Tuesday, 8 January 2013

King Arthur's Table: From Cavendish to Whipple

Remember when I found King Arthur's Round Table?  I told the story way back in my second ever blog post.  Go and have a read if you've not already - it's quite the Indiana Jones adventure.  Or just skip to the summary below...

SUMMARY: Six-foot model of "my" equatorium built for top historian of science Derek de Solla Price in 1950s.  Long lost.  Found but not identified and renamed "King Arthur's Table" by witty cataloguer.  Found in the Whipple stores by me, with help from the curators.

Now I've just started a new project studying this model.  My research will be part of the Connecting with Collections programme run by the University of Cambridge Museums.  It's a six-month research-based internship, and we interns will be blogging as a group here.

So what's the research about?
King Arthur's Table symbolizes a fascinating moment in the history of science and of Cambridge University.  It was built in the Cavendish Laboratory - in the same building, at almost exactly the same time, that Crick and Watson were working on the structure of DNA.  In the same year as that great breakthrough, 1953, Robert S. Whipple died.  He had already made substantial donations to found a new museum and a new university department - History and Philosophy of Science - next door to the Cavendish.

Derek Price was one of the first people to work in the new Whipple Museum.  He was friends with Lawrence Bragg, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate and director of the Cavendish.  The "Table" was made for Price in the Cavendish workshops - a 20th-century replica of a 14th-century instrument that, despite not being "authentic", was destined to hang in the new Museum of the History of Science.

daddy and baby equatoria
Tracing this history, by studying contemporary documents as well as the instrument itself, I reckon I can learn a lot about the glory days of the Cavendish Laboratory, the foundation of the Whipple Museum, and History of Science as a new discipline and university department in the postwar years.  There's also lots to learn about the way museum collections are put together and curated; the way we view the past and its representation today.

Hopefully the "Table" will soon be back on display in the Whipple Museum after a gap of almost exactly 50 years, together with a computer model showing how it works.  In the meantime, I'll be blogging here and on the Connecting with Collections blog as my research progresses.  Check back soon for updates!

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