Sunday, June 24, 2012

Machine entrails and the mysteries of modern artefacts

This might seem incredibly trite ...... but I was thinking recently that much of the machinery we use in our everyday lives is hidden from us by shells and bodies and casings. Like clocks, cars, and microwaves ovens, and air-conditioners, fridges, washing machines, and mobile phones, cameras, computers and televisions. We can't see the mechanical bits working because they're covered by white metal or grey plastic.  

This is the insides of an air-conditioner. Just look at all those bits.
For an archaeologist of the contemporary past, this means that even though we are very familiar with what these machines do and their social role in our world, we might not necessarily recognise the bits of one if it were deprived of its outside and falling apart on a site. Perhaps I assume too much here, but I certainly can't automatically identify bits of modern machinery. I'm probably more expert in early colonial artefacts and lithics.

Artefact from Orroral Valley NASA Tracking Station, 2010.  I mean, what is this? Is it part of an air conditioner?

Up until the point where machines left big factories and became part of domestic life, most decaying buildings had easily recognisable artefacts which didn't have hidden insides, like ceramics, nails, cutlery, buttons, bricks, bones; I could go on but you get the picture. Stone tools, faunal remains, all that stuff we are taught to identify and record as students. No-one teaches us what the parts of a television are. This isn't even starting on specialist machinery, electronics, and the fact that these technologies change over time.

Some experimental work is needed, possibly involving a hammer and some op-shopping. Any volunteers? (Possibly it also involves acquiring manuals for these things. Hmmm. Not looking forward to reading those).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Space heritage and the Dublin Principles for the Conservation of Industrial Heritage Sites, Structures, Areas and Landscapes

Last year, the 17th ICOMOS General Assembly approved the 'Dublin Principles' for the the Conservation of Industrial Heritage, Sites, Structures, Areas and Landscapes. The Principles are the joint work of the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH). This is naturally of interest since it covers the material culture of space exploration, which, despite the romance of rockets and astronauts, is about as industrial as you can get. You can find the final text here.

So what are the principles?  They start with a definition:
The industrial heritage consists of sites, structures, complexes, areas and landscapes as well as the related machinery, objects or documents that provide evidence of past or ongoing industrial processes of production, the extraction of raw materials, their transformation into goods, and the related energy and transport infrastructures.
This definition is both broad enough and precise enough to apply to space complexes consisting of terrestrial and orbital/planetary/interplanetary components. The interdependence of 'multiple site operations or systems' is emphasised in a few places in the Principles, and I think this is important, both as a feature of industry in a globalised capitalist world, and as a management principle - you can't just consider a site in isolation: the connections are part of its significance.

The definition does not mention time frame, but the introduction makes clear that the focus of the Principles is the heritage of the Industrial Revolution and the modern world.

Note also that documents are both sources of information, and part of the evidence: both artefact and research tool at the same time.
The significance and value of industrial heritage is intrinsic to the structures or sites themselves, their material fabric, components, machinery and setting, expressed in the industrial landscape, in written documentation, and also in the intangible records contained in memories, arts and customs.
A frequent question I get when I talk about space stuff to non-archaeologists is why we need to keep the actual material when we have (often) the maps, plans, photographs, documents, etc. The answer is simple. Words and drawings can lie. Well, they can be inaccurate, or represent something only from a particular perspective (both in the drawing sense or the point of view sense), or omit critical information. (These inaccuracies, perspectives and omissions are themselves interesting to study). And anyone who still thinks that a photograph in some way represents an objective reality needs to get with the programme. That's not to say that photographs are not incredibly important as historical documents; only that to see them as standing in for the actual object or place is very naive in a 19th century spiritualist kind of way. Yes, scientists, I'm talking to you, with my humanities hat on.

So the fabric, the physical stuff, is important. Where a document of any kind does not tell us what we need to know, or we want another perspective, we need to go back to the original thing. This statement also picks up on the importance of the setting (following the Burra Charter) and the intangibles. 

