Object lessons: history, collections and science museums

Two things on the internet recently caught my eye, which relate to a question I waded into earlier this year: What are science museums for? They also, of course, relate to my job as a curator with responsibility for the subject area of history of science, some of the museum’s science-related object collections, and historical interpretation of the site of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The first is an article in the online journal HOST (Journal of History of Science and Technology) by Ana Delicado: ‘For scientists, for students or for the public? The shifting roles of natural history museums’. The other, a session forthcoming at the Museums Association conference, provocatively titled ‘Are science collections heading for extinction?’ One looks at the history of museums, the other their future.

To look at the past first, Delicado’s article, focusing on Portuguese natural history museums, looks at how their purposes have changed “as a response to the development of natural sciences and societal change” over three centuries. In particular it focuses on the changing emphasis between the three main functions of such museums: “research, teaching and disseminating knowledge to the public”. As such, this article adds a Portuguese angle to what is now a flourishing field in the history of science (I’ve listed some useful reading on the history of museums, particularly science museums, below). Although much of the article is a fairly descriptive chronological account of the institutions, it is useful in suggesting trends that are broadly international but that, nonetheless, play out differently, and at different speeds, within specific national contexts.

This article concludes on a somber note, rightly insisting that “a historical and comparative perspective is indispensable to make informed judgments” about the future of historic collections in touch economic times. Delicado points to the 2010 public consultation on Lisbon’s National Museum of Natural History, recommending its closure. The Museum’s current public programme suggests things are carrying on, but I am not sure whether its future is secured and this is, sadly, just one of a number of recent alarms about loss of financial and institutional support for such museums and collections. Note also that the wonderful Museum Boerhaave has been threatened with closure unless it can raise 700,000 additional euros in 2011, and the equally fantastic Museum of the History of Science in Oxford faces severe cuts in funding.

It’s against this kind of backdrop, as well as longer running debates, that the Museums Association session, Are science collections headed for extinction?, takes place. These debates include the awkward fact that institutions founded to teach and celebrate modern science end up being responsible for what become historic object collections. Science centres are often considered the model for teaching basic scientific principles, through digital and interactive displays, but they leave little room for history of science and display of objects. Another awkward fact is that while an 18th-century orrery is an object of beauty, the instruments of modern science are often unexciting, ugly or feindishly difficult to interpret.

I am, therefore, excited by this planned discussion. The panel will, it is said, “argue that while art galleries and history museums have flourished with impressive new displays bringing collections to a wider audience, science museums have morphed into science centres aimed almost exclusively at children”. They will also suggest that objectless displays will leave collections (and curators) languishing in store, fearing the “logical outcome ” of “disposals, closures and the loss of our scientific and industrial heritage”. However, there is hope in the “alternative ways in which science museums can take a more intelligent, creative approach, learning from the success of the arts to develop better exhibitions and appeal to wider audiences”.

The session is chaired by Ian Blatchford, new Director of the National Museum of Science and Industry (which includes the Science Museum). Blachford’s previous job was Deputy Director of the V&A, which is interesting and, I think, great news for history, objects, curators and audiences at the Science Museum.


Further reading

  • Sam Alberti, ‘Objects and the Museum’, Isis, 96 (2005), pp. 559-571 [JSTOR]
  • R.G.W. Anderson, ‘Connoisseurship, pedagogy or antiquarianism? What were instruments doing in the nineteenth-century national collections in Great Britain?’, Journal of the history of Collections 7 (1995), 211-25 [Oxford Journals]
  • Ken Arnold, Cabinets for the Curious. Looking back at Early English Museums (Ashgate, 2006) [Ashgate]
  • Jim Bennett, ‘Museums and the establishment of the history of science at Oxford and Cambridge’, British Journal for the History of Science, 30 (1997), pp. 29-46 [Cambridge Journals]
  • Jim Bennett, ‘Can science museums take history seriously?’, in Macdonald, S. (ed.), The Politics of Display (London, 1998), pp. 124-137 [PDF]
  • Sophie Forgan, ‘The Architecture of Display: Museums, Universities and Objects in Nineteenth-century Britain’, History of Science, 32 (1994), pp.139-162
  • Peter Morris (ed.), Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) [Palgrave Macmillan]
  • Liba Taub, ‘On the role of museums in history of science, technology and medicine’, Endeavour, 22 (1998), pp. 41-43 [Elsevier]

10 thoughts on “Object lessons: history, collections and science museums

  1. […] The first is an article in the online journal HOST (Journal of History of Science and Technology) by Ana Delicado: ‘For scientists, for students or for the public? The shifting roles of natural history museums’. The other, a session forthcoming at the Museums Association conference, provocatively titled ‘Are science collections heading for extinction?’ One looks at the history of museums, the other their future. Continue reading → […]

