Tag Archive for: Conferences

Politics of Natural History

cinchona bark and peruvian researcher roque rodriguez

Natural historical materials, beyond the more obvious case of physical anthropology, have remained until quite recently largely outside of the important discussion and debate around heritage — both tangible and intangible — in relation to human rights and cultural goods across an asymmetric globe.

 

The deep schism in museological practice and function between museums of material culture — be they decorative arts, ethnography, archaeology, or fine art museums — and the museum of natural history may have briefly postponed the moment when these issues become critically important to examine, but such arbitrary disciplinary differences are increasingly intellectually untenable in the face of the moral imperative of decolonisation.

This exclusion of natural historical materials from this debate to date has in part been due to the very strong ring-fencing and contextualisation of these kinds of materials as existing in a circumscribed ‘science’ arena that is incorrectly deemed to be entirely outside a cultural or heritage framework.  Collections of zoological materials and herbaria in particular have been understood through the twentieth century to have significance in the Global North mainly for the life sciences such as biology, zoology, molecular research and genetics, phytology, chemistry and so on.  And in this same period, science practice itself was well scaffolded as being concerned uniquely with absolute, repeatable, timeless and discoverable matters of fact that were in no way open to the productive ambiguity of the cultural ‘objet’.

This broad-brush outline fits if we look at 20th century natural history from the point of view of most biologists.  But it does not tell the whole story if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians and philosophers of science and of knowledge practices in the 21st century, and if we look at natural history from the point of view of historians of collections and of globalisation. It is certainly not the whole story for indigenous peoples whose deep-time worldviews include, to take but one example, direct connections between ancestors and organic materials such as dried plants — organic materials with spiritual and cultural attributes, as well as (or in spite of) its western scientific attributes.

I have been investigating the relationship between natural history, colonisation, and museum practice for many years in different contexts — beginning with the large-scale site-specific project The Wilds and The Deep, which I created with Lyne Lapointe in 1990, through to my work at London’s Natural History Museum two decades later when I was part of the team setting up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research there.  But recently there has been an acceleration of research in this nexus, and I have shared my expertise with colleagues in  Göttingen, Berlin, Copenhagen and London over the past year alone.

In Berlin, I spoke at the ‘Politics of Natural History’ conference organised by the Museum für Naturkunde and the Technische Universität Berlin in September of 2018.  Alongside the historian of natural history Dominik Hünniger, we presented preliminary findings from a workshop that we had led during my research fellowship at the University of Göttingen earlier that year.  Our joint presentation, Putting Metadata to Work: Modelling Information on Historical Collections of Natural History in Social Justice Contexts, outlined some of the difficulties to be encountered in aligning bodies of knowledge from different time periods, knowledge regimes, and cultural contexts, and in attempting to configure those bodies of knowledge in more equitable relations.

A sustained and ongoing investigation into the histories, methods and influences of globalised economic botany is being led at Kew Gardens by Felix Driver, Caroline Cornish and Mark Nesbitt.  This May 2019, their international conference ‘Collections in Circulation’ will see a highly interdisciplinary group of museum professionals and other researchers delve into what happens to biocultural collections over their long lifespans and wide circulations.  I will also be speaking at this event, summing up and highlighting what the papers might collectively be pointing towards.

 

Cinchona Distribution in GBIG

[Image References:  Herbarium specimen of Theobroma cacao, as collected by Sir Hans Sloane in Jamaica in 1687 (NHM London); bark of the Cinchona tree held by Roque Rodriguez; Screenshot of the distribution of herbarium specimens of Cinchona ledgeriana]

Research Fellow, University of Göttingen (2018)

Sammlungen-der-Universitaet-erhalten-Zentrale-Kustodie

Deepening and renewing the connections between university research and collections, the University of Göttingen has created a ‘Zentrale Kustodie’  as a development centre for its extraordinarily rich collections, amassed over 250 years. It has a dedicated and highly trained staff under the leadership of Dr Marie Luisa Allemeyer, and work has already begun on the Forum Wissen — a future venue for collections research, exhibition and communication that will have an extensive public-facing programme. Due to open in a few short years in what was once the University’s Natural History Museum, Forum Wissen will significantly improve the landscape for interdisciplinary teaching and learning with, through and about collections. Partnering these developments, the University’s Institute for Advanced Study, the Litchtenberg Kolleg, extends invitations and infrastructures to visiting researchers whose knowledge spans collections practice and histories, and the histories of the disciplines.

 

 

This year I have been a Visiting Scholar at the Lichtenberg Kolleg, The University of Göttingen Institute for Advanced Study. This is a joint Fellowship with support from, and collaboration with, the University’s Zentrale Kustodie for university collections and the Office of the Chair in the Materiality of Knowledge. Working with all three entities on a range of projects, it has been a stimulating and exciting time.

 

It was not my first visit to Göttingen: in February of 2016 I was invited by Marie Luisa Allemeyer, Director of the Zentrale Kustodie, to speak on the ‘Wissensort Museum’ Programme of lectures known as the Ringvorlesung. Following the lecture I was able to spend several days at the University as a guest of the Zentrale Kustodie, visiting and viewing the extensive departmental collections and discussing the research and teaching plans that the Kustodie has been developing for one of the most innovative and inspiring initiatives taking place in university museum contexts today. When I received the invitation to return to the University of Göttingen that was extended by Dominik Hünniger, the Managing Director of the Lichtenberg Kolleg, I was delighted.

 

The Lichtenberg Kolleg has a research working group dedicated to Enlightenment Studies: ‘Globalising the Enlightenment: Knowledge, Culture, Travel, Exchange and Collections.’ It is a wide-ranging and rigorous remit, ensuring ‘the interdisciplinary study of the Göttingen and European Enlightenment(s) within its wider Atlantic and Global Contexts. Göttingen is not only associated with the Enlightenment’s German manifestations, but also with the Enlightenment of other European and Atlantic regions and countries.’ In this framework I have been having a closer look at the European networks of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), furthering my work on the origins and meanings of Sloane’s early modern collections that are the foundation collections of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum.

