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ARTECHNE – Technique in the Arts, 1500-1950

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Interview with Sven Dupré on ‘Materialized Identities’ project website

Originally published on August 2, 2017 on the Materialized Identities project website 
By Michèle Seehafer

Sven Dupré is Professor of History of Art, Science and Technology at Utrecht University, and the University of Amsterdam. He is the Scientific Director of the project ARTECHNE: Technique in the Arts: Concepts, Practices, Expertise, 1500–1950, which is supported by a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant. He is the author of De Optica van Galileo Galilei (KVAB 2001) and has published on a wide range of topics on the history of early modern science, technology, and art in Italy, the Spanish Netherlands, Germany, Britain, and France. The many works he has co-edited include Early Modern Color Worlds (Brill 2016), Embattled Territory: The Circulation of Knowledge in the Spanish Netherlands (Academia Press/LannooCampus 2015), and Laboratories of Art: Alchemy and Art Technology from Antiquity to the 18th Century (Springer 2014). He recently co-edited Knowledge and Discernment in the Early Modern Arts (Routledge 2017) with Christine Göttler.

At the international conference “WerkStattWissen – The Work of Art: Material and Technology in Sources and Workshop Practice” at the Bern University of the Arts, I had the chance to talk to Sven Dupré about his current research and his engagement with material culture studies.


Michèle Seehafer: When and why did you become interested in material culture studies?

Sven Dupré: I became interested in the topic as a result of my interest in the history of science, and more specifically, the work I did for my dissertation on observational practices – the use of telescopes and other sorts of optical objects – in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For example, I looked through Galileo’s telescope to understand what it actually meant to use such an instrument. When you look through it, you realize that all you can see is a small light spot at the very end of a dark tube. Reconstructing observational practice, as I did in my dissertation, was part of a larger movement in the study of the history of science. As a first step, history of science moved from reconstructing scientific practice – that’s to say, what scientists do and did – to studying the material culture of science. It then went on to broaden its scope from scientific instruments to such things as art works and other forms of material culture in trying to understand in what ways material objects can be carriers of knowledge. Do objects carry knowledge or transmit knowledge? These questions eventually resulted in the book Silent Messengers (with Christoph Lüthy, Silent Messengers: The Circulation of Material Objects of Knowledge in the Early Modern Low Countries, LIT 2011). That’s my personal trajectory but I think this is part of broader shifts in the study of the history of science in the past 10–15 years.

Did material culture studies shape your inter- and/or transdisciplinary scholarship?

Yes, of course. It is through material culture studies that I have developed larger, interdisciplinary questions, connecting history of science to art history as well as to other disciplines dealing with materials and materiality. I am now arguing for the establishment of a new interdisciplinary field, which I would describe as “history of making”. This new interdisciplinary field draws on several different disciplines, such as art history, history of science and technology, anthropology etc. I think that the new discipline of technical art history – which is not really new, but I mean in the sense that it now enjoys wide acceptance – will play a leading role in this “history of making”. Art historians are experts when it comes to materials and materiality. This is also true for conservators. Here it could be very fruitful to re-direct conservators’ expertise from questions of conservation to the study of the processes of making. I think that this is the direction in which we should be moving.

It’s only recently that the history of emotions has been highlighted in relation to materiality and vice versa; initially the latter was linked mainly to economic and production aspects. How do you understand and evaluate the relationship between objects and emotions?

Although I fully see the potential of material culture studies connecting to emotions, it is something that plays only a minor role in my own work. Perhaps in my current work on ‘failure’ affects like hope and desire will also play a role. What is much more strongly present in my work, I think, is sensory experience. Reconstruction and re-enactment can help to bring sensory experiences back to the surface. Through recreating or re-working processes, especially if they no longer exist, we can get closer to historical sensory experiences. My interest in performative methods goes back to my earliest work on telescopes and optics. It is only possible to study historical visual experience, which is now lost, through re-enactment. As historians of material culture, we need to embrace the possibilities of performative methodologies.

 In your research, what kind of sources proved to be the most fruitful for you?

I started out as a more traditional “textual historian”, with a strong interest in images. Through the study of material culture I had the opportunity to collaborate with museums and contribute to exhibitions in Florence, and later on, in Dusseldorf. For me, exhibition making has been a most rewarding experience. Recently, I have found it very exciting to explore what we can do with performance. One of the things we are concerned with in the ARTECHNE-project, and which I would see in terms of re-enactment rather than reconstruction, is the question of the role of texts in learning a craft. In the past year, we took Willem van Laer’s Weg-wyzer voor aankoomende zilversmeeden, an eighteenth-century manual on silver-smithing, as our starting point. We recreated an eighteenth-century learning environment, involving a master and an apprentice, to see how craft skills are and were acquired. Re-enactment has been important as a method for quite some time in several disciplines, but I think that we can now talk across disciplinary boundaries.

Has the engagement with material culture studies influenced your collaboration with museums and archives?

Going to museums and talking to the curators, studying the objects and having a chance to look at and handle them, including making replicas to enable you to do things which, for conservational reasons, you couldn’t do with the originals, is key to my work. What I have found most gratifying and most profitable is talking to conservators. Despite their expertise, they often do not have a voice in academic work. In the ARTECHNE-project, we have integrated them into our group and developed a language to bridge the divide between the disciplines. This is not something I would have done 15 years ago, but I hope that it becomes the standard thing to do. 

What is the trajectory of material culture studies? How do you think material culture studies will develop in the next years?

One part of the answer is the emerging field of “history of making” which I have already mentioned. I am convinced that we are moving in this direction and that we can expect new and spectacular insights if we continue this way. The other thing that I would like to add is that it would be most fruitful if material culture studies could undo the dichotomy between culture and material, between mind and matter. This is Tim Ingold’s call in Materials against Materiality (in: Archaeological Dialogues, 14 (1), 2007), which we can answer by studying materials instead of materiality. I would find it really exciting if material culture studies were to move towards writing histories of materials. One of my current book projects is a history of glass across all time periods and across all geographies, taking the qualities of the material as its guiding principle. I think that writing histories of materials, not materiality, will be the way forward. I do hope that we move in that direction.