  2. I feel myself particularly attached to the Boerhaave Museum, for a number of different reasons, hence your post actually hit me deep. My opinion is that Science musea and Science diffusion centres are already, at some level, and will eventually converge to some sort of hybrid institution where school science teachers, students of the history of Science, and the general public will enjoy from a more thorough presentation of the history, scope, context, methodology and content of scientific enterprises. I hope for a new generation of proposals in which exhibitions are intertwined with pedagogical material and hands-on experience in a way that any one can grasp (at each one’s own level) what doing Science at a particular time, or for a particular purpose, or within a particular framework, was about. We still need a bit of creativity at this, and people with hybrid backgrounds working towards it. For instance, how more interesting it would be to follow an exhibition on, say, some experimental work done by a nineteenth-century scientist, if one could not only see his original setup displayed but also see a working replica of it, or even better if one could make measurements in loco and relate to the experimental difficulties of the setup.
    From the pedagogical point of view, I hope musea can search for more empathy with science teachers and ask them how exhibitions could help the teaching of Science instead of setting their own views on the subject and expecting teachers to sheepishly follow them. There is a lot that can be achieved with initiatives in this respect, like building up a menu of customized exhibitions or tours of the collections, in such a way that teachers can choose which approach would suit him or her best, and actually work together with curators and musea staff. Or travelling exhibitions. Or different levels of courses and lectures on history of Science. Or…
    Anyway, it is good that the question has been raised in the first place. Now there is room for dialogue and ideas to be exchanged.

    • Thanks, Beto. I think there is a lot of willingness to explore new approaches and consider new audiences. There’s also a lot of scope, particularly for large national museums, although it’s an interesting fact that there is often no historian or historian of science among the trustees of the Science Museum (unthinkable at other nationals).

      One thought in response to your comment is that science museums with historical collections should not just be working with science teachers, but also with history teachers, and perhaps thinking how they might open ideas out to geography, art, technology, and many other kinds of teachers.

      But clearly schools and curricula should not be defining the whole museum. I think it’s a sad fact that people usually only visit museums as children, as parents and as grandparents – yet adults will take themselves to art galleries.

      • Indeed, but I think part of it may be due to the fact that visiting the musea as school children hasn’t been such a thrilling experience. It should, somehow. The price we pay is having a society of adults who believe children should go to musea because it is somehow important for their education, but wouldn’t consider going themselves – perhaps because they feel already done with that, like vaccination.

        Agreed that not only Science teachers should be involved in a Science Museum approach to school visitation. It escaped me.

        And just to clarify, it was not my intention to defend that school curricula should define the whole museum. Only wanted to remark that many times (as a teacher) I wish a museum could have a more customized approach to allow me to use the collections and the visit pedagogically. This is a point I insist around here because lately there has been a lot of money put into Science diffusion centres built by university scientific departments and other research centres but they all look the same: it is a collection of a variety of so-called “experiments” (or “demonstrations”), which are fine, friendly etc., but useless for a teacher pedagogically because you are never dealing with that much science content at the same time in class, and you would like to have a more (thematically) focused exhibition. On the other hand there is one (and only one) such place where they actually managed to have a menu of different experiments on several topics in the Physics curriculum, where the teacher ravishes in taking his or her students and literally order

  3. (continuing) the experiments from the menu he or she finds suitable for what is being taugth in class at that particular time. It is this kind of approach I think Science centres and musea should be able to provide when thinking about the school target public.

    Again, I am not defending this should be the only approach to Science musea or Science centres. Or any museum or centre, actually. We should go flexible, that’s my point.

    • Agreed – and so much also depends on the physical space available to each museum, its location, the nature of their collections and so on. Flexibility, creativity and thoughtfulness are key (which are traits wonderfully displayed by the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, which makes any threat to their current practice a disgrace!).

      • Why don’t we have ‘scientific performances’ going on at the science musea? I mean, imagine how wonderful it could be to drop by to watch a kind of dramatized vivissection made by actors-anatomists-historians of science replicating the old-style anatomy classes from the XVIIth century? Or someone playing Hertz as he manages to send an electromagnetic signal across the air from one circuit to another? Or.. well, you’ve got the idea.

      • A *real* dissection? Maybe not! I can certainly think of a few museums with actors playing scientific characters (there’s a GB Airy at the Royal Observatory, for a start), and some recreations of experiments or demonstrations available online, but I’m not sure I know anywhere that combines the two. It would require a host of actors with good experimental skills, or technicians who can act!

  4. I am greatly looking forward to visiting the re-vamped National museum in Edinburgh once the festival is over and I can catch it on a quite day.

    It does look as if it is attempting to provide a more joined up approach than it has in the past.

    I know a number of historians at the time were less than happy with the departmentalised approach taken with regard to some archaeological objects.

    Finds when entering the door of the museum were split, say you have a coin hoard found in a pot wrapped in a piece of fabric; coins go to the coin expert, pottery to the pottery expert and fabric to the textile expert.

    Rather than coming back together and exhibiting them in their full context the exhibition of objects seemed to reflect the internal organization and structure of the museum rather than anything else. Each object was displayed in isolation, in it’s respective department and it’s full context was lost.

    I had no interest in science other than the way it’s methodology is used in the humanities until I understood that I could not fully understand wider historical and ethnological question that motivate me to learn without engaging with science.

    I need that wider hook to reel me in.

    I wonder if the relationship between different museums could be closer and more linked? National Museums would seem to be the place to explore the wider context and should inspire people to become interested in and wish to explore more specialized institutions. Specialized institutions could in turn reflect the relationship.

    • Thanks for this comment – I definitely agree with you here. Interestingly I had a conversation with one of the science curators at the NMS, who was rather sad that they had lost their gallery if scientific instruments. But, I said, surely having parts of such collections displayed within more general historical stories is what we want? They grudgingly admitted, probably so.

      I agree it’s a shame to have things languishing in store, but they’re much more meaningful if woven into wider stories. Ideally, at the same time, access to collections in store can be improved with online catalogues and more open storage facilities.

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