From Le Musée des Sciences to the Science Museum

From Le Musée des Sciences to the Science Museum: fifteen years of evolving methodologies in the art-science interface: Doctoral Thesis, School of Art Architecture and Design, LMU (2004)

An analytical reflection on my intellectual and professional trajectory from site specific installations to museum collection interpretation, this doctoral project was a hybrid of PhD by Published Work and PhD by Practice.  In it I parse developments in the approaches I have taken to exploring the history and material culture of science both as a museum professional and as an artist.  I identify the transferable methods and the longer-term implications for museology of science generally, and posit the museum as a laboratory for science itself.


Here is the abstract:

The submission of published work of this practice-based doctoral thesis spans a period of 15 years from 1984 to 1999 and includes original artwork of international significance in visual documentary form as well as exhibition publications, museum interpretation materials, book chapters, and conference proceedings.

In a variety of creative and critical ways, my work as an artist over this period has investigated and contributed to the evolving place of artistic and museological practices in uncovering deep-structure links between the arts and the sciences in terms of shared methodologies and epistemological inquiries.

The synthesis focuses on methodology and practice in the production of my exhibition Atomism & Animism (Fleming, London, 1999) through the period of my artist residency from 1996 to 1999 at the Science Museum London. It begins by charting the acquisition of intellectual and practical skills during the making of Le Musée des Sciences (Fleming & Lapointe, Montreal, 1984) which is referenced extensively in Studiolo (Fleming, Johnstone and Lapointe 1997) and which was informed by readings of Feyerabend and Foucault.

The synthesis goes on to examine the evolution of my development as an artist uniquely exploring science/art links through museum exhibition practice and methodology, setting this evolution in an historically informed contextual framework. This framework has two broad aspects: the development of contemporary artists’ practices in relation to non-art museums and museology in general, and the development of ideas of public understanding of science within a science museology milieu.

I examine aspects of the flow between these contexts and my own work via the reference point of my lecture Paradigm & Diagram: How Artists Think Science (Fleming, 1996), which I wrote whilst producing Open Book (1996) for the Science Museum and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The official residency at the Science Museum during which I produced Atomism & Animism (Fleming, London, 1999) followed on immediately, beginning October 1997. All three of these works are rooted in readings from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough.

The conclusion outlines the unique bodies of cultural knowledge produced by the works which I submit, and proposes that their innovative exploration of subjectivity in the display of objects of science can in turn become a study arena for a scientific approach to consciousness. The synthesis finishes with an evaluation of the implications of my work for future interdisciplinary research between artists, scientists and cultural institutions.


Many of the methods Lyne Lapointe and I employed and developed for Le Musée des Sciences (1984) involved institutional critique — including the institution of perspective, and with it, a range of representational conventions. Museum parody was a highly important aspect of this project, including the parody of signposting and wayfaring, open storage, salon-style hanging of paintings, the products of education departments, and more.

Conversely, much later when working in a real science museum — THE Science Museum, London — I found the most useful counterpoints to this new context were not museological methods, but rather aesthetic ones: skills I had acquired as an artist.  In creating Atomism & Animism (1999), I employed formal analysis and isomorphic comparison, juxtaposition of scale and of dimensions, puncturing realism and creating alternative narrative scenarios, rupturing received meaning through insertion and intervention in existent displays.

From the thesis:

Many artists have made museum parodies in their own studios. Some of us, as can be seen in Le Musée des Sciences, have sought to create alternative museums in spaces which are social or cultural no-mans-lands — neither studio nor museum. Still others have parodied anthropological or natural history collections inside the confines of the fine art museum when they are given the chance. Another tactic is to drop artworks into non-art museum display contexts.

But examples of artists actually working directly with existent collections inside the logic of individual museums, and making this the very subject of their inquiry from within are very rare. This sort of investigation is the kind of project which always points out of its apparently hermetic specificity to become epistemological in nature. It is an activity for which one must have stamina, sustained vision, and highly developed diplomatic as well as intellectual tools. It does not so much differ from curatorial practice as extend it by bending its laws to breaking point; in fact, bending them round so that they face each other and form a question mark as much about themselves as about the entire practice of collection and display.


In the intervening 12 years since I made Atomism & Animism, many similar approaches to collecting and displaying science and other forms of material culture have begun to be employed by museum professionals themselves seeking to pose these very same questions from within. It is also much more common now to see artists in residence in non-art museums. My thesis attests to the contribution artists make, even — and perhaps especially — to the institutions they critique.

The project of analysing my own methodologies and techniques foregrounded the inherent questions posed by the success of the projects themselves: who can practice history and philosophy of science, and how do artists’ methodologies enrich this field?  It is here that it became clear to me that my work in museums contributes to their increasing profile as laboratories for the development of interdisciplinary research.

My Supervisor was the design historian Professor Guy Julier, now Principal Research Fellow in Contemporary Design — a post held across the Victoria & Albert Museum Research Department and the University of Brighton.  As a co-supervisor with experience in history of science and in museums, I had Dr Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust.