Tag Archive for: Lectures

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]

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage


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.



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]

‘Beyond Reception’: Nordic Culture Ministers Meeting, Stockholm


Nordic Culture Forum 2014: Parliament House, Stockholm (30 October 2014)

Representing the Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform, I was invited to speak about innovative evaluation practices at the Stockholm meeting of the Nordic Culture Ministers. My talk made three key points:

1)  We must go beyond the study of audience reception alone in order to understand the nexus of value in cultural activity

2)  We must go beyond an ‘audit culture’ of statistical and numerical measures to develop intellectually robust methods that embrace complexity

3)  We must recognise cultural producers as groups of highly trained researchers whose peer ‘findings’ are presented in venues that are socially shared


I first started working with Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform at the invitation of Amy Fee, who was then the Production Director at Dansens Hus, Stockholm. We had met at the Nordic-Baltic Artists Residencies Network Meeting convened by Nordic Culture Point at Subtopia in October 2013, where I had given a keynote presentation about the subject of ‘hospitality.’  What is hospitality between artists, and between nations?

Of course, the conversation quickly ran in the direction of evaluation, and the inadequacy of the metrics that are gathered and used by policy makers to measure cultural experience. Amy was determined to explore better and more nuanced ways of making the case for the value of dance, and set about putting together a working group to brainstorm different ways of thinking around cultural value that go beyond the awful spectre of the happy-to-sad cartoon that haunts the survey form.





The working group met three times, and was supported by Maria Härenstam, who also spearheaded a number of grant applications based on our design for a proper interdisciplinary research project. It proved more difficult to obtain support for such an innovative project than we might have thought, though it did mean that when the Nordic Culture Ministers focused on this very question of the current inadequacy of evaluation methodologies, they turned to us for a contribution.  And so I found myself in the former First Chamber of the Swedish Riksdag to speak about practitioner knowledge and humanities methods and their important place in the evaluation of cultural life.

Cultural policy makers — especially in a period of economic austerity when nothing can be taken for granted — often believe that we have a problematic evidence gap in the case we want to make for the value of cultural activities.  In fact, I believe there is no ‘evidence gap,’ but rather the real problem is that we don’t know how to integrate into our valuation processes the huge body of evidence we have from the reflexive work of arts practitioners themselves and from humanities scholars.

There are analytical flaws in a methodology that seeks to understand the value of something by looking at only one area of its effects – namely, the audience. And yet, since the 1960s, theories of communication have modeled the fact that there is no reception without production, and that these two reciprocal activities are part of a coherent whole that must be analysed over 360 degrees.

Would any economist, macro or micro, imagine that is possible to understand financial structures by looking solely at the demand side of an economic system? To leave out the supply side of the equation? And yet, as a general rule, the evaluation of the arts and culture does not include an examination of the processes by which these events come into being or the reality of artists as audience members themselves in a community of practice.




We cannot uniquely look in one direction towards the audience, hoping to extrapolate from that view towards a generic notion of social well-being, if we wish to truly understand the value of cultural experience.  We need historians and also historiographers. We need self-reflexive, rigorous humanities methodologies to understand the contexts in which both dance and the constraints in which it has developed take place and co-evolve – co-produce each other.

We need to recognise that artists are communities of practitioners striving to contribute to and build upon thousands of years of cultural endeavour, that they are working collectively, as productive groups, to hone their findings in much the same way that scientists work in laboratories. Artists are part of intellectual communities in a way that is similar to those of academic researchers such as biologists and semioticians. What are they doing? What does it mean? Why are they doing it? These questions are also central to answering the question: what are the benefits and values of culture?

Dancers and choreographer train for years in their field, work together in a team, have ‘project leaders’, understand the relationships between physiological memory, muscular electrical currents, post-humanist experiences of technological bodily extensions, the history of gesture, the history of their practice and the work of their peers. We cannot afford to separate this research community from the evaluation of its own progress.




Further links: Cultural policy in the Nordic countries and Nordic cultural co-operation Nordic Culture Point

[Image References: ‘People Counter’ as often used in cultural events as part of metric evaluation; Johanna Chemnitz performing in Soft Target by choreographer Margret Sara Gudjonsdottir (photo Tom Akinleminu); happy-neutral-sad emoticon; Ice Hot Nordic Dance Platform 2014 edition logo]

Museums as Social Learning Spaces: Denmark


‘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.


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.




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

Looking and Healing: Artists and their Doctors

Looking and Healing: Artists and their Doctors, Lecture Seminar, Centre for Humanities and Health, King’s College London (May 2012)


Artists and doctors share highly developed observational skills and a fundamental love for humankind.  This lecture explores some historically revealing relationships between these different practitioners, and the intellectual, social and professional complexes in which these relationships sit.  Representational, technological and ethical epistemologies can be traced in the performed intimacies of such self-reflexive clinical arenas.  Examples from both physiological and psychiatric medicine are explored, in pairings from Goya and Arrieta through Munch and Jakobsen as well as Duchamp and Dumouchel and beyond. Painting, engraving, photography and sculpture from approximately 1750 to 1990 are addressed.

An earlier version of this lecture was given at the 2006 British Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Norwich, at the invitation of Professor Ludmilla Jordanova, then President of the British Society for the History of Science. Professor Jordanova is a leading authority on scientific portraiture, and is principal investigator for the medical portraiture strand of Kings’ Centre for Humanities and Health. We had first worked together in 2002, when as Development Manager of the Royal Society, I invited her to become involved in the Society’s portraiture collection.

