Consultant to the Science Museum, London (2003 to 2004)
The revival of national museums as research centres, and an increasing recognition of museum culture as inherently a research culture, has been an important feature of the last 15 years in UK intellectual life. Following my work as Development Manager at the Royal Society, I was approached by the Science Museum for strategic advice on the structuring of their Research and Residencies Unit; on implementing internal mechanisms for research facilitation; on building partnership networks; and on matching projects to fundraising targets.
The corporate importance of ‘museum research’ started to gain real headway in the early 1990s. The instatement of a dedicated Research Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, with post-graduate programmes in history of design run jointly with the Royal College of Art, became a model to follow. For other kinds of museums, such as science museums, this was a difficult route to follow, as it pre-supposed a shared understanding of the value of their work to humanities disciplines.
This situation improved in the UK with the creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board in 1998, which recognised history of science as an important field, and it began to get really interesting when the AHRB made moves to become a full-fledged research council from 2002. As the case for this was made, a number of museums were approached and asked to consider how they could contribute strategically to humanities research and what they would require infrastructurally to effect such a contribution. When the AHRC — for Council — was created, one of the first acts of the Council was to create a status for non-university research centres, known as Independent Research Organisation status, or ‘IRO.’
The Science Museum has a long-standing and productive relationship with Imperial College, and it both serves and benefits from an international group of colleagues in history and museology of science. Funding this activity, and creating a profile for it, was an important goal. In 2004, before the AHRB became the AHRC, I was approached by Dr Tim Boon (now Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum) as a consultant to help shape the Science Museum’s research programme to be fit for purpose.
I have known Tim since my research residencies at the Science Museum from 1996 – 1999, during which time I produced — with his help and that of other curators — both Open Book (1996) and Atomism & Animism (1999). When I was designing a proposal for a history of science research centre at the Royal Society during the tenure of my post as Development Manager, I asked him to be a member of the proposed Advisory Board* and shared with him my 40 page business plan. He was thus aware that my knowledge of the intersections between history of science, museums and archives, and funding opportunities, were very much up to date.
By 2005, the AHRC had been created, and in 2009 the Science Museum became (as the National Museum of Science and Industry) an AHRC-recognised Independent Research Organisation — just as I began work next door at the Natural History Museum, helping to set up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research.
* Though there is now a fantastic Centre for History of Science at the Royal Society, it differs somewhat from the structure I had proposed in 2001, and does not have an advisory board to my knowledge.
[Image References: bird’s eye view of the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World galleries (co-curators Tim Boon, Andrew Nahum and Alex Hayward); close-up of the reconstruction of Babbage’s Difference Engine at the Science Museum]