astrolabe 47714 (figure 3) – could be displayed with its rete removed so that the clear prayer lines for the 5 daily prayers could be seen. The second – astrolabe 35313 (figure 4) – had a beautiful gazetteer listing the direction of Mecca for 46 locations. This could be displayed with both its rete and its tympans removed so that the gazetteer was visible on the back. Additionally, an enlarged image of 35313 was planned so that visitors could clearly see the cities marked on the gazetteer with translations of their Arabic names. For the translations we sought support from the Multaka Project, a mixed group of Syrian and other forced migrants volunteering with the History of Science Museum. They were incredibly helpful in helping with all aspects of the display and Rana Ibrahim, Collections Officer for the project, was really supportive offering advice and translation. These initial changes helped to make the display more accessible and easily understood.
To give the display a more human touch we decided to include not only historical artefacts, but some contemporary objects. This included a modern prayer mat, prayer beads, a Qur’an and a contemporary Qibla indicator (figure 5). A Qibla indicator is a modified compass (figure 6) that points the user in the direction of Mecca. By adding a contemporary version we aimed to demonstrate the continuity of Islamic practice over time.
Finally, we re-designed the back panel, on which we planned to incorporate Islamic geometric designs (which involved many failed sketching attempts!). Thanks to the creativity of the Museum’s in-house designer, Keiko Ikeuchi, we included not only patterns, but an image that demonstrates Islamic prayer. The prayer mat was our last addition to the case. In order for it to be included, conservation required it to be frozen for two weeks to kill off any insect contaminants. Once it was in, it added an aspect to the display that catches your attention immediately and worked well with the prayer beads and Qur’an placed on top.
After around six months’ work, we installed the display on the 30th August (figure 7). We hope that you agree that the space appears more vibrant and eye-catching than before. The contemporary objects were placed upon the prayer mat, along with two Qibla indicators, to give that section of the display a more casual, personal appearance. All of the labels were rewritten so that they were engaging and informative but accessible, with an enlarged and more modern font. Islamic patterns were included on the base panel and, a last-minute addition, we included a standing label about the first Muslim astronaut in space provoking the visitor to imagine how a Muslim might pray in space! We felt that this extra, fun bit of information would make a contemporary link with the new display helping visitors to engage with the content.
After such a long process, we are so happy to see our ideas become a reality. As a group we agree that the end result far exceeds what we imagined in our minds (and pages and pages of rough drawings!). Depending upon time and resources, we are hoping to add more new displays to the cabinet inspired by other groups from the Young Producers. The combined effect should bring a completely fresh interpretation to the objects, and we are all really excited to see how this project evolves. We would like to thank all of those at HSM who helped us along with way, particularly Chris Parkin (organiser of the Young Producers programme), Rana Ibrahim (Multaka Project) and Keiko Ikeuchi for the beautiful graphic designwork.