Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Last week I went to one of my favourite museums in Cambridge, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. My wife had noticed that there was an event that sounded fun, and we hadn’t been in a while, so off we went last Thursday night.

The topic was Fakes, Mistakes and Mystery at the Whipple, and it was about forgeries in the museum’s scientific instruments collection. It combined some additions to the collections with a really interesting and informative talk. The study of forgeries is really fascinating, and it’s particularly interesting to me that even within this sub-collection of what is already a pretty niche collection there are lots of different kinds of forgeries.

Items like these seem to be genuine phonies, so to speak. As it became clear that there was a market for antique scientific instruments, forgeries began to appear, some of them good enough to fool experts in what was then a pretty young field.

If you look behind the cylinder above, you’ll see a sundial. This is a different kind of fake: it’s a genuine sundial of the period it purports to be, but it has a prestigious manufacturer’s name on it even though it is definitely not from that maker. I missed whether this was a contemporary knockoff or a later addition trying to make money on the collector’s market.

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This Persian astrolabe looks very cool, but it is not an astrolabe; instead of the precisely-calculated star positions on the central dial, it just has a bunch of swoopy floral design. Objects like these were aimed at the tourist market. It’s a bit like the mall katana of the astronomical world. It isn’t really what it looks like, but that also isn’t really the point: it’s just going to hang on the wall and look pretty.

So we have intentional fakes, contemporary knockoffs and imitations, and real scientific instruments being sold as something they weren’t. One of the mysteries referred to in the title was the extent to which antique dealers were selling these to defraud. Like I said, antique scientific instruments was (and is?) a pretty niche field. It seems to have been not uncommon for instrument makers to create copies of classic devices just as a training exercise or for fun. Imagine that you have a collector who acquires one of these and knows what it is, or even the person who created it. That person then dies, and their collection passes to a beneficiary who lacks their expertise. It’s not hard to see how these replicas could be misidentified as the real deal.

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Anyway, it was an interesting event, and a fascinating look at the different factors that go into analysing museum collections. Plus there are lots of other good exhibits, including one about Charles Piazzi Smyth and his “pyramid inch.” And these:

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Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Movie Monday: Sarajevo (2014)

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The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in 1914 is one of those historical events that fascinate people. The idea that an event that was the product of so many chance factors could have such a deadly global impact is a deeply unsettling one; like other assassinations, this is one of those historical events that historians and writers keep probing at like a loose tooth.

Sarajevo is a 2014 German TV film which takes an … unorthodox approach to the story of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The actual assassination takes place relatively early in the story, and for the rest of it we follow magistrate Leo Pfeffer as he conducts an investigation into the conspiracy. His investigation is hampered by the fact that his bosses have already come to the conclusion that this was a Serbian plot and the ideal pretext for war with Serbia. As a further complication he’s in love (or something; he’s not very demonstrative) with a Serbian woman in an increasingly anti-Serb atmosphere.

OK, so far, so good, right? The ethnic patchwork of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a principled official trying to do his job in the face of official indifference, a doomed love in a fractured society; that’s all good drama material. But Sarajevo goes to some weird places with it.

See, more than just the idea that the German and Austrian military establishments were spoiling for a fight and took the assassination as a ready-made casus belli, Sarajevo takes the position that the killing of Franz Ferdinand was itself a conspiracy orchestrated by German intelligence and corrupt Austrian government officials. The establishment shuts down the investigation, not out of bureaucratic inertia and war fever, but as a way to cover up actual wrongdoing, which is paradoxically a less terrifying idea than the more complex actual history, don’t you think? Mind you, I tend to think that way about conspiracy theories in general.

It’s well-made enough, and to the best of my limited ability it seems like it does a good job depicting the society and environment of pre-war Austria-Hungary. The decision to make the hero look small and scruffy in comparison to the better-dressed, more old-timey villains is a good one in particular. But the actual plot is weird enough that it serves as a distraction.

Part of the weirdness is … hmm. I’ve spoken before about the kind of visual language of historical filmmaking. From its slow pace to its wistful music, this film has all the signifiers we would normally associate with a character-focused historical costume drama, the kind of thing that would be about, I dunno, a Jewish-Croat civil servant in love with a Serb heiress in Sarajevo on the eve of WWI. This might tend to give the conspiracy plot some spurious credibility, but if you’re not prepared to lend it that credibility it winds up feeling really weird.

Movie Monday: Sarajevo (2014)

What I’ve been up to

Things have been quiet on this blog lately, due to a combination of factors — I haven’t been well, work has been busy, and I’ve felt myself a little lacking in things to say. That being the case, I thought I’d do a quick catch-up on what I’ve been doing, just to kind of get the writing juices flowing again.

Still volunteering at the museum. I continue to volunteer a little time each week at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. I work behind the scenes, in the archive, and it’s mostly paperwork and, like, putting up shelves. This is surprisingly interesting and fun. When you go to a museum, you should remember that whatever collections are on display, they’re probably on shelves. And if they’re on shelves, somebody had to put them up.

I kid, but I find this very rewarding.

I started a new podcast. It’s not really about history per se, although do get into folklore and mythology and other nerdy stuff at times. Well, I say nerdy — it’s all nerdy, just a different kind of nerdy. It’s called Monster Man, and it’s just me reading my way through the 1977 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition Monster Manual and talking about all the monsters therein. You can check it out here, or subscribe on your favourite podcast app. Episodes are short — about 10 minutes — and they come out every Tuesday and Friday.

Teaching has started again. I usually spend the first month or two filling up my teaching and tutoring schedule, but my normal classes are underway. I feel like I’m getting the hang of the admin side of my classes, which is pretty good considering that I’ve now been teaching them for five or six years. I need to figure out some more enjoyable activities for my students. I feel like for years I’ve been trying to teach the kind of classes I would have enjoyed when I was young, which is not at all the same kind of thing as the kind of classes most people enjoy.

Some upcoming travel. It’s my birthday later this month, and I’m hoping to spend some time in London seeing the sights and maybe checking out the Scythians exhibit at the British Museum. So hopefully there’ll be writeups of whatever I see on my travels.

Anyway: this is just to say I’m not dead, and hopefully I’ll have some more posts up here soon.

What I’ve been up to