Art History and Medieval History

Ben Reiss answered our recent call for guest bloggers. Here he writes about his experience of visiting the store and wandering between the shelves:

 Wandering into the store-rooms of a museum is a vaguely surreal experience, especially when those rooms are filled with old and outdated bits of scientific equipment. You catch yourself staring vacantly at the shelves, jaw hanging slack and in the grip of some half-dream of mad scientists and old monster movies.

Some objects are clearly recognisable-telescopes, slides and, somewhat surreally, tattered, dusty humming birds. Others need a bit of squinting and figuring to work out such as the projectors and old fashioned cameras.

Most, however, are completely baffling. Plain wooden boxes that open up to reveal tangles of metal and wire or nothing at all. Complex instruments covered in dials and measurements which bear the names of forgotten shop owners in such exotic locations as Leeds and Ilford. Hypnotic twirls of glass and rubber which look rather uncomfortably like objects you would expect to see if you were ever chloroformed and woke up strapped into a dentist’s chair.

My eye was caught by something a little less disturbing, but just as baffling. A slender bronze frame stands tall and delicate from a solid wooden base. Caged within is a stately glass goblet like the kingliest of king cups. Hanging from the frame are threads ending in little wooden balls, just resting against the rim of the glass.

It is easy to imagine blue lightning crackling between the rods of the frame, down the threads and through the balls into the glass as some creature comes alive in murky green liquid wallowing in the goblet. Alternatively a king in a golden crown holds aloft the glass, freed from its cage after a year and a day of battles and quests. I’m sure the truth is much more practical, but what’s life without a little impracticality, eh?

Ben with one of the mystery object he picked from the store

Poking through a cardboard box (‘acid-free plain white paper!’) I found my next object or, to be precise, next three objects. The shelves were full of clunky glass slides but most showed comets or the effects of magnetism or schematics for mind-control machines (or something). These were different-a series of Victorian portraits of men with fabulous beards or nervous clean-shaven chins and even (shock-horror!) the occasional woman.

First out of the box was a stern gentleman glaring furiously out at the viewer through glasses, his mutton chops positively bristling with indignation. He’s clearly a mad scientist (or, possibly, the sort of man who might strap you into a dentist’s chair) and brings to mind Dr Jekyll just after he’s taken the potion that turns him into Mr Hyde.

Slide number two was Il Signor, a pale Italian looking past us into the distance, his clear face untouched by stubble. Who knows what thoughts were passing behind his eyes but it seems they are not entirely untroubled; maybe the young man is missing home, or just deep in thought.

Finally there comes a woman. Frazzled hair rises unsteadily from her head as she looks pensively away from us. She sits calmly though, as if in defiance of her escaping locks. All three slides bring brilliantly to life a bygone era of science, just as the cluttered and wonderful objects surrounding them do.

The three pictures described above are (in order) of these three people:

Lyon Playfair, 1st Baron Playfair (1818-1898) studied at St Andrews in the early 1830s and was MP for Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities 1868-1885. He was a prominent chemist and politician for much of the 19th century.

Signor Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) was rector of St Andrews from 1934-1937. He shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of his work on ‘wireless telegraphy’ and was instrumental in developing long distance radio transmission.

Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize (1903) and remains the only person to have won it in two separate sciences (Physics, 1903 and Chemistry, 1911). There is a Marie Curie fellowship at St Andrews in the school of geography and geosciences.


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