Past Event

Pamela H. Smith - Making and Thinking through Human-Material Interactions

April 11, 2024
3:30 PM - 4:30 PM
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Online and In-person: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Event Description

Materials are good to think with. Artists and artisans think through and across materials and their properties as they make decisions in their making processes about what materials to try and test, in what proportions, and to what ends. This lecture focuses on what premodern European craftspeople learned as they worked with and in materials. What kinds of “material intelligence” was gained through handwork? How did (and do) practitioners’ interactions with materials lead them to form concepts? One set of concepts (or we might term it a “knowledge system”) that emerged from human-material interactions are early modern European metal workers’ paired binary categories for metals—fat vs. lean, sour vs. sweet, brittle vs. workable. These material concepts and the spectrum along which metals were categorized provided ways to meet the challenges that natural substances presented to a craftsperson—lean metals (and molds) could be tempered by fat ones, while sour, brittle metals could be transformed by alloying or by fire into sweet, workable ones. Such knowledge systems were both fostered by and formed the basis for the everyday exploring, hypothesizing, and testing by which a practitioner comes to understand the properties and behavior of materials and the processes and products they made possible. They helped practitioners to make decisions about material use, to predict and respond to the behavior of their materials, to categorize materials for substitution, and to form hypotheses about what kinds of materials to try next. In short, it gave them a way to think (and act) through—and thus to know—their materials.

Event Speaker

Pamela H. Smith, Seth Low Professor of History and Founding Director of the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University

Event Information

Free and open to the public; registration required. For more information, please visit the event webpage. Hosted by the National Gallery of Art