Diderot @ 300: Watzek’s new exhibit remembers our roots

This article was written for the September 27, 2013, issue of the Pioneer Log. It was originally published online here

Watzek Library has a new exhibit on one of the most influential figures of the 18th century. The library is celebrating Denis Diderot’s 300th birthday with an exhibit on his life, the Enlightenment and, of course, the Encyclopédie.

The Encyclopédie, which was edited by Diderot, exemplified Enlightenment thought and required hundreds of contributors. When completed, it contained 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations. A highlight of the exhibit is a series of these illustrations, or plates, showing craftsmen at work.

“There was a conscious move to show that knowledge was not just theory,” said Associate Professor of French Isabelle DeMarte, who headed the production of the exhibit. “The plates really showed that in a way that a purely textual encyclopedia would not have shown.” Diderot ensured that crafts were represented accurately by visiting the craftsmen himself. As the son of a knife maker, he knew their importance first-hand.

The exhibit includes an homage to another way in which the Encyclopédie redefined what constituted knowledge. One wall of the exhibit is covered by the swirling branches of “Tree of Knowledge,” an artistic reinterpretation of one of the most controversial parts of the Encyclopédie: the chart depicting the hierarchy of knowledge. In this chart, theology was placed under the category of philosophy—that is, the Encyclopédie claimed that God was a creation of man.

Thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation, four students were able to work alongside DeMarte. Schuyler Adkins (’14), Sara Balsom (’14), Hillary Kugler (’14) and Brandon Stilson (’14) designed the layout of the exhibit, wrote text and translated sections of the Encyclopédie. Among them, they represent the French studies, French foreign language, history and philosophy departments. The biology department is represented, too; it donated the microscope in one of the displays.

“The collaborative aspect of this project was the most rewarding and educational element!” Adkins said. “It was valuable to see how students of diverse disciplines approach research, and to hear varied perspectives on the direction the project should take.”

“We all had really different ways of approaching the project. Some of us were more interested in design elements or in historical elements … And we all had different backgrounds because we had come from different majors, so that was also really helpful,” Balsom said. “One of us would be taking on one part of the project and another person would be adding stuff in from their perspective.”

DeMarte wouldn’t have had it any other way. “We collaborated with the library, and with Special Collections, and with Instructional Media Services, and so one of the things that was most exciting for me was precisely that it was—that it is a work that results from unique people contributing and that it couldn’t exist without everybody pitching it.” Just like the Encyclopédie itself.

Diderot @ 300 will be on display through Dec. 20.

Published by Ailee Feber

Writer and artist.

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