Curating Proteins and Fibers

Wool substitution for rubber. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number LC-USE6-D-009482 (b&w film neg.)]

No 1
Past, Present, Future
This year, we are clearing a path through a metaphorical forest of fibers to make sense of how animal fibers matter to different domains of scientific work and intellectual investigation.

Before we start our exploration of this topic, let us give you the bigger picture of what led us to this point on the map so far.

The Working Group began its odyssey through the terrain of “animal materials” with a workshop in 2019 that toured through various processes of transforming whole organisms into new kinds of things through technological or biological interventions. From hard stuff like armadillo armature, oysters and their shells and pearls, elephant ivory, to soft stuff like fats that are rendered into soap or other tissues used to make glues, to the tasty salty morsel inside an oyster shell, a number of different things can count as animal materials (these papers will be published this June 2023 in Historical Studies of the Natural Sciences, edited by Onaga & Douny). In another research mode, we have been taking on the theme of “reading” to take a closer look at how different kinds of scientists use tools, techniques, methods, and tests to characterize animal materials or to address scientific questions surrounding human relations with a particular kind of animal material such as milk and its consumption since the prehistoric period (paper in progress). We also held a workshop in 2022 on “Reading Animal Materials,” which brought museum conservators, archaeologists, and historians of science together for lively discussions to understand practical analyses of animal materials.

At the same time, we are reminded that what had instigated all of these questions about animal materials in the first place were basic things like animal fibers, such as silks and wools used in textiles. Reckoning with this starting point is timely, for we are now more equipped to dig more deeply into questions surrounding such fibro­us animal materials! In other words, animal fibers are not in the rear-view mirror, but something we are actively turning toward. In this period of research, historicizing “animal fibers” means examining how different human actors have sought to define or use them, while seeking to understand why they raise methodological issues for historical study that differ from plants or fungi. At the same time, we want to understand their similarities and relatedly, how conversations and actions in science and engineering have opened up avenues for substituting animal materials of various kinds with other natural or inorganic materials. This stance of looking to the past and future—and looking sideways at adjacent fields in science and practice—has prompted the need for testing a common vocabulary, sensibility, and way of wondering or wandering through that forest of animal fibers.

Lisa Onaga


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