Print This Page (simplified layout)

A Special Exhibition: ‘The Measurers’

Spring, 1995

A special exhibition is due to open in the Museum of the History of Science on the 3rd July. It centres on a painting in the Museum’s collection that has not been on public display for many years.

While the former attribution of ‘The Measurers’, as this painting has generally been known, to Hendrik van Balen has been revised, it is by a Flemish artist of the late sixteenth century. It represents the usefulness of mathematics to a range of practical activities, through a series of vignettes showing instrument-making, surveying, music-making and weighing, as well as measuring.
The assertion of utility is a common theme in mathematical books of the time, but the iconography of The Measurers is unusual: paintings commonly represent mathematics as a higher form of learning, as a manifestation of affluent connoisseurship, or as a link to the transcendental. This painting, on the other hand, illustrates its everyday applications, with instruments in use rather than posing in still life.
The Measurers will be used to organize the exhibition, with the artist’s vignettes dictating the subjects of the sections of the display. Objects as close as possible to those illustrated will be on show, but at the same time, through instruments and books, the exhibition will present a more general view of Flemish practical mathematics in the period. Most of the Flemish instruments in the Museum, by such makers as Arsenius and Coignet, are fine and complex pieces. It is these that have been prized, preserved and collected, rather than the more everyday tools of measurement, and a place must be found for them in the exhibition.
The exhibition catalogue will concentrate on Dutch and Flemish material in the displays, providing a permanent account of this regional expression of the sixteenth-century European movement in practical mathematics.