Cultural scientists thrilled with the collection of objects in the library

Cultural scientists thrilled with the collection of objects in the library

Have you ever heard of a heliostat?

09-09-2021 · News

A fire engine, a portable gas cooker, an electrical telegraph, lenses from the beginning of the 20th century. There are about 1,700 scientific instruments, technical appliances and tools stored in the basement of Centre Céramique. From Thursday onwards, a selection of those will be displayed on the second floor. But what are these objects doing in the library?

That is what Karin Bijsterveld, UM professor of Modern and Contemporary History, also wondered when she happened to come across the catalogue on Centre Céramique’s website. The items appear to originate from Nutsbedrijven Maastricht (Maastricht utility companies), secondary school laboratories, contractors and private parties. 

A true kid in a sweetshop moment for Maastricht cultural scientists who specialise in science, technology and society. They elaborately described 23 objects in the bilingual booklet Uitgepakt/Unboxed. In it, they detail the social significance of the items. 

Have you ever heard of a heliostat? That is an 18th century ‘lamp’, in which sunlight is captured and passed on using a mirror. The ‘stationary sun’, as would be the literal translation, served as a source of light in laboratories. The exceptional thing, author Veerle Spronck writes, is that the instrument is still used, but now in a very different way. In the Maankwartier in Heerlen, daylight is collected for additional lighting in the depths of the parking garage.

Then there is the pinewood telephone, which was made around 1880, with a separate mouth and ear piece. What gesture would you have used back then to indicate in company that you had to make a phone call, Thomas Frissen wonders in the book. Every period has its own gesture. Before the arrival of the mobile phone, it was a fist with a protruding thumb and little finger, now it is a flat hand with the finger tips against your ear and the flat of your hand in the direction of your mouth. 

It makes you think that at the end of the 19th century, two fists were used: one at the mouth and one against the ear.



The exhibition ‘Unboxed: instruments for science and technology’ starts next Thursday in Centre Céramique; the book can be downloaded or ordered, for more information, see http://