There has of late been a lot of attention focused on one small corner of the Science Museum of London. Not, sadly, the Science in the 18th Century Gallery I mentioned in a previous post but an exhibit within the galleries on modern medicine and history of medicine, called ‘Living Traditions’. Because this takes an anthropological perspective of practices such as homeopathy, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, various individuals have raised a blogging firestorm, suggesting that the Museum is insufficiently critical of the patients’ and practitioners’ testimonies that it presents. It all started on Purely a figment of your imagination, received this reply from the Museum and was further stoked on DC’s Improbable Science, on Pharyngula and with a guest post on The Lay Scientist at the Guardian.
I don’t want to discuss this particular exhibit, mainly because I haven’t seen it*. I also want to avoid comments focusing on this one example rather than the general principle. So, please don’t tell me (again) why you think there are problems with ‘Living Traditions’ in particular. Please also note, I am supportive of the right kind of campaign against homeopathy, just as I support the right kind of arguments against astrology.
Rather, I want to focus on some of the comments that have arisen from these posts regarding the nature of the Science Museum in particular and science museums in general. In objecting to a particular exhibit, many have claimed that science museums exist for science education only, and have suggested that pre- or non-scientific medicine and anthropological (and possibly historical) approaches have no place in such an institution. We are not, in other words, meant to be considering science in its historical or cultural context, or to understand by the word ‘science’ anything other than its modern interpretation.
I have already been accused of creating straw-men when making similar points, so let me point to some specific examples. (It’s funny, isn’t it, that no one ever accused me of doing such a thing until I entered this debate – it was a mode of response/attack/defence that I was hardly aware of before coming across Alice Bell’s recent post.)
- Many have claimed that “the clue is in the name”: it should teach science and be “obliged to present only a scientific, empirical view of the world”. Here.
- “I strongly believe that something so fundamentally unscientific, really has no place in a science museum, no matter how anthropologically and sociologically interesting.” Here.
- “This exhibit would be entirely legitimate and understandable if you were a museum of anthropology, or sociology, or history, or indeed a museum of woowoo. But you are not, and it isn’t.” Here.
- “Perhaps I’m mistaken, but a sceince [sic] museum should be about science education.” Here.
- “the least I expect the Science Museum to do is promote the Scientific Principle.” Here.
- “The Science Museum os [sic] meant to be about science (the clue is in the name), not about social or cultural history. It’s fine to include the history of science,of [sic] course, but [not?] in a way that is contrary to science.” Here.
- “Anyway, what is a Science Museum supposed to be doing if not teaching science?” Here.
- Etc. etc.
There is some agreement that a science museum should “improve the public understanding of science”, but who says that the only way to do that is to tell them some science? Should we not also explore the meanings of what we now call science, how they have developed historically and what other kinds of knowledge have and do compete, complement or ignore it? These are all useful things to know when trying to understand why science has (and should have) the authority it does. What kind of museum other than a science museum should do this?
I would be horrified if the Science Museum saw its role merely in terms such as in the comments above. Fortunately, it doesn’t, or at least not entirely. It is an institution that is, and long has been, a bit confused about its identity. The Museum’s displays reflect a diversity of approach, message and audience. It is in part a classic hands-on Science Centre, in part a visitor attraction, but its displays also tackle history and culture and – of course –a museum is a whole lot more than its displays. Its collections and collecting policy demonstrate the desire to “reflect the global impact of science, technology, medicine and media across all cultures”, past and present. In particular, the Museum’s medicine-related collections “richly represent social, cultural and scientific aspects of medicine” (my emphasis). This is largely because, since 1977, they have curated the Wellcome collections, created by Henry Wellcome, who was fascinated by anthropology and the history of medicine. The Museum is required to study and display these objects appropriately.
And why should anthropology not be appropriate in a science museum? It shows what actually happens and allows us to make sense of beliefs and motivations that may be very different to our own. It is the ideal way to cut through the triumphant, whiggish stories of almost unalloyed success that are still common in popular presentations of science’s history (please – no straw-man allegations here).
A science museum that has object collections – as opposed to a science centre – should as much as possible be a museum about science, technology and medicine, their processes and their place in society. Object collections are inevitably historic and may be cross-cultural. Consideration of the place of knowledge about nature, as it is understood and categorised by the people who made or used the objects, within these varied societies can and should be attempted.
* [For what it’s worth, I think that, given the historical and cross-cultural approach of the Museum’s medicine galleries, it would be grossly misleading if the continued existence of non-evidence-based medical treatments and therapies were not represented. Their decision to do this in a separate space, out of chronological sequence and with a different kind of interpretation reveals their determination to put these ‘traditions’ in a completely different box from their main narrative. I suspect (although if audience research proves me wrong I will retract this) that the meaning of these different approaches is sufficiently clear to visitors. Much of the text that people have been fuming over is clearly patient/practitioner testimony, not the voice of the Museum, and is headed with statements about so-and-so “believing” this (see this clarification). Likewise, the whole gallery begins with a panel explaining the anthropological approach.]
- Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum ed. Peter J. T. Morris, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
- Exploring Science in Museums ed. Susan Pearce, Athlone Press, 1996