 

The Fellowship has also enabled me to work with Dominik, who is also an historian of science with an interest in natural history collections and entomology in particular. While working at the Natural History Museum (London) to help set up a Centre for Arts and Humanities Research there from 2009-2011, I had recommended that the Museum and its collections could be a significant focus for understanding the co-production of scientific and medical knowledge in the historical context of early modern colonisation and global trade. In the blueprint for CAHR’s Strategic Research Programme that I authored in 2011, I wrote:

‘Increasingly in history of science circles, the co-production of scientific knowledge and method in the experience of ‘first contacts’ is becoming an area of sustained research. Professor James Delbourgo, Professor Londa Scheibinger, Professor Neil Safier, and Dr Kathleen Murphy are looking at North and South American contexts, and others are approaching the Indian Subcontinent and Australasia. New models of international agreement for the stewardship of global ecosystems are emerging. At the Nagoya 2010 meeting of the Convention on Biodiversity, a number of binding international agreements were made, not least the agreement on Access and Benefit Sharing of genetic resources in the biosphere. Though the protocol is not retroactively binding and therefore does not cover collections such as the NHM, it is related structurally and morally to the Traditional Knowledge (TK) that is bound up in the collections: the Museum needs humanities advice about how best to approach these issues with a long-term view.’

 

Dominik and I discussed these issues and the increasing body of humanities research that is dovetailing together the histories of colonisation and empire, environmental history, histories of collections, and histories of science and knowledge production. We then designed an exploratory workshop for Göttingen researchers which could begin to chart this research territory in relation to present-day policy contexts. These current policy contexts go beyond the Nagoya Protocol to include, for example, the Intergovernmental Committee on Traditional Knowledge that is being managed through the World Intellectual Property Organisation. What might early modern museum catalogues contain in terms of critical information about the contributions of the colonised and the enslaved to the long-term development of biological and medical knowledge? Are these archival records forms of ‘intellectual property’ that could have value in social justice contexts as well as in epistemological contexts?

 

We took these thoughts and the contributions of our working group to the recent conference ‘Politics of Natural History‘ organised by the Museums für Naturkunde in Berlin. The subtitle of the conference was ‘How to Decolonise the Natural History Museum?’ and this remains an open question: we hope that our contribution will have gone some way towards the kinds of methods that will have to be developed in order to make this a reality. In terms of my own histories, I can see this question recurring again and again — both with The Wilds and The Deep (1990) and in my work with CAHR (2009-2011).

 

 

UGottingen Zentrale Kustordie Research

 

Working in Göttingen also gave me the opportunity to reconnect with Margarete Vöhringer, who has been appointed as Professor in the University’s Chair for the Materiality of Knowledge — a position unique to my knowledge in Europe. Her Professorship will see her working across disciplines in her areas of expertise between the history of art and the history of science, working closely with the Zentrale Kustodie and the University’s collections to train students at all levels in methods of material culture of the history of knowledge. With Margarete I have been sharing knowledge about training in collections-based research and looking at the design of pedagogical underpinnings for the group of doctoral researchers who will be taking up Volkswagen-Stiftung funded scholarships this academic year to study the history of exhibitions.

 

It is not the first time that Margarete and I have worked on histories of exhibitions in tandem. I first met Margarete in 2008 when we were both researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and then in 2010 she co-convened a significant conference entitled ‘Wissenschaft im Museum / Austellung im Laborat the Universität Tübingen with Anke Te Heesen (now Professor of the History of Science at the Humboldt University, Berlin). The premise was to explore the porosity between museum practice and science practice – across the whole range of sites of knowledge from labs and teaching contexts to exhibitions and professional self-fashioning. As one of the speakers, I presented an overview of the development of Split + Splice (2009) alongside co-curator Susanne Bauer. The proceedings have been published by Kadmos, appearing in 2014 under the same title as the conference.

 

This conference was also my first introduction to Christian Vogel, who at the time presented early draft sections of what was then his doctoral project, concerning the design of lab and clinic based X-Ray displays in Germany in the 1910s. Happily, Christian is now the Research Manager at the Zentrale Kustodie at the University of Göttingen, and he worked closely with Margarete to develop the framework for the history of exhibitions doctoral projects that Margarete is leading. It was wonderful to be invited to bring my own expertise into this context, working with colleagues I respect and admire.

 

Forum Wissen UGottingen Math Models

 

I was also invited to contribute to some of the development workshops for the design of research teaching and training with the University’s collections that will be taking place in the new Forum Wissen building currently under construction. The pedagogical design process includes plans for both built infrastructures and the processes and practices that will be required to activate the collections in cross-disciplinary ways. Among the most exciting things about Forum Wissen is that it will deeply embed collections from across the university departments in teaching and research in a single site, circulating the material culture of one discipline and department into the methodological orbit of another.

 

Spearheading the development of the Forum Wissen is the Director of the Zentrale Kustodie, Marie Luisa Allemeyer. I first met both Dominik Hünniger and Marie Luisa Allemeyer in 2015 at a meeting of international University museum directors and research directors convened by The Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow. It was one of a cluster of meetings held that year to begin articulating the research practices that are the tacit knowledge of museum practice, and to begin to articulate them as ‘Museum as Method’ to borrow Nick Thomas’s phrase. We were also all three present a year later at the Museum as Method conference held at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. In the run-up to that conference, I laid out some of the territory that needs to be addressed on the blogsite of the ERC-funded Pacific Presences project.

 

Marie Luisa’s work in creating the team at the Zentrale Kustodie and in leading the consensus and collaboration process that is supporting both departmental collections management and the creation of the Forum Wissen is exemplary and inspiring. Supported directly by the University’s President and by an international advisory team, these interlocking projects are among the most exciting developments in University museum practice, teaching and research to be found in Europe today in my opinion. Germany is ahead of the game in joining up these dots: for the past six years, the Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany under the sustained leadership of Dr Cornelia Weber and the guidance of Professor Dr Jochen Brüning, has consistently and persuasively made the case for the huge value of university collections to both research and teaching. With the Forum Wissen and the team at the Zentrale Kustodie, this value will finally be manifest.

 

 

Further Links: Forum Wissen Brochure;  Zentrale Kustodie;  Lichtenberg Kolleg;

 

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage

Svalbard_Global_Seed_Bank_Matthias_Heyde

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage (2015-2016)

AAFH — or ‘Heritage Futures’ — is a flagship four-year research project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council in the ‘Care for the Future’ strategic programme. Four interconnected themes, each led by a separate researcher, will ‘explore the potential for innovation and creative exchange across a broad range of heritage and related fields, in partnership with a number of academic and non-academic institutions and interest groups.’

