The Mind is a Collection Digital Museum Back

The Mind is a Collection project comprises a digital museum and a book. This review focuses primarily on the digital aspect of the project.

Sean Silver’s digital museum, The Mind is a Collection, is designed as a companion to the book of the same title (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). The website offers visitors the opportunity to explore a series of objects, phenomena, images, ideas, devices, and ephemera. These function as case studies within a broader argument about mind, metaphor, and matter in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or what Silver calls ‘early modern cognitive models’. The broader argument, which is foregrounded in the book, substantially reorients the study of minds and things in the period, but the objects themselves, as displayed in the museum, invite a different sort of encounter than the monograph. This is not only because the visitor experiences bigger, better colour images of them, which can be viewed in great detail (even the bladder stones enlarge to elephantine proportions), but also because she can peruse linked texts and resources. The museum contains twenty-eight exhibits, organized into six main galleries. Each display item is accompanied by text (a bit like the digital equivalent of a wall label, but longer and interactive) that includes contextual information, interpretation, and the occasional anecdote. Among the objects on display are the index to John Locke’s medical notebook, Joshua Reynolds’s camera obscura, Robert Hooke’s image of a full stop seen under a microscope, a copy of Laetitia Pilkington’s delightfully ironic poem, ‘Blank Paper’, and a case like the one Samuel Pepys had made to contain one of those elephantine bladder stones. While most of these objects are associated with a particular figure who used or made or owned them, they are not offered up for biographical purposes, but as examples of what Silver describes as the ‘dialectical to-and-fro between material models and conceptual resources’.[1]

At their best, museums are fun, and this one is no exception. The eccentric physician and amateur geologist John Woodward comes to life in an exhibit about the cabinet he commissioned, complete with inset mirrors, to display his collection of ‘rocks and earths’ (Exhibit 6-7). When giving tours of his collection, Woodward would habitually pause to stare into these mirrors, contemplating his own appearance or even calling for his razor so that he could shave. The geologist seeing his reflection in the middle of the geologic record he constructed offers a memorable image of egocentrism. In a neighbouring gallery, another delightful tale unfolds around one particular tower in Strawberry Hill, where Horace Walpole kept his personal copy of his play, The Mysterious Mother. Walpole never allowed the play to circulate to the general reading public—he shared copies only with close friends—and so when he locked his copy away in a desk drawer in a part of the house closed to visitors, he was able to generate gothic mystique around the hidden text, which he kept ‘publicly private’ (Exhibit 18). There are darker notes in the museum as well, particularly in the discussion of William Hunter’s anatomy theatre, which was supplied by the ‘London gray market in cadavers’ (Exhibit 19). Hunter was an obstetric anatomist, keen to understand embryonic development, and from his dissections he produced many different sketches of fetuses, including a composite image that shows the developmental stages of the embryo in reverse, from five weeks to four and so on, approaching the ‘invisible moment’ of conception.

To construct a website like this one, and to refer to the accompanying monograph as a ‘museum catalogue’, a companion to the website rather than the other way around, is innovative. It disrupts the idea that the only way to practise good material history or good intellectual history (or both in combination) is through the monograph alone. And it offers its visitors the chance to play around with things and ideas and images; to get close to a picture of Pope’s grotto even if not to walk through the space itself. The website has the potential to evoke a wide range of emotions, rather like a brick-and-mortar museum, and this is energizing. Plus, it never closes: because it is open access, it is, at least in principle, more freely and widely available to anyone, within the academy or outside it, who is interested in the period, its people, and its artefacts. Anyone invested in the public circulation of knowledge and the public availability of history will see the value here.

The ‘collection’ of Silver’s title serves a double function: it refers to a common metaphor philosophers and other thinkers use to describe the mind (the mind is a collection of ideas) and to the practice of collecting items to display (in a private collection, a museum, or a scholarly argument). ‘Collection’ is, from the beginning, about ideas as well as matter, and this double principle shapes the project’s methodology. The Mind Is a Collection negotiates the relation between the material and the immaterial by thinking through ‘the idea that mind and space grow in reference to one another’, an idea it terms ‘cognitive ecology’ (Exhibit 1). As Silver puts it in another entry, ‘It is the argument of this museum, and the book that catalogues it, that philosophies of mind emerge from embodied experiences of environments’ (Exhibit 22). But it is really the book, far more than the museum, that makes this argument, and Silver’s particular approach to material history is laid out there: if the significance of the book and the museum is meant to lie in the theoretical conclusions, then the book is still very much in the driver’s seat. The collection of exhibits cannot convey a full account of the conceptual categories at work, nor can it unfold the implications of the author’s method for eighteenth-century studies more generally.

Though Silver’s project is not a history of the museum as an institution, it does ask what objects (in museums or in monographs) can do, mean, or say. The Mind is a Collection is a different kind of Enlightenment Gallery altogether from the one in the British Museum; there, visitors are invited to look taxonomically and comparatively at the specimens and artefacts gathered from across the globe; here, objects are offered up alongside concepts as mutually constitutive. The advantage of the double form of museum and monograph is that it can, simply through juxtaposition, raise questions about different ways of ordering knowledge.

[1] Silver, The Mind is a Collection: Case Studies in Eighteenth-Century Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 14.