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.
- 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]