 

I received a call from Sharon MacDonald in February of 2014, telling me about an exciting large-scale project that she had been developing with other colleagues. The project would explore and recalibrate the collecting and preserving of cultural and natural heritage in all its complex manifestations — material, digital, intangible — in the framework of 21st century social, technological and economic contexts, as well as the environmental shifts of the anthropocene.  They were looking for a colleague to join the group as part of the funding bid package, a colleague who had the skills to address and effect inter-institutional and interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, and to guide in the formulation of exhibitionary experiments.  With my experience of cross-polinating between museum and academia, and my extensive involvement with collecting institutions across the range from natural historical to biological and anatomical, including historical material culture and archival collections, Sharon felt I would be a good fit.

Sharon and I have known each other and each others’ work for many years, crossing paths notably at the Science Museum in the late 1990s, when I was creating Atomism & Animism, and she was researching and writing Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum. But this was an opportunity to actually work together for the first time, and I was delighted to accept. As a named researcher on the AHRC Grant Application, my areas of activity are outlined in the Case for Support as ‘Senior Research Assistant (knowledge exchange and cross-disciplinary working)’; facilitating ‘cross-WP KEPWs’, ‘interdisciplinary knowledge exchange, dissemination and impact’, ‘pop-up kiosk exhibitions and overall programme-level exhibition’.

Shortly after the grant was awarded, the full team held a working meeting to get to know each other, our areas of interest, and to explore the overarching links between each others’ research questions. The meeting was held in October 2014 at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, kindly hosted by one of the Co-Investigators, Cornelius Holtorf, who is Professor of Archaeology at Linnaeus University and Director of the Graduate School in Contract Archaeology.

AAFH_Team_Kalmar_2014

 

The project got going in earnest in April 2015, and at our May planning meeting that year I contributed three overview presentations — one concerning exhibition practice and experiments, another concerning virtual research environments for the Team, and a third concerning planning and record-keeping for impact ‘narratives.’  During our workshops, my contributions and critiques concerning controlled vocabularies and metadata, current museum practice, and history-of-science approaches to understanding the move from material to molecular in biological collections were valued.

Over the following year, I produced several proposals for the integration of innovative exhibitionary practices into the field work, research programme, and knowledge exchange events of AAFH, as well as concepts and budgets for flexible pop-up displays that could work as well in public fora as they would in academic contexts. I outlined a number of these proposals in a lecture entitled ‘Ideas on the Move’, at the invitation of the Bikuben Foundation, Denmark, on the occasion of their symposium Considering Exhibitions (National Museum of Denmark, 23 August 2015).

I built a virtual research environment for the Team using Google Drive and tools, so that it was up and running rapidly — and then I restructured and migrated our data into Evernote so that the advantages of Evernote’s tagging and workchat would better support this highly distributed Team. My contributions to the VRE included a list of visual artists whose work and practices would be of value and interest to the Team members — in this way, I introduced them to the work of artists such as Yann Mingard, Bill Burns, Maria Thereza Alvez, Lisa Autogena, and the Boyle Family.  I was also able to direct the Team to best practice guidelines in commissioning and working with artists. In the end, the project has mainly focused on filmmaking, with lead Creative Fellow Antony Lyons not only training all five research associates in filmmaking, but also bringing his own subsequent Arts Council Grant to the table.

I also built a quick-and-dirty website to rapidy profile the project online while I drew up a requirements document and spec-sheet for the real thing, researching best-fit designers. The Team went with the creative agency that I had identified — The District (Cambridge) — who have done a great job as you can see on the AAFH website.

As the Heritage Futures project developed, individual projects differentiated themselves and began their unique research trajectories.  When I was offered the chance in later 2016 to take up the post of Deputy Director at the V&A Research Institute, where I would be in a position to begin actually experimenting with and operationalising process design in museum future-making, I took it.  

 

Traditional medicines for sale at kiosks; Wolong Nature Reserve,

 

Further Links: Sharon MacDonald, Humboldt Professor; Antony Lyons, Filmmaker

[Image References: Svalbard Global Seed Bank Entryway, Norway, by Mari Tefre; Svalbard Global Seed Bank Underground Corridor, by Matthias Heyde; Group Photo, First Team Meeting, Kalmar 2014; IUCN: traditional medicines market, Wolong, China]

Museums as Social Learning Spaces: Denmark

thomas_ravn_speaking_at_den_gamle_by_open_air_museum

‘Inclusion and Interdisciplinarity’ at Social Learning Space & Knowledge Producing Processes: the Danish Museums & Galleries User Survey (May 2013)

As part of a group of four international experts, I participated in a week-long tour of Danish Museums which culminated in a two-day conference at the contemporary art museum Arken (13-15 May 2013). Organised by the Danish Government’s Kulturstyrelsen, both the tour and the conference were intended to stimulate practices leading to deeper connections between museums and their visitors, and between the visitors themselves. The other members of the expert group were Lynn Dierking, John Falk, and Amareswar Galla.

 

My contribution to the conference concerned the direct relationship between innovative museum practice and the quality, quantity and kind of visitors that frequent a museum. I proposed that a robust interdisciplinary process of thinking and working – across museum departments and with outside colleagues – can produce projects that inherently engage new audiences, and engage return audiences at a deeper level than ever before. This is certainly an approach that I have deployed to good effect in my own work – not least in a Danish museum, the Medical Museion of the University of Copenhagen.

Each of us four keynote speakers had been paired with a Danish museum: my ‘twin’ for the conference was Naturama, a relatively new and successful visitor attraction that has been built up from an historically significant collection of Danish natural history specimens – The Svendborg Zoologiske Museum.

naturama_svendborg_denmark

I was able to bring together knowledge garnered while I was working at the Natural History Museum (London) and research being effected in animal studies arenas, alongside groundbreaking exhibition projects by artists such as Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson and others, in order to propose some concrete ways in which Naturama – and indeed other natural history museums – can work with their collections to think differently and anew about both nature and visitors.

The Kulturstyrelsen (Danish Agency for Culture) has uploaded to their YouTube channel the video documents made of this and the other presentations at the conference, and it makes really informative viewing. The shift from a focus on project to a focus on process is an important one, and I was impressed by the range and number of delegates to the conference. Over 200 museum professionals attended, and participated in four short workshops devised by the speakers with a view to developing practical tools and strategies to galvanise the their spaces, collections, colleagues and websites into dynamic nodes of social exchange and knowledge production.

The attendees represent the 200 museums and galleries in Denmark that participate every year in the production of a User Survey. Museum visitor surveys and evaluation practices have become ubiquitous, but the design of the questions and the use of the data is rarely as interesting as in the 2012 Danish Kulturstyrelsen Survey and conference. This past year, the survey included a series of questions designed by lifelong learning specialist John Falk (also one of the expert group for the tour and conference) to explore learning styles and visitor motivations far beyond number-and-type demographics.

The outcome is a revelation. Far from the market segmentation of the usual visitor survey, Falk’s approach gives a sense of continuity between visitors and non-visitors, why and how, thoughts and feelings, meeting place and head-space. Outlined in the User Survey publication – which also includes a more traditional, 20th century-style overview of the visitor to Danish Museums – Falk’s approach offers a dynamic set of working propositions for fostering great partnerships between museums and people.

The publication also includes an inspiring introduction by Ida Brændholt Lundgaard, the Kulturstyrelsen’s Senior Adviser for Museums, and her assistant Jacob Thorek Jensen. Danes are not afraid of philosophy, and the introduction is refreshingly coherent in relation to the phenomenological aspects of the museum experience as well as a careful analysis of visitor metrics. It was Ida and Jacob who also organised our tour of Danish museums which preceded the conference.

Over a number of days, they took me, Lynn, John and Amar to see the following museums and meet with their directors and staff to discuss learning partnerships in museum contexts.

  • Kunsten, Museum of Modern Art (Aalborg)
  • Skagen Museum (Skagen)
  • Michael and Anna Anchers House (Skagen)
  • Museum Jorn (Silkeborg)
  • Den Gamle By Open Air Museum (Aarhus)
  • Royal Jelling Monument (Jelling)
  • Naturama (Svendborg)
  • Roskilde Cathedral Heritage Site (Roskilde)
  • Viking Ship Museum (Roskilde)
  • Copenhagen City Museum (Copenhagen)

 

Along the way, we walked in heritage landscapes such as Grenen Strand and the palisades built by Harald Bluetooth in the 900s. We also saw ports and countryside, agricultural histories and seafaring, fishing histories carved into the coast and the loam. This too is highly significant cultural heritage and the interplay with museum and gallery presentation is both subtle and deep. What the trip from Skagen to Svendborg and across to Copenhagen meant was that by the time the ‘expert group’ stood at the podium to present our papers at the conference, we had a much more deeply nuanced sense of the integrity of Danish cultural life and museum practice than would have been imagined even a week before.*

I hope that our visit, so beautifully hosted by the Danish Cultural Agency and the generous museums we visited, has returned this hospitality with useful and inspiring thoughts. Museums and their collections of all kinds have extraordinary potential to radically improve well-being, social cohesion, levels of common knowledge, skills for life, and the capacity for reflection.

skagens_museum_brondums_dining_room

 

 

My lecture has been videocast by the Danish Kulturstyrelsen on their YouTube Channel. The entire conference can be accessed through the Kulturstyrelsen Museums Department website.

Further Links: Danish Kulturstyrelsen Museums Development Department; Naturama; Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson; Amareswar Galla and the Inclusive Museum; John Falk; Lynn Dierking

[Image References: Conference Plenary at Arken in May 2013; Thomas Block Ravn speaking to the visiting expert group at the open air museum Den Gamle By, of which he is the Director; panorama of the land-based animal specimens on display at Naturama; the reconstruction of Brøndum’s dining room at the Skagen Museum]

 

* Over my years of visiting and working in Denmark, I had already attended a raft of other extraordinary museums: Silkeborg Museum and Tollund Man; Moesgaard Museum and Graubelle Man; Brandts Building including the Media Museum; Danish National Museum Copenhagen; Museum of the Danish Resistance; Lyngby Open Air Museum; Brede Werk; Natural History Museum, including the Botanical Gardens and the Geological Musem; Faergegarden Museum; Louisiana Museum; Theatre Museum; National Archives; Royal Library; Royal Danish Arsenal Museum; Danish Museum of Art & Design; National Art Gallery; Rosenborg Castle; Danish Architecture Centre; Danish Design Centre

Artists Work in the (Science) Museum

bell_jar_reflection_stranger

‘Science Lesson,’ Artists work in the museum: histories, interventions and subjectivity, Victoria and Albert Museum (October 2012)

“Artists, curators, historians and museum professionals explore the history of artists as museum professionals, museum and archive as the content of artistic production, the hidden subjectivity of the many artists working in museums and galleries alongside their practice and the dynamic roles they play in 21st century museums and galleries.”      (Artists work in the museum conference programme outline)

 

When even the Directors of institutions such as Yale University Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia are both art-school trained, it is worth looking more closely at what this means and how it happens. The Artists work in the museum conference, organised by Dr Linda Sandino (cross-appointed to a key research position straddling the V+A and the University of the Arts London) and Matilda Pye (who has worked extensively at both V+A and Tate, and was trained at both the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and the Jan Van Eyck Academy) began to seriously chart this significant territory.

There is a marked difference between coming into a museum as an exhibiting artist, being an artist effecting work for a museum on a freelance contract, and being an artist employed in a salaried position in a museum over time.  I myself have done all three. Further, there are huge differences between art museums, science museums, and museums of material culture and civilisation. Again, I have worked across all these kinds of institutions in one capacity or another, deepening and strengthening my interdisciplinary practice. But the experience most artists have of working with museums – as employees or as exhibitors – is mainly in institutions of fine and decorative arts, and archaeological or historical material culture collections.  Science, natural history, and medical museums are a road less travelled.

I have moved not only between studio and museum, but also between art and science. Not just a ‘stranger,’ as Georg Simmel would have it, in several realms at once, but also a double double-agent of sorts – and it is all that I bring that is of value to each discrete community to which I contribute. My conference paper explored what I bring to museums and how is it valued (or not!) as well as exploring some of the issues when one ‘crosses over.’  When does the artist’s engagement with museums start to become simply ‘working in museums’ and when does the outsider become an insider?  I outlined some of the typologies, patterns and recent historical contexts, before turning to the specifics of my experience with museums of the history of science and those with scientific collections – medical, natural historical and otherwise.

Many would persuasively argue that science itself is a cultural production, and certainly history of science has produced some robust tools for exploring this thesis. But science has its own ‘culture wars,’ and science museums their own conflicts – between collections research and keystage teaching interactives, for example. Parsing the difference between teaching science, teaching the history of science, and teaching people how to think about science is essential here. Sadly, the value to science of arts and humanities methodologies is a case yet to be made in the wider world, let alone in museums. I firmly believe that museums are a good place to work on such a project.

