Crafting Worldviews: Art and Science in Europe, 1500-1800

Unknown German artists, Automaton Clock in the Shape of Diana on Her Chariot, first quarter 17th century. Case: gilt brass and ebony; dials: partly enameled silver; movement: brass and iron. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Laird Shields Goldsborough in memory of Mr. Laird Shields Goldsborough, B.A. 1924

Exhibition illuminates the connections among art, science, and European colonialism through nearly 100 objects from across Yale’s collections.

February 17–June 25, 2023

Next February, the Yale University Art Gallery presents Crafting Worldviews: Art and Science in Europe, 1500–1800, an exhibition that showcases nearly 100 objects from across Yale University’s collections, including the Gallery, the Yale Peabody Museum, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, the Yale Center for British Art, and the Lewis Walpole Library, as well as the collection of Thomas Lentz, Professor Emeritus of Cell Biology at the Yale University School of Medicine. Co-organized by Jessie Park, the Nina and Lee Griggs Assistant Curator of European Art, and Paola Bertucci, Associate Professor, History of Science and Medicine Program at Yale University and Curator of the History of Science and Technology Division, Yale Peabody Museum, Crafting Worldviews examines the inseparable relationship among art, science, and European colonialism from the 16th through the 18th century—an era of voyage, trade, and Europe’s territorial dominance on a global scale. The objects included reveal histories of invention and appropriation, consumption and exploitation, collaboration and conflict.

The works featured in this multidisciplinary exhibition cross the modern-day boundaries of art and science and range from the everyday, such as books, maps, globes, drafting tools, microscopes, playing cards, and sundials, to the more unusual, such as a hand-cranked model of the solar system, an automaton clock, and anatomical figures. Crafted from both locally and globally obtained materials, including brass, ivory, mahogany, and ebony, these objects are remarkable not just for their exquisite design but also their intricate construction. Together, they illuminate the role that art and science have played in shaping Europeans’ understanding of the world and their place within it.

The exhibition also addresses the intellectual, artistic, and scientific foundations of European colonialism, whose legacy continues in the present. According to Jessie Park, “In our current age of reckoning with racism and exploitation, we found it imperative to call our attention to the foundations of such forms of injustice. Visitors will encounter not only objects of noteworthy craftsmanship but also the realities of their production and consumption in the era of colonialism, which laid the groundwork for ongoing discrimination.”

Paola Bertucci notes that, for her, the exhibition “is a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to display scientific instruments to tell stories that we don’t typically associate with science. Early modern scientific instruments are usually presented in art museums as intriguing marvels. I was eager to emphasize instead the role of these objects in shaping European taste, everyday life, and a sense of superiority toward other cultures.”

The exhibition is thematically divided into six sections. Serving as an introduction to the exhibition, “Voyages of Conquest” details the colonization of new lands through oceanic navigation, foregrounding objects such as the sextant, octant, compass, and theodolite as tools of power and dominance. Building on this introductory section is “Workshops of Power,” which explores how colonialism impacted and shaped the manufacture of both scientific instruments and everyday items made by skilled artisans. “Clockwork Cosmologies” features a variety of geared mechanisms—real and imagined—such as watches, astrolabes, and mills, to examine the ways in which Europeans visualized an orderly universe, measured time, or promoted colonial projects. “Consuming Science,” which presents the role of science in the education and social life of the elites, includes objects like tobacco pipes, shagreen-covered microscopes, and electrical machines made of mahogany. “Bodies of Nature” showcases anatomical illustrations, books on natural history, and other objects to address how scholars regarded scientific research as a hunt for the secrets of nature. Finally, “Worlds Seen and Unseen” examines the ways in which contemporary stereotypes about non-European worlds were articulated in portrayals of nature and people from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

To assist the cocurators in sensitively addressing the topics presented in the exhibition, the Gallery formed an advisory committee. Members included Salwa Abdussabur (Founder and Creative Director, Black Haven), Marisa Bass (Professor, History of Art, Yale University), Adrienne L. Childs (Adjunct Curator at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and independent scholar), Meleko Mokgosi (Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Painting/Printmaking, Yale School of Art), Ayesha Ramachandran (Associate Professor, Comparative Literature, Yale University), Romita Ray (Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, History of Architecture, Syracuse University), and Carolyn Roberts (Assistant Professor, History of Science and History of Medicine, and African American Studies, Yale University). Their insights were crucial for shaping this project.

Exhibition Credits

Exhibition made possible by the Jane and Gerald Katcher Fund for Education. Organized by Jessie Park, the Nina and Lee Griggs Assistant Curator of European Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and Paola Bertucci, Associate Professor, History of Science and Medicine Program, Yale University, and Curator of the History of Science and Technology Division, Yale Peabody Museum; in collaboration with Alexi Baker, Collections Manager, History of Science and Technology Division, Yale Peabody Museum; and with the assistance of Manon Gaudet and Kartika Puri, Graduate Curatorial Interns, Department of European Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and Ida Brooks, PC ’24.