The Making and Knowing Project is a research and pedagogical initiative in the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University that explores the intersections between artistic making and scientific knowing. Today these realms are regarded as separate, yet in the earliest phases of the Scientific Revolution, nature was investigated primarily by skilled artisans by means of continuous and methodical experimentation in the making of objects – the time when “making” was “knowing.”

Drawing on techniques from both laboratory and archival research, the Making and Knowing Project crosses the science/humanities divide and explores the relationships between today’s labs and the craft workshops of the past, and between early modern conceptions of natural knowledge and our own understanding of science, art, and historical scholarship.
Click the video or the links below to learn more.

The Manuscript, BnF Ms. Fr. 640


This unique manuscript testifies to the widespread interest in processes of making art, as well as to the constant experimentation with natural materials undertaken in early modern workshops. Incorporated first into the library of the Dukes de Béthune and then into the Royal library in 1662, this large, 170-folio manuscript resides in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris as Ms. Fr. 640. although the manuscript has been photographed and digitized by Gallica.

The output of the Making and Knowing Project will be an open-access digital critical edition and English translation of this intriguing text.

Click here for more on BnF Ms. Fr. 640 


Text Workshops

The digital edition is only one dimension of this project, however, for the process by which this critical edition is being produced is as important as its product. First, yearly Paleography Workshops under the direction of Marc Smith (École nationale des chartes) are being held every summer at Columbia University. Advanced graduate students from across the world gain paleographic skills in middle French as well as a basic understanding of TEI markup before they collaborate on a digital transcription and translation of the manuscript.

Practice your own paleographic skills on the Letterforms page so that you can read BnF Ms.Fr. 640 as well.

See here for past participants of our workshops.

Laboratory Seminars

Research for the edition forms an experiment in both pedagogy and humanistic research. It involves Laboratory Seminars in which students work alongside academic and museum-based historians of art and historians of science, in collaboration with experienced makers, to reconstruct the technical recipes contained in the manuscript. Their findings are being used to understand and annotate the digital edition, and their experiences are fostering the sharing of expertise across disciplines as well as the engagement on the part of students with the material culture of the past.

The process of interpreting a technical manuscript treatise offers special challenges. The meaning of terms for materials, and sequence and process of techniques often cannot be determined simply by literally translating the words of the manuscript. This is especially true of Ms. Fr. 640 in which it is clear that the original author faced many challenges, first as he translated his own making and doing into words—by no means an easy process, as the looping and circuitous descriptions in Ms. Fr. 640 give ample evidence—then made a fair copy of those recipes and instructions, and finally, carried out many processes (indicated by the extensive marginal notations describing further experimentation in the manuscript). Understanding such a detailed and complex technical manual requires trying and testing—reconstructing—the instructions contained in the manuscript.

Working Groups

Each year during the first three years of the project we are focusing on a particular theme in the manuscript and organizing a groups of scholars, makers, and museum professionals which we are calling Working Groups. The themes for our working groups are Moldmaking and Metalworking (2014-2015); Colormaking (2015-2016); and Natural History, Practical Optics, and Medicine (2016-2017), and each year we bring together our working group at Columbia University so they can provide oversight and critical commentary on every aspect of the project.

Click here for more on our Working Groups.

Experimental and Collaborative Pedagogy

The proposed digital edition of Ms. Fr. 640 forms the center of an experiment in collaboration and pedagogy that explores the value of hands-on experience as a form of research and learning, not just for makers, art conservators, and artists, but also, uniquely, for students of the humanities. Historians, paleographers, makers, art and technical experts, and conservation and materials scientists are teaching and learning together as they collaborate on researching the manuscript. All activities take place primarily at Columbia University as a part of the Center for Science and Society.