Here is the first action statement: I. Document and understand industrial heritage structures, sites, areas and landscapes and their values. This research and documentation should include human skills and knowledge, should be interdisciplinary, and should include consultation with stakeholders. All this is standard fare for heritage managers, but the following is perhaps a departure, and as a recommendation for practice, has all kinds of implications:
Research and preservation of documentary records, company archives, building plans, and specimens of industrial products should be encouraged. The evaluation and assessment of documents should be undertaken by an appropriate specialist in the industry to which they relate to determine their heritage significance.
This is about encouraging corporations and industries to value their own history and heritage, and preserve the company archives. I've certainly had the experience of contacting a manufacturer to enquire about particular documents or archives, only to find that someone has chucked them out just the week before because they were taking up space, or they've got lost in some building move, or a recent employee isn't even aware of the company's history or significance. The second part of the statement above acknowledges that modern industries are so complex and specialist that a heritage manager can't, by themselves, hope to gain a good understanding of what documents mean and why they might be significant: an industry specialist should not only be consulted, but should evaluate and assess these documents.

II. Ensure effective protection and conservation of the industrial heritage structures, sites, areas and landscapes.
This protection should occur through legal, policy and administrative measures, while remaining aware of the rules for corporations and investments, trades or intellectual property such as patents, and standards applicable to active industrial operations. In other words, the relationship of the heritage to the contemporary industry. Not something you really have to worry about with other kinds of heritage.

Are there legal measures for the protection of space heritage? It depends where you are. Some countries have heritage legislation that only covers things of a certain age, for example, over 100 years old. So contemporary industrial heritage may only be protected by legislation when enough time has passed, by which time sites may have been demolished and built over, vandalised, recycled, etc, and the knowledge, customs and memories associated with them have passed away with the people who worked there. (See below for more on time frames).

Heritage legislation may also not cover the extra-planetary components of a place or site, if we consider them to be connected, which we do. This is where heritage, which is usually legally protected at the national level, comes up against the Outer Space Treaty 1967, which makes it impossible for national jurisdiction to be extended into space. There is a legal, administrative and policy gap here.

This is a very practical bit: Integrated inventories and lists of structures, sites, areas, landscapes, their setting and associated objects, documents, drawings and archives or intangible heritage should be developed. So we need to know what's there, and we need to integrate the documents with the physical stuff and with the intangible stuff. This recognises the complexity and interconnectedness of industrial processes, as well as the distinct nature of the contemporary past: as Harrison and Schofield (2010) have pointed out, something that characterises the contemporary archaeological record is the superfluity and abundance of information and artefacts of all kinds. Because the passage of time has not yet removed massive chunks of the record through decay and destruction, we have so much stuff that needs to be understood; almost too much stuff. 

For ongoing industries, heritage management should be integrated with their operation and recognise that this operation may in fact carry heritage value.

The machinery, fittings and related objects are just as important as the actual buildings. This is crucial, as frequently such places are approached from an architectural perspective only, and the movable stuff gets sold, scrapped or recycled elsewhere. Not to say that these options might not sometimes be appropriate - there is something nice about the re-use of industrial materials - but losing them may diminish the significance of the buildings too.

Time frames are very important:
Legal and administrative frameworks should be developed to enable authorities to respond quickly to the closure of operating industrial heritage sites and complexes to prevent removal or destruction of significant elements such as machinery, industrial objects or related records.
I'm not sure quite how we would do this, but it is a kind of rescue archaeology or salvage at its most immediate. What is not explicit here is the assumption (for which we have plenty of evidence, however) of how little value people place on industrial heritage. If intervention is not performed, then the stuff will be lost to us, because industries will not of their own volition take care of their own heritage. So we need to be proactive: to have some idea beforehand of the likely value of a company's resources, and be at the ready when they go under and liquidate their assets. Heritage management through the financial news pages .......

