Book review: Scientific instruments on display

An edited version of this review appeared in the British Journal for the History of Science in December 2015.


Ackermann, Silke, Kremer, Richard L., and Miniati, Mara, Scientific Instruments on Display. Leiden: Brill, 2014. Pp. xxxiv + 231. ISBN 978-90-04-26439-7. £88 (hardback).

The twelve chapters in this volume are drawn from papers given at the 2010 Scientific Instrument Symposium, which met in the newly renovated Museo Galileo and took the theme “Instruments on Display”. Some of the contributions are fairly slight in length and analysis, but together they encourage “thinking about the cultural, technical or scientific significance of how scientific instruments have been displayed in venues other than those for which they were originally made”, even if they do not quite lead to “general frameworks” for such thoughts (p. xvii). The usefulness of the collection is in its variety. “Display” and “instruments” are interpreted broadly, generating a plurality of meanings that reflect changing views of science, instruments, the public, museums and markets. Instruments rather rarely appear as tools but are, instead, commodities, relics, adornments, scenery and means of educating or conveying national, cultural, institutional, scientific or technical histories. Likewise, while “display” often relates to museum galleries and exhibitions, it also points to schoolrooms, laboratories, observatories, showrooms, theatres, cinemas, books and portraits.

The book opens with its longest chapter: Marco Beretta on the Museo di Storia della Scienza (now Museo Galileo) in Florence and its founder and champion Andrea Corsini. Drawing on the museum’s archives, including photographs of early displays, we see the manoeuvring required to develop this “shrine to science” (p. 4), for scholarly study and public edification. Beretta reveals Corsini’s labours, competing schemes that threatened them and the development of the displays. We learn that Corsini had an international scholarly correspondence, and it would have been interesting to pursue the question of cross-national similarities and differences. Why was the early twentieth century a key moment, across Europe and the US, for historic scientific instrument collections, but, also, what was specific to Italy and Florence? Beretta is anxious to absolve Corsini of association with fascism, but rather passes over Mussolini’s opening of the museum and the fact that its “most steadfast patron”, Prince Piero Ginori Conti, was a “convinced supporter” (p. 22). Surely these things influenced the museum’s presentation of scientific instruments.

The theme of individual passion as the motivating force behind instrument displays is evident elsewhere. The Paris Observatory’s display of its “patrimonial collections”, discussed by Laurence Bobis and Suzanne Débarbat, was about institutional identity but required individual directors to value defunct instruments, displays and public interest. The university displays discussed by Steven Turner and Richard Paselk were absolutely reliant on individuals. Turner describes Chicago’s Science Teaching Museum, a “Demonstration Laboratory” set up by physics professor Harvey B. Lemon, which gained admiration and imitators but closed when he resigned. Paselk is the “guardian angel” (p. 148) of Humboldt State University’s scientific instruments museum, as collector, curator and fundraiser. His chapter, describing its genesis and development, reinforced by an early online presence, gives insight into the collectors’ role, although it might helpfully have raised questions of motivation and meaning.

The chapters by Alison Boyle, Richard Dunn and Silke Ackermann form a useful group. They focus on three major London institutions – the Science Museum (SM), the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the British Museum (BM) – and chart changes to the city’s museological landscape and the identities of each institution. Similar instruments could be displayed in each for significantly different purposes, illustrating scientific principles, the techniques of applied art or aspects of cultural history. However, internal changes and conflicts also played out in displays and floor plans that reflect the views of directors, curators, scientists, educators or industrial partners. As Boyle shows, the SM’s purpose of educating the public about modern science has often sat awkwardly with its role as a custodian of historical collections. In Florence, instruments were collected as relics and historical artefacts, but at the SM they often became so only accidentally, as time passed and as curators moved away from presenting modern science through linear sequences of instrumental development. The result has been “akin to two different institutions – a science museum and a science centre – sharing space within one building.” (p. 54).

As Dunn writes, the SM and V&A are “two very different institutions with a common origin” (p. 61). Scientific instruments have formed a small but persistent part of the latter’s collections, not to illustrate principles or histories of scientific disciplines but as examples of the applied arts. Their function was largely irrelevant, with focus instead on materials, techniques and decoration. However, the V&A’s increasingly historical approach has encouraged attention to instruments’ uses, relating to domesticity or fashion as much as science and knowledge. This brings V&A’s recent displays close to those of the BM, as described by Ackermann. While its eighteenth-century founders might aspire to an encyclopaedic collection, subsequently, and with the foundation of other museums, the presence of scientific artefacts raised questions and required justification. Today, however, they are seen as being one aspect of wider cultures: they “naturally take their place” alongside other objects associated with a particular time and location (p. 92).

A common complaint regarding modern museum displays is that they include relatively few objects. Curators could, however, take inspiration from other kinds of presentation described here, which are as historically specific as, say, recreated laboratories. There are, for example, the dense displays created by instrument manufacturers for world expositions, as described by Richard Kremer, in his chapter on the United States Centennial Exhibition, and by Peggy Kidwell and Amy Ackerberg-Hastings, as part of their chapter on the various contexts of slide rule display. Even the most humble instruments could be made aesthetically pleasing when arranged, en mass, in geometric patterns. Inga Elmqvist Söderlund likewise shows how instruments could be displayed as enticing commodities and objects of desire in seventeenth-century frontispieces.

As Ingrid Jendrzejewski’s chapter on seventeenth-century theatrical productions reminds us, however, in different contexts instruments can be objects of ridicule. Telescopes quickly moved from novelty requiring exposition to recognised resource for metaphor and humour, symbolising deception, lack of perspective or a failure to take up accepted social roles. “[M]ost characters who carried telescopes on the seventeenth-century stage were not meant to be taken seriously” (p. 179). Jendrzejewski’s examples include instruments being evoked verbally and stage directions requiring actors to carry or manipulate “all manner of Mathematical Instruments” (p. 183). It would be fascinating to know more about such props: were they real instruments, or based on them, and what were audiences presumed to recognise? They were, undoubtedly, a long way from the realistic props and scenery required in film, discussed in the short contribution from Ileana Chinnici, Donatella Randazzo and Fausto Casi. Remarkably, the 1963 film of The Leopard featured antique instruments once owned by Prince Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, the inspiration for the story’s main character.

Given the visual and material focus, it is good that each chapter is well illustrated. Collectively, the images are suggestive of changes over time and the broad ways in which the theme can be interpreted. They form a provocative source that, along with the case studies, can be put to use by scholars interested in the history of science, scientific instruments, material culture, museums and the history of science in public. It joins a growing literature that reveals a desire to bring such studies together to their mutual benefit.

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