I’ve come to Western prepared to cast off my Luddite tendencies and to embrace technology wholeheartedly (or, I might add, as wholeheartedly as can be possible for one who has always been rather critical of science & technology, and their impact on human lives).

Last week, in our Public History meeting, I had cause to re-think the matter. I had cause to re-think matter itself, to consider the physical versus the virtual.

As a class, we visited the UWO Medical Artifact collection housed in the basement of the Health Sciences Addition. There our professor, Dr. Michelle Hamilton, gave us a tour of the collection and even bid us to don on white gloves so that we could examine certain objects in particular. This was going to be interesting. My experience with “handling” artifacts has mostly consisted of manipulating images of 3-D objects. Being able to zoom in and out of the image and to rotate it in 360 degrees so as to view the object in a multitude of angles has made me think that perhaps the virtual is sufficient. It’s fast, painless, interactive, accessible, and safe – the artifact’s continued preservation is not at risk. What more could one ask for?

Well, as it turns out, I was reminded about the weight of matter.

Picking up one of various blades belonging to a late 19th century amputation kit, I had a visceral reaction. The blade was labelled “Amputation Saw” and was likely used during the American Civil War. I ran my finger along its grooved ebony handle; examined the engraving that read “A.L. Hernstein, New York”; noticed how the wide blade caught the light and gleamed; stared at its sharp, serrated edge and the brown specks of dried blood against the cold metal – and I shivered. I was thinking keenly about the men with whom this blade had come into contact, and about the military surgeons who had had to use it, and about how it had somehow survived and made its way all the way from the fields of warfare and agony into my hands in the 21st century.

If there is anything that connects us to the past as directly as possible, it is physical matter. As Thomas Schlereth has noted: “Material culture is not only the most ancient of time’s shapes, it is also a tangible form of a past time persisting in present time.” Still later he adds that “to the historical researcher, [artefacts] are here in his time; and yet they are also still there in another time – that is, in their time.”[1] We will never be able to travel back to a moment in history but artifacts are able to travel forward and speak to the next generation. Well, perhaps “speak” is not the right word: I have always been fascinated and frustrated by the silent immensity that objects hold, by their stories that they keep jealously hidden when their owners have long passed away or there is no one to tell them. But silent as they may be at times, artifacts do give us an immediate and mostly unmediated connection to the past which its virtual embodiment is not able to do.

Of course, I still think, like many, that computer technology has made the documents and objects of the past so much more accessible – and in turn, seem so much more varied and abundant – than they have ever been. There will not, perhaps, be a great many who will get to examine that amputation kit as closely as I could last week; but they will be able to see and consider it using the collection’s website. And too, I’d add that in discussions about the virtual and the physical, it does not need to become an either/or debate. Physical objects along with their virtual counterparts enhance the study of history; both help one to come to grips with the past. As Anthony Grafton has put it, in the specific context of books and the ramifications of their increasing digitization, “these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you.”[2] This is all true.

But nonetheless, I think it is good to be reminded, now and then, in an age where the line between the virtual and physical seems to be blurring, where the virtual has almost as much weight – and even more – as the physical, that matter still does, well, matter.

[1] Thomas J. Schlereth, “Material Culture and Cultural Research,” in Material Culture: A Research Guide, ed. Thomas J. Schlereth (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985), 9-10.

[2] Anthony Grafton, “Future Reading: Digitization and its Discontents,” New Yorker.com, November 5, 2007, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa_fact_grafton (accessed September 17, 2008).