The classic example of this is the Woomera launch site in South Australia. At the end of the Europa and Apollo programmes in the early 1970s, infrastructure was demolished, sold for scrap, reused by the Centre Nationale des Etudes Spatiales at the Kourou launch site in French Guiana, and sometimes destroyed in frustration and despair by those whose dreams of space had been sold down the river by the perfidious Brits.

III. Conserve and maintain the industrial heritage structures, sites, areas and landscapes.
Adaptive reuse is highlighted as a way to sustain an industrial place while respecting the fabric. Following the Burra Charter, physical interventions should be reversible and documented. If places or machinery have to be dismantled, they should be thoroughly documented and oral histories done.

IV. Present and communicate the heritage dimensions and values of industrial structures, sites, areas and landscapes to raise public and corporate awareness, and support training and research.
This also is standard fare - interpretation is an important part of heritage management, for many reasons: to justify the resources used in undertaking heritage work; to give a product back to the community; to engage the community in their own heritage. Here again we see the view that companies (corporations) do not value their own heritage and need to be supported in this.

Public awareness is, in the context of industrial heritage, of a different order to other kinds of heritage. The industrial is often constructed as opposed to some kind of generalised bucolic idyll that is unconsciously held to be more related to the 'natural' human spirit than the gritty, filthy, coal and disease-ridden industries that existed only to screw profit out of people and the earth. I think there are social memories of the industrial revolution that evoke negative responses to industry, even now. I guess I am articulating this for the first time in my head, so I haven't fully thought through what this means, but I think there is some kind of truth in it. Industry is the opposite of what many people consider heritage to be. And yet, in terms of working lives, industry engages and mobilises huge numbers of people who have knowledge, memories, practices, rituals, and frequently great pride in their work. They just don't necessarily think of it as having heritage value.

Finally, the principles conclude with this statement:
Programmes and facilities such as visits of active industrial heritage sites and the presentation of their operations as well as the stories and intangible heritage associated with their history, machinery and industrial processes, industrial or city museums and interpretation centres, exhibitions, publications, websites, regional or trans-boundary itineraries should be developed and sustained as means to raise awareness and appreciation for the industrial heritage in the full richness of its meaning for contemporary societies. These should ideally be located at the heritage sites itself where the process of industrialisation has taken place and can be best communicated. Wherever possible, national and international institutions in the field of research and conservation of heritage should be empowered to use them as educational facilities for the general public and the professional communities.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Random thoughts about gravity and science

Saturday night. A quiet one in - I have a number of graduate students' thesis and report drafts to work through, and I'm thinking I might catch a bit of Graham Norton later in the evening. Debating whether to open the bottle of red I ended up with at the Flinders Archaeological Society's Quiz Night at the Adelaide Gaol, Wednesday last week. Might not help me appraise the students' data analysis with acuity, though.

On Thursday I got a new book, Robyn Arianrhod's Seduced by Logic. Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2011). I'm a sucker for a bit of mathematics, and with some girlie brainboxes thrown in, a good read is sure to be had by all. (Also, it features Voltaire).

A few years back, I was cheeky enough to write about gravitation myself (The Gravity of Archaeology, 2009, Archaeologies 5(2): 344-359). I'm sure I'd never get anything about gravity published in anything other than an archaeology journal, despite an invitation from the Journal of Modern Physics to contribute to a volume on cosmology and gravitation! I guess what fascinates me most about gravity is just how mysterious it really is.

In high school physics, you learn about mass, gravity, velocity, acceleration, entropy, etc, and have to solve endless tedious problems about them. As a kid, you don't really question any of it. Years (and years) later, I find myself troubled by these questions. I mean, what is mass, really? And force? If you called them something different, would you think differently about them?

I suppose one of the values of literary excursions into the history and philosophy of science is that they afford you new ways to conceptualise things and make the links between them.  Reading Arianrhod's book, I found myself musing that one of the virtues of Einstein's general relativity was that it explained the spooky action-at-a-distance aspect of Newtonian universal gravitation.

(And it was Newton who made space empty - because he had to get rid of ether as an explanation for the motions of the celestial bodies. But what are stupid gravity particles if they're not ether? Anyway I don't think gravity can be a particle. It has to be a movement).