It is not the only subject on which she has invited my thoughts vis à vis medical humanities. In 2005, Professor Jordanova was Director of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.  It is a vital centre for the development of interdisciplinary practice, and her directorship was a particularly dynamic period for CRASSH. Notably, she convened a fantastic workshop in December 2005 which arguably refocused CRASSH for the next decade: The Future of Interdisciplinarity.

She also invited me to speak at an exploratory closed workshop on Humanities and Medicine in Cambridge Undergraduate Education in October that same year. My contribution to the day concerned the visual arts in relation to medical practice and was entitled Looking and Healing: The Arts in Medicine.  It is linked to Artists and their Doctors by more than just the title.

What was at issue in October 2005 is still at issue today: the overlaps between medicine and the humanities and the contributions each make — and could make — to the effective practice of the other.  The two crucial issues are, I feel: the importance for medicine and medics of understanding the highly charged representational issues in medical imagery, from abstraction and realism to diagrams and data visualisation; and the field of ethics to which a truly self-reflexive medical practice could productively contribute as well as adhere to.

This is the précis of The Arts in Medicine that I handed out after my presentation:

Medical students and arts students alike need to be aware of the long historical working relationship between the two practices in the development of anatomical understanding as a legacy;

Imaging practices have gone far beyond the optical in medicine, and medical practitioners (as well as artists and the lay public) need training to parse the origins and effects of data-produced images which carry hidden within their ’visualisation’ a long complex history of representation with vested interests;

Not all those medically trained practice exclusively in medicine: investing in this deeper structure to shared intellectual territory, one which gives rise to new methodologies and not just new data, is one which could bear fruit for both medical and arts & humanities teaching;

The exploration, exposition, practice and development of the whole fundamental way in which we look at — or approach — each other as human beings is at the core of any medical activity, and emotional and intellectual instruments for accommodating it within the self and for parsing it in relation to daily practice are crucial to learning medicine: this is practicing ethics, not just ethics-as-law;

It is also true that physicians thus trained and engaged could make major contributions in turn to ethics on a much wider plane than medical ethics and legislation alone, extending to fundamental philosophical questions and the understanding of humanity — physicians could and should contribute to the humanities.


Interestingly, I heard this last note echoed five years later by the senior medical practitioner and former editor of the British Medical Journal, Dr Richard Smith, at the London School of Economics event, Valuing the Humanities. It is the intimacy of the doctor-patient relationship, and its existential power, which has potential in the field of ethics.  This is one of the conclusions of my lecture, Artists and their Doctors:


Looking at life, and looking at one another, is a very complex process socially, psychically, ethically. The eyes with which both artists and physicians survey the body acknowledges ‘the human’ in the form before it and the call to mercy and to transcendence which we make in standing before each other every day before even speaking a word. Attention is paid without judgement, and yet the attention itself issues from the fundamental human encounter of one person with another.

This is not just about bedside manner, or about medical legislation, or about inspiration, but about the way in which we approach each other as human beings. There are, inherent in the portraits I have been showing you, realities about the human condition – about a face-to-face that is both detached and full of love, about the different ways in which we keep each other as best we can from death and from the fear of death.




Further Links: King’s College London Centre for Humanities and Health; British Association for the Advancement of Science; British Society for the History of Science; CRASSH; LSE Valuing The Humanities

[Image References: Photographic Self Portrait in Dr Jacobsen’s Nerve Clinic, by Edvard Munch (Copenhagen 1908); Photographic Self Portrait, painting the portrait of Dr Jacobsen, by Edvard Munch (Copenhagen 1909); Portrait of Dr Jacobsen, by Edvard Munch (1909)]

Navigating Interdisciplinarity

Navigating Interdisciplinarity, Wellcome Trust 75 Event, University of Dundee Life Sciences and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art (2011)


The extraordinary potential of interdisciplinary practice often meets bureaucratic obstacles. Enumerating them — and working strategically to eliminate them — is part of the essential groundwork to be done in order to build productive, practical methodological bridges across the arts, the humanities and the sciences. The responsibility of universities to fully support the researchers they engage, and to enable the knowledge that they produce to be truly effective, will of necessity involve a sea-change in the way both universities and research are structured and funded.

That sounds like a very tall order, but it is one that is coming from all sides: this event was co-organised by artists and life scientists. The University of Dundee is big enough to have both an art college and a life sciences department which are both known internationally, and yet small enough that there is real exchange, with respect and cameraderie, between researchers in both fields. With the support of the Wellcome Trust, their exchange projects — from printmaking, visualisation and data-modeling to architectural collaboration and the promise of a shared gallery/research space — are going to lead somewhere very interesting indeed.

University of Dundee is not alone in initiating plans to support interdisciplinarity with real infrastructure. I have also been invited to lecture on this topic at York University in Toronto, which prides itself as having been founded 50 years ago on the very premise of interdisciplinary research. In February 2011, representing the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum, I addressed a number of the same issues in a lecture at Yale’s Peabody Museum. Later that year many of these points came up again at a closed international workshop in which I participated, convened by New York University and hosted by the British Museum — Re:Enlightenment Project.

Navigating Interdisciplinarity draws together knowledge and observations from my interdisciplinary work and experience at science institutions such as the Faculty of Health of University of Copenhagen, the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, the Science Department of the Natural History Museum, and art-science crossovers with the Wellcome Trust.

What then are some of the problems, and what is to be done? Here is an excerpt from my presentation at Dundee’s Shared Imagination event:

