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The University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection is an effort to gather, safeguard, research, catalogue, and interpret, the material heritage of research at the University of Toronto.  It is part of an international movement aimed at safeguarding the material heritage of science within universities. The project collects a diverse range of material ranging from media, to scientific samples, to instrumentation. Its purpose is to create a historical research collection, as well as a tool for science outreach and interpretation.

The project is based at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST). Its approach is founded in disciplines including the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), Science and Technology Studies (STS), and History of Health. It seeks to facilitate, and to learn from a variety of perspectives, from museology to Indigenous knowledge.  The project is interdisciplinary, seeking to foster communication across university disciplines, between researchers and artists, and between the University of Toronto and other communities.

In addition to documenting the work of  researchers, the collection seeks to represent the skills and labour of technicians (machinists, histologists, glassblowers, media artists and technicians, and many others) whose work makes possible the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge. It also uses artifacts to study the relationships between the communities within and beyond the university.

A networked collection, a collaborative museum

The University of Toronto collection employs a networked approach like similar projects around the world. This means that, while the collection does have a main storage and cataloguing space, much of the material is located in individual departmental and faculty-level storage areas.

This approach reflects, in part, the collaborative approach taken by the project; many individual subcollections are managed by departmental librarians or senior faculty members. It is also the result of the limited space at a busy downtown campus. The development of online cataloguing software has made it easier to track and organize collections across multiple locations.

The project maintains a primary exhibition area is on the third floor of the Victoria College building (91 Charles Street West), where a part of the collection is on display. New exhibits and themes are featured every year or two. The current exhibit, entitled “Vitreous Worlds”, explores the use of glass in scientific research. The exhibit is open during regular building hours.

Untold Stories 2017-18

The project also undertakes smaller exhibit projects and displays across the University of Toronto, often in collaboration with local students and artists involved in science research and outreach. Over the past decade, a valuable collaboration has developed between the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST), the Master of Museum Studies Program (MMSt) program at the Faculty of Information Studies, and the Material Culture program at Victoria College.


Article describing the original cataloguing effort, 1978

The early years of the University of Toronto saw the establishment of numerous collections. Much of this material, in areas such as archaeology and natural history, was incorporated into the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) that opened in 1914. The ROM became independent from the University of Toronto in 1968, though many connections between the U of T and the ROM’s many research collections exist to this day.

Around the 1970s, historians of science began to focus on scientific instruments as a means of understanding the process by which scientific knowledge is created. Historians increasingly turned their attention to the special competencies of instrument makers, to instrument users beyond the sciences, and specialized technicians who perform scientific labour. The historical material heritage surviving at universities took on  a special importance as a source of evidence about this process.

In 1979, the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) led an effort to inventory historical scientific instruments at the University of Toronto. This produced both a significant card catalogue, as well as a written proposal to establish a museum of science.  The goal of a science museum reappeared repeatedly over subsequent years as the university convened a series of high-level committees on collections.

The arrival of the internet brought with it the possibility of a public catalogue and public exhibitions. The first step in this direction was the UTMuSi online catalogue of important older instruments from across the university. This project, created by graduate students at the IHPST, began in 1997. The original site is no longer online, but its information has since been added to the current online catalogue.

The UTSIC project began in 2008, again led by graduate students at the IHPST. This project arrived at a time when the internet had developed to handle large images and detailed, text searchable fields. The current online catalogue uses a custom plugin, programmed by Mike Thick, PhD, and base on WordPress blogging software. The IHPST has contributed substantially to the project through providing teaching assistant positions for cataloguing work, through providing funding for operating costs and exhibits, as well as through funding a contract Curator position. Several other units have provided significant funds, especially the Department of Astronomy.

  • An important early document about the University of Toronto’s instrument collection is Joy Davis (née Smith)’s Report to the President’s Advisory Committee on Historic Resources (1978) . A .pdf copy is available upon request.
  • The University of Toronto Archives & Records Management Services (UTARMS) maintains a list of publications that have used various aspects of the university archive. This is a useful resource for researchers whose work touches the history of the University of Toronto.

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