And that thought recalled to my mind a book I haven't finished reading yet, by famous Australian postmodernist Elizabeth Grosz. Can't remember what it was called even, it's buried under a pile of papers in my office. (Actually it might be this one: Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies, 1995).

In one passage, Grosz is talking about scientific theories. She describes how Einsteinian gravity replaced Newtownian gravity, as if they were just so many Kuhnian paradigms. And I thought (earlier in the year as I was reading it), that's not right. One didn't replace the other, that's not how we think about it. We don't study Newton as a historical curiosity. (And I was already constructing myself as part of the 'we', unconsciously, no Lizzie, you're not one of us, you don't understand).

Then I thought more about it and wondered if I was wrong. That there was some fundamental incompatibility between the two, rather than perhaps a slightly uneasy sliding of frames of reference sometimes. I always thought it was just that you used the equations or the approach that suited the problem at hand, you didn't just declare Newton was WRONG and get all quantummy about it. And, by implication in Grosz's book, science was also wrong, as we just couldn't get anything right the first time.

OK, so this is a caricature of Grosz' description; but the main thing that struck me, assuming the understanding I had of these things since a kid wasn't itself totally off the mark, was that she just didn't get how it worked.  Maybe you don't question it at school, but if you grow up in the sciences, then there are ways of approaching things that you don't even know you have until something calls it into question. From this I conclude that it can be really hard to understand science if you have not already been steeped in it. 

Lordy. I think I will open that bottle of red after all.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Dr Space Junk in the Venus Transit Lounge

And Venus was her name ....
Well it was all a bit exciting really. Unfortunately I had a lot of trouble with the Australian feed from Alice Springs, and not just because a road worker had accidentally cut the cable. Even though they were supposed to be getting the best quality images, all I could find when I checked the site was pictures of someone's car boot.

So we watched the Hawai'i feed in my Transit Lounge here at Flinders University. The Hawai'ian dudes had some interesting commentary and I liked their casual approach.  People dropped in and out of the Venus Transit Lounge throughout the day. I wouldn't say I was any kind of expert on the Transit of Venus, despite it being my favourite planet, but all the same I found myself explaining various points and features to the assembled science lovers.

Jennifer McKinnon took this photo and supplied the caption!

The Transit of Venus at Flinders University

In Humanities Room 281, all day!

Friday, June 01, 2012

Performing the Moon: Tranquility Base and témoignage

Sometimes simple thoughts can take a long while to catalyse.

Last year, Dr Jonathan Bollen, Head of Drama at Flinders, did a joint seminar with me based around the ideas in Michael Shanks and Mike Pearson's Theatre/Archaeology (2001). Among other things, I remember talking about the spectacle of the rocket launch and the fact that a rocket is actually a very ephemeral entity, only being assembled prior to the launch, and disintegrating during it as the various stages separate. All of this is watched by people in control rooms, tracking stations, and at the launch site, as you see in the photo below.

Lyndon B. Johnson and Spiro Agnew watch the launch of the Apollo 11 Saturn V. NASA/Science Photo Library
On Tuesday this week I gave a guest lecture to a Screen & Media class about Indigenous media. For this, I looked at how Aboriginal groups in Canada and Australia had used satellite television creatively to support their cultures. As historical background, I mentioned the concomitant growth of global television with the use of the geostationary orbit, as exemplified by the estimated 600 million people who watched the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

And today, I'm having a 'mini writing retreat', locked away in a bare seminar room with one of my students. I'm reading a PhD thesis by Fiona Campbell and Jonna Ulin called Borderline Archaeology. A practice of contemporary archaeology - exploring aspects of creative narratives and performative cultural production (Gothenburg Archaeological Thesis No 29, Goteborg, Sweden, 2004).

Two quotes discussed in their book really spoke to me. In 1899, Canadian historian William F. Ganong made a remarkably prescient statement about how archaeology should be done:
Unlike some other phases of history, archaeological studies .... should be undertaken as soon as possible after the events have occurred, for their evidence is found not so much in documents reasonably sure of long preservation, but in perishable materials and alterable localities.
Spot on, I thought. There is no necessity to wait around for the place or the junk to acquire some archaeological credibility - we should be leaping right in after the last participant has left the site and collecting their garbage! This kind of thing was the topic of conversation on the CONTEMP-HIST-ARCH email discussion list after the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. A few people thought this was a lost opportunity to do some really creative contemporary archaeology on the streets where swarming crowds of people gathered to watch and celebrate, precisely the kind of thing that we ought to be all over .... but alas, contemporary archaeologists were glued to the telly with the rest of the world ....

Campbell and Ulin's referencing is a little patchy, so I'm not precisely sure where the next quote came from.  They say 
David Schneider has described performance as 'organised human behaviour presented before witnesses' (Campbell and Ulin 2004:26).
I was thinking of Tranquility Base while reading all of this, particularly as Beth Laura O'Leary and I have recently finished writing a piece where we talk about the archaeological value of Tranquility Base as a site. I thought to myself: the entire Apollo moon landing was a performance by this definition, being organised to the most minute level, and witnessed by the largest audience in human history. And in fact, looked at from this perspective, the structure of the site is dictated as much by the requirements of the performance as the actual scientific work that was to be carried out there. Or perhaps it is truer to say that the actual scientific work cannot be separated from the performance of being the first humans on another planet.

There's also, I think, a fine dividing line between being witnessed, and being surveilled. The astronauts' bodies were being constantly monitored, as were their every action and word; they had a tight script for all actions they undertook and what they said was of the utmost importance.  The stage and the prison of their suits and lander were one and the same.

This perspective makes me see a new dimension to how one might analyse the actual traces left at Tranquility Base, the bootprints, tracks, furrows, pits, discarded materials. I would always have argued that this was an archaeological site like any other, that can be mapped and analysed (well, if one could do this remotely), but exactly what we could learn from this, I wasn't entirely clear. One obvious thing is the difference between what the astronauts actually did and what they said they did, but I don't know why we want to know that ... and of course there are no similar sites to compare. Maybe this is partially the problem.  

But hang on. We do have similar sites, just on terrestrial landscapes. We do have places where humans landed in hostile, unknown environments and carried out a series of actions, frequently with some scientific objective (eg Cook and Banks, that French bloke in Tasmania), and sometimes watched by Indigenous and other inhabitants. Would it be interesting to compare the use of space in such places? Did the strangeness of the environment make people move carefully and always within view of each other, for example?

But to get back to my main point, if I think of Tranquility Base as a performance dictated by the needs of the witnesses, then the trails left by the astronauts tell us something about the expectations of those witnesses, scientific, political and public, rather perhaps than the agency of the astronauts themselves. In this sense, can we compare their movements to those of robotic missions on Mars? Are there any similarities or differences between human and robotic engagements with planetary landscapes and is there anything interesting to be learnt from this comparison?

Beth O'Leary makes the point that at Tranquility Base we have a well preserved site which can be viewed remotely, together with the documents of the mission AND the film footage. This is a rare opportunity, then, to study the site as a performance: to compare the experience of different witnesses who have access to different versions (the astronauts see each other, the public see it on television, the tracking station and NASA staff see the raw data, the journalists edit and re-represent it), taking as one of those versions the site as it becomes after the astronauts leave: a flat, two-dimensional record of a multi-dimensional event which took place over many hours, a lasting trace of ephemeral movements and intentions.

Well, we're only fifty years or so late to realise the archaeological potential of Tranquility Base, but we're working on it.  The next time people go to another planet, perhaps we should mobilise a bit earlier ......

Ganong, William F. 1899. A Monograph of Historic Sites in the Province of New Brunswick. Proceeding and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 2.

Pearson, Mike and Michael Shanks 2001 Theatre/Archaeology. London: Routledge