 

gene_sequencer_nhm

 

One of the institutions that has chosen to harness the value of the arts and humanities to science is the Wellcome Trust.  Though their approach has a specific focus, it has in turn contextually benefited other more exploratory research and practice.  Among the Wellcome projects I have contributed to in a consultancy capacity is the set of workshops held to develop what has become the Wellcome Collections exhibition space.

At those workshops, just short of a decade ago, I distributed a crib-sheet about commissioning and working creatively with artists in science museums.  Some of the methodological innovations I proposed were quite new then, and sprang directly from my professional experience at the Science Museum (London) and in history of science contexts.

I proposed the identification of research and exhibition subjects that have been historically difficult for museums to embrace, and then inviting artists to work on development teams to address them.  I suggesting that when planning infrastructural upgrades, management workflows, and critical paths for exhibition making, that museums fold in advice on needs and practice from artists and lessons from working with them.  I underlined the importance to project management of designing dovetailed critical paths for museum practice and artistic practice, and entreated museums to create induction manuals for these practitioners.  Ultimately, museums need to work with artists as respectfully as with any other professional colleagues, keeping up to date with artists and their work, meeting people and developing long-term relationships and networks over time.  Time and money are essential here, as with all museum work: artists are not just cheap intellectual sub-contracting for research or education departments.   (pdf of my crib-sheet Working with Artists in Science Museums, 2004)

Of course, many will recognise these techniques and process models from more recent innovations in museum practice – inclusive and participatory museum activities that have sprung in some cases out of audience development initiatives and in other cases out of restitution and knowledge exchange leadership.  I am just as interested in the way in which these techniques enable truly interdisciplinary work to take place in museums.  I will be speaking about the relationship between inclusion and interdiscipinarity in Copenhagen in May 2013 at a conference organised by the Danish Cultural Agency on Social Learning and Knowledge Producing Processes.

In the meanwhile, back at the V+A, the conference that Linda and Matty organised made clear that a serious research programme examining the deep and lasting influence of the artist in all forms of museum practice is an imperative in regards to museum history – and indeed the Museums and Galleries History Group was a partner in bringing this event to the public.  In fact, as we learned from Susannah Avery-Quash’s presentation about Sir Charles Eastlake as the founding director of the National Gallery, London, artists have been effective museum directors since at least the 19th Century. Wunderkammer Press will be publishing a proceedings volume from the conference: I hope that’s just the beginning!

 

Further Links:  Artists Work in the Museum: Victoria and Albert Museum; Artists Work in the Museum Programme; Wunderkammer Press; Martha Fleming on Working With Artists in Science Museums; Collaboration and Co-creation Tools for Museums; Jock Reynolds Director Yale University Art Galleries; Social Learning and Knowledge Producing Processes: Copenhagen

[Image References:  Detail of the reconstruction of the workbench of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in the Deutsches Museum, Munich; detail from a photo of the Children’s Gallery at the Science Museum in 1949; Gene Sequencer with toy mascots at the Natural History Museum]

 

Science Voices, Museum Lives

Co-organiser, Science Voices: Scientists Speak About Science and Themselves, Royal Society, London (May 2011)

 

This conference explored the creation and use of historic recordings, bringing science and scientists to skilled historians and the general public through their own vibrant personal voices and testimony.  From oral history to collegial obituary, from witness seminar to ‘personal information files’, scientists are complementing the legacy and understanding of their work with more personal and in-depth records.  Some of these are developed with oral historians and others by scientific peers: how is this important material created and framed intellectually, as well as used by historians in conjunction with paper archives and scientific publications?

My co-organisers for this conference were Professor Brian Cathcart, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University and Dr Felicity Henderson, Events and Exhibitions Manager of the Centre for History of Science at the Royal Society. It was particularly satisfying to return as a researcher to the Royal Society ten years after I had been Development Manager there: it was during my tenure that I had first proposed a Centre for History of Science, and formulated a business plan for it. It is now a very dynamic group, with wonderful staff like Felicity.

The original impetus for the Science Voices conference was the major oral history project, Museum Lives, then underway at the Natural History Museum where I was working in the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research.

Museum Lives was an AHRC-funded research programme to record extensive interviews with Natural History Museum staff — 300 of whom are scientists — about their lives and work with the Museum and with natural history in general. The interviews form a capsule record of the past 30 years and more of developments in biology and biodiversity, climate change and conservation — both environmental and museological. This 30-year period spans everything from the sequencing of the genome to the advent of ubiquitous computing, from digital collections to the Darwin Centre.

Advances in digital recording technologies and in oral history techniques have rapidly increased the number of such projects in science fields. Concurrently with Museum Lives, the British Library National Life Stories unit is running an Oral History of British Science, and the Royal Society’s Dr Peter Collins is interviewing a wide range of people for his History of the Royal Society in the 20th Century. Peter is the Director of the new Centre for History of Science at the RS.

Some of the research questions and issues we wanted to address with the conference were:

Framing oral histories of science: constructing a coherent intellectual framework for interview subject selection and project design

Where science practice and oral history converge: scientific knowledge transfer, lab training and the eyewitness account

When science speaks: the tension between training in objectivity and speaking subjective experience – can oral history interviews engender self-reflexivity in scientists?

Institutions, laboratories, collections: distinguishing between individual, collective and corporate enunciations in oral history of science

Video interviews versus audio interviews pro and con: the specifics of science practice in labs and with instruments, materials and specimens

Making use of oral history in history and epistemology of science: examples of historiographic practice employing oral history records

Relations between archival formats (interviews with scientists, scientific records, and personal papers): issues for researchers and for knowledge management professionals

Oral history digitisation, storage and dissemination: metadata, name authorities, text-mining, discovery resources: how can people find what they need?

 

We brought together an exciting group of people who are either creating, contributing or using oral history recordings in the history of science to discuss the ways in which history of science is both further enriched and further complexified by this material.

Professor Soraya de Chadarevian, from University of California at Los Angeles and University of Cambridge, spoke about her very different experiences of interviewing subjects in the course of her research and using the interviews of others. The slippery problem of relying on transcripts of interviews came up here. Another highlight was Elizabeth Haines, who gave us a really useful framework to understand this wide field that is oral history of science — who has commissioned it and effected it, where, when and why, and what kinds of subjects have been addressed. There were sessions with some of the most accomplished oral historians working in this field, including Professor Tilly Tansey, who pioneered Witness Seminars in the history of medicine.

The Royal Society’s 350-year history takes so many forms and formats that this was also an occasion to explore oral history’s rapport with other records — written, published, imaged. The Head of the Library, Keith Moore, spoke about the RS’s Personal Information Files on Fellows, and Professors Tom Meade FRS and Malcolm Longair FRS spoke about the intricacies and delicacies of scientists writing about each other, in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society. The grain of the voice was particularly well addressed by Dr Paul Merchant, whose presentation focused on interviewing scientists about their childhoods.

And of course, Museum Lives, and the difficulties of institutional histories, were ably addressed by Principal Investigator Professor Brian Cathcart and interviewer Dr Sue Hawkins of Kingston University.

The Conference was recorded and can be accessed online at Backdoor Broadcasting. You can also download a copy of the programme as a pdf.

 

Museum Lives: An Oral History of the Natural History Museum  (Principal Investigator, Professor Brian Cathcart, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University: AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship with the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum)

Oral History of British Science (National Life Stories; for the British Library in association with the Science Museum)

A History of the Royal Society in the 20th Century: oral history interview research  (Principal Investigator, Dr Peter Collins, Director, Centre for the History of Science, Royal Society)

Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society  (Royal Society Publishing, Editor Professor Tom Meade FRS)

Thinking Through Objects

Thinking Through Objects, presentation at The Exhibition as a Product and Generator of Knowledge, Deutsches Museum, Munich (2008)

 

This conference explored the contribution exhibitions make to research culture and research methodology, particularly in relation to history of science and science museums. My contribution outlined some of the parallels between text-based and object-based scholarship in history of science, identified a range of methodologies unique to exhibition-making, and addressed some of the influences of these methodologies on the form and content of the scholarship which is produced by them.

The conference was convened jointly by the Deutsches Museum — one of the greatest science museums in the world — and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science — the pre-eminent research centre in the field. The Deutsches Museum has a research institute embedded within its library, and the MPIWG has effected both exhibitions (Einstein: Chief Engineer of the Universe) and object-based research programmes (the five-year History of Scientific Objects).

This is the outline of the issues at hand, as described in the invitation to speak that I received. It went far beyond the ‘material turn’ in humanities in general:

No exhibition without scholarship: Object based studies and the exploration of the cultural context of the object are prerequisites for the intelligible show. However, exhibitions do more than merely visualize the results of research. They have the potential of stimulating scholarship and generating knowledge by posing new research questions.

How can researchers take advantage of this opportunity? In which way can scholarly arguments be translated into spatial arrangement and at the same time kept serviceable for reading and citing by later recipients? What might the results of the scholarly examination of an exhibition look like? Unlike for printed texts, the traditional publication media of scholarship, common standards of terminology and argumentation for exhibitions have yet to emerge. What exactly is the role of the objects on display? Recent history of science and technology has intensively interrogated the epistemic quality of these material sources of research. Yet how do the objects unfold their properties in being staged for exhibition purposes?

Our conference aims to bring together exhibition makers, museum experts, designers, artists, historians of science and technology, experts in cultural studies and journalists to engage in a discussion about their experiences and expectations regarding the exhibition as product and generator of scholarship.

 

And here is a quote from my response:

Good curators, artists and designers are all of necessity highly skilled researchers and answer already to a rigorous and demanding process of evaluation outside the groves of academe, some aspects of which are shared with humanities researchers and some of which are not. Here, finding complementary parallels between these mediums is more important than finding similarities: it is not in examining the use of object-images in publications, or of text in exhibitions that we can gain a deep-structure understanding of what a show can do that a book cannot. Further, there are analytical and rhetorical methodologies deployed in creating an exhibition just as there are in writing a scholarly paper: it is not enough just to look at the final products in our exploration of the exhibition as a generator of scholarship. How does one learn the visual, spatial and phenomenological skills of exhibition making as a humanities scholar?

 

It was an exciting meeting, with outstanding presentations on all sides. Of note were those by German colleagues Thomas Schnalke (Director, Charité Medical History Museum, Berlin) and Ulrich Raulff (Director, Deutschen Literaturarchivs Marbach), which both particularly interested me because I was at the time working on the exhibition Split + Splice at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, and because of the exhibition I had effected at the Book Museum of Bayntun’s (Bath, 1994, with Lyne Lapointe) entitled The Spirit and The Letter and The Evil Eye.

It was not the first time that these material culture and exhibition issues have been addressed between museum on the one hand and research in history of science on the other. I also spoke in 2001 at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris at a fantastic conference jointly organised by Jim Bennett of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and MAM, entitled Les Rêves et Les Choses (Dreams and Things). History of science has had its own hierarchies, though these are breaking down — there used to be ‘instrument people’ who were considered rather geeky, and ‘real’ historians, who were interested in epistemologies and concepts. Museums straddle both objects and ideas, and have been central to showing the ways in which they are intertwined.

In a German context, the Munich conference took place in parallel with the launch of the Volkswagon Stiftung’s programme to support Research in Museums. In the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Board had, in becoming a full-fledged Council in 2005, opened the way for a renaissance in museum research by creating the status of Independent Research Organisation, obtention of which would mean museums would be eligible for AHRC research funding. Articulating the specificity of object-based research and its value becomes rather important in this light.

It is in the wake of the creation of IRO status that I counselled the Science Museum (London) on fundraising for research in 2003, and then much later held a strategic development role at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum (London) from 2009-2011.

Of course, the sort of work that museum curators of collections effect on a daily basis — acquiring, cataloguing, evaluating, caring for, interpreting, and exhibiting the objects in their care — involves research and research skills of the highest order. That this is not fully understood and recognized as such is something that needs to change. A catalogue is not a found object, or a transparent container: any researcher who has tried to consult an inadequate museum catalogue will know how much time, work and knowledge must go into a well constructed one. That work is effected by museum curators — when they have enough infrastructural support, that is.

One of the strategic issues tabled at the Munich meeting is related to this recognition problem: how do researchers get their work acknowledged, evaluated and respected if it is formed and formulated in an exhibition rather than in a book? The lack of serious reviews of scholarly exhibitions in history of science journals is a missing link in the citation chain, and it is hindering the development of essential object-based methodologies for research in the field. After all, scientists ‘think through objects’ and instruments all the time — in fact, it’s the key activity that produced the scientific method.

 

 

Most of the conference presentations are available in pdf form as Preprint 399 from the MPIWG:  ‘Thinking Through Objects’ by Martha Fleming in The Exhibition as a Product and Generator of Scholarship, Susanne Lehmann-Brauns, Christian Sichau and Helmuth Trischler, editors. Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, 2010.

Further Links: Deutsches Museum Research Institute, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Einstein Exhibition, History of Scientific Objects, Volkswagon Stiftung Research in Museums, AHRC IRO status

[Images References: a page-spread about lock design from Giedion’s magisterial Mechanisation Takes Command (1948) an almost-exhibition in book form, also reproduced in my talk; a slide from my talk, ‘Thinking Through Objects’; a close-up of some of the prosaic materials with which Hahn and Meitner discovered nuclear fission in 1938, on display at the Deutsches Museum; a display of photographic lenses with x-rays of their structure from the ‘Foto + Film: Von Daguerre bis DVD’ gallery at the Deutsches Museum]

Visiting Professor, Faculty of Health, Copenhagen

Visiting Associate Professor, Faculty of Health, University of Copenhagen: Medical Museion (2006 – 2007)

 

Working as part of the research team ‘Biomedicine on Display,’ I helped to develop the Art and Biomedicine research stream at the Medical Museion. This included the development and programming of a 30-person international interdisciplinary workshop entitled Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context (with Dr Jan-Eric Olsén and PI Professor Director Thomas Soderqvist) as well as a day-long symposium in collaboration with the Royal Danish Art Academy: Art and Biomedicine: Beyond the Body

My Visiting Professorship at Museion contributed to the research direction of ‘Biomedicine on Display’ in the run-up to the exhibition Split + Splice, for which I was subsequently made Creative Director. ‘Biomedicine on Display’ was the short name for the five-year long project, funded by Novo Nordisk and led by Professor Soderqvist: “Danish Biomedicine 1955-2005: Integrating Medical Museology and the Historiography of Contemporary Biomedicine”

Professor Soderqvist invited me to be involved because of my highly innovative exhibition practice, coupled with experience of working with scientists and a knowledge of both history of science and of the inner workings of museums. The main research events that I was involved in producing jointly with Professor Soderqvist and post-doc Dr Jan-Eric Olsen were as follows.

‘Biomedicine and Aesthetics in a Museum Context’ — a closed international workshop (August 30 – September 1 2007, Medical Museion, Copenhagen). Over 30 participants were involved in this intensive event that involved pre-circulated papers and a very open mind. These are the issues we met to address:

The aim of this closed workshop is to help forge new strategies of making sense of and presenting recent biomedicine in museums, especially taking into account the unique difficulties of rendering visible material biomedical practices in their social, cultural, political, aesthetic and scientific complexity.

The workshop will bring together key practitioners from a range of methodological approaches, including artists with a firm understanding of biomedical practice, museologists and material culture scholars, historians of science, art historians and aestheticians, biomedical practitioners with a knowledge of contemporary bioart, and visualisation specialists.

The conjuncture of biomedicine and aesthetics is a rapidly growing field of artistic practice and academic reflection, dealing with an array of issues, from the public engagement with current biomedicine to methodological overlaps between the practices of artists and laboratory researchers. Museums are key institutions for this hybrid field of inquiry.

 

A sense of the specific issues we were trying to unpick can be garnered from my article (for both the Museion Blog and its Yearly Report) entitled The Huge Invisibles. The list of attendees included Ken Arnold (Wellcome Trust); David Edwards (Harvard/Le Laboratoire); Anke te Heesen (now of Humboldt-Universität); Sharon MacDonald (University of Manchester); Arthur Olsen (Scripps Research Institute); Claire Pentecost (School of the Arts Institute Chicago), Miriam van Rijsingen (University of Amsterdam), Calum Storrie (London), Richard Wingate (Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, King’s College, London), and more.

We also commissioned, with the help of Danish curator Stine Hebert, the highly accomplished sound artist, Jacob Kirkegaard, to make a work for the event. His Labyrinthitis, which was premiered at Museion in the old operating theatre on 2 September 2007, has gone on to be presented in many other contexts, and has been produced as a recording by Touch Music.

 

 

Following hot on the heels of the Workshop and the premiere of Labyrinthitis, we moved — quite literally — down the street to the Royal Danish Art Academy for the public part of the research proceedings, the conference Beyond the Body. This was a collaboration with the Schools of Visual Art, and Rector Mikkel Bogh was our host and partner for the day.  It was wonderful to be able to go from one seat of learning to another, from medicine to fine art, both housed in 18th century buildings, as 21st century interdisciplinary practitioners. Several hundred people were waiting for us at the Art Academy.

They day was organised into sessions of course, and it was possible to immediately transfer to a public arena some of the discussions we had had in the closed Workshop in the preceding days. Among those who spoke, and whom I have not yet mentioned above, were Ben Fry (data visualisation designer); Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble); Ingeborg Reichle (Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften); and James Elkins (E.C. Chadbourne Chair, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago).*

Medical Museion is one of several museums of the University of Copenhagen, and its collections span some 300 years of medical history. Nestled within the Faculty of Health, which also encompasses the Panum Research and Teaching Institute, a dozen Teaching Hospitals including the Royal Hospital, and the dazzling new Proteomics Centre, the Medical Museion connects a large network of cutting edge health practitioners to the history, origins and critique of medicine today.

As a research institute in history and philosophy of medicine, Museion is not alone in the Faculty of Health. Indeed, it is overseen by the Institute of Public Health, whose social scientists regularly contribute to Museion’s intellectual programme. What is unusual about it is that the primary sources for this research institute are collection objects, not solely archives and texts.

Director Thomas Soderqvist was appointed to Museion a decade ago, and has made of it a research-intensive institution which has welcomed some highly innovative researchers — including me.

“By focusing on integration between research, collecting, education and dissemination beyond the Museum world, the Medical Museion will go beyond the traditional division between universities as pure research-and-teaching units, and museums which are primarily collection and dissemination institutions.”                   Vision Statement, Medical Museion

 

Of course, all university museums have this potential, and all museums effect intensive research into their collections in ways that are not yet fully acknowledged as such — cataloguing collections of material culture requires a level of interdisciplinary skill that few academics can even imagine, for example. What’s special about Museion is that an attempt is being made to look both ways. It’s something that could not be done without agile and highly skilled collections management and conservation — Museion is lucky to have Ion Meyer as Head of Collections, one of the most accomplished conservators of organic material working today, and a consummate museum professional.

Another thing that’s special about Museion is that it is paying close attention to the history of medicine of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  It’s hard enough for medical practitioners to keep up, let alone a museum — but the skills of medical historians, philosophers and social scientists can make a major contribution to self-reflexivity on the part of those practitioners, and to public understanding and engagement with the huge issues brought up by rapidly advancing biotechnology.

One of the main aims of my post was to create an arena in which a group of highly skilled post-doctoral researchers in history of contemporary biomedicine could collaboratively conceptualise, and then actually make, an exhibition – a project entirely new to them, and for which they had no prior training. Exhibition-making is both an intellectual methodology engaging with material culture and a pragmatic, technically complex task — not for the faint-hearted.

I developed a programme and syllabus to teach these humanities post-doctoral students how to think about – and how to think through – the material culture of their field, and then how to actually make a real exhibition to a defined deadline. Though this was technically post-doctoral supervision of a kind, I certainly learned as much from them as they learned from me — and together we went on to produce an exhibition so successful it won the 2010 Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits of the Society for the History of Technology against stiff international competition from much larger and better resourced institutions. That exhibition was Split + Splice — its co-curators with me were Dr Susanne Bauer; Dr Søren Bak-Jensen; Dr Sniff Andersen Nexø; Dr Jan Eric Olsén; and, until spring of 2008, Hanne Jessen.

 

*An archive of all three events over the five-day period can be found on the University of Copenhagen’s Biocampus website: they part-funded the events as well. Smaller events were no less important in the work of that year — Museion also received Jens Hauser and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht.

Further Links: Medical Museion; Jacob Kirkegaard, Labyrinthitis; Royal Danish Art Academy; Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits

[Image References: detail of flyer for Art and Biomedicine; a lab desktop at the Proteomics Centre with a pair of dolls distributed by Eppendorf; Jacob Kirkegaard working on Labyrinthitis in the Medical Museion operating theatre]

Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford

Research Residency, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (1996 to 1998)

 

The Laboratory at the Ruskin School has been at the forefront of articulating the research activities of artists and making the case for its value. The Lab involved me in a number of innovative projects in the late 1990s, and I produced an artists’ website entitled ‘Rain of Atoms’ about Democritus’s extraordinary — and eerily accurate — intuitions about the atomic structure of matter.

I believe the Lab was among the first institutions to commission artists’ websites, and certainly was the first art academy to do so.  Paul Bonaventura, who runs the Lab, paired me up with Peter Ride at Artec, and we spent several months to make what would now, a decade and more later, take a day or two to produce.  Sadly, it has gone the way of much early digital artwork, upgraded out of all existence.  This ephemerality is also time-honoured in time-based art, so I’m fairly sanguine about it. Later on, I used some of the same images for the logo of the Dennis Rosen Trust, and you can get a sense of Rain of Atoms from it.

It was quite abstract — literally a black screen with a little window through which hundreds of roundelles (spheroid images taken from across the history of science) fell like atomic rain; cosmic rays suddenly made visible as if the viewer were looking through an electron microscope magically constructed from the CDU’s cathode ray.  Quaint as it may sound, the website won Lycos’s ‘website of the week’ award in 1997 — that gives you an idea of how much faster things are moving now.

Other sites the the Lab commissioned were David Bickerstaff’s Ubiquity, and an early version of Jake Tilson’s The Cooker.

During this period, Antonia Payne (now at University of Wolverhampton) worked closely with Paul to forge links between artists, art schools, and humanities departments of universities. Antonia convened the pivotal conference Research and the Artist at the Ruskin in 1999, editing the volume of the same name. She devised a project called Inserts, commissioning artists to make bookworks for scholarly journals, and invited me to make a work. At the time, I was working on Atomism & Animism, a major collection interpretation project for the Science Museum, London.

As a long-standing member of the British Society for the History of Science, I thought it would be fun to contribute, as an artist, to the Society’s journal. The result, which you see above, was a translucent work about seeing celestial bodies (British Journal for the History of Science, Winter 1998, Vol 31, No 4).  This is from the introduction:

A Metaphysical Subject” is a double-sided, translucent collage juxtaposing diagrams by Wittgenstein and by Sacrobosco, a 13th century natural philosopher. The work was created for this unique moment between two total eclipses of the sun — in February of 1998, visible from the Caribbean, and in August of 1999, visible from Cornwall, England. Eclipses have been viewed — often literally — as moments to mark civilisation: “A Metaphysical Subject” reflects on the age old relationship between human self-consciousness and the knowledge of the heavens.

In 1996, the Ruskin School’s Joseph Beuys Lectures addressed the relationship between art and science, and I opened the proceedings with a presentation entitled ‘Paradigm and Diagram: How Artists Think Science.’

These days in the world of contemporary art a great deal of money is being poured into what is called ‘new technology.’ The adjective “wired” is indiscriminantly applied as a name to both exhibitions and magazines. We struggle to remember that tools are only a part of method, and not synonymous with it. There seems to be about works of art constructed in and through smooth ‘new technology’ a strange frisson of verity, as if the hardware made the work into hard fact, and as if artists working with new electronic technology were somehow more scientifically-minded than artists making work in what is now considered more traditional media. New technology must not make the error of donning the mantle of objectivity that science at its best has only recently managed to slough off. Since all true objectivity is both relative and ideal, can we not say that it is also entirely subjective, and hence embrace the powerful structure of subjectivity as a ripe field of information and understanding? I wish to differentiate between science and technology not to hierarchize them as we have mistakenly done with arts and crafts, and high art and popular culture, but rather to make the point that there is a difference between knowledge or understanding that is of things themselves, and knowledge of means to ends.

Since that time — over 15 years ago now — an entire field of self-reflexive artists’ practice interrogating new technologies has grown up.  But not everyone is listening, as there is still uneven understanding in several fields concerning the relationship between science and technology, and between intellectual innovations and technological ones.  The 1996 Beuys lectures were recorded by Audio Arts for audio cassette distribution, possibly among the last of those publications, as DAT and the mini-disc took over as ‘means to ends.’  They too are now historical.

 

Further Links: Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art; British Society for the History of Science; Audio Arts; Joseph Beuys Lectures; Research and the Artist Conference

[Image References: Newton, Prism Experiment Diagram (1665/1704) shown in my lecture Paradigm and Diagram; Martha Fleming, A Metaphysical Subject (British Journal for the History of Science, Winter 1998, Vol 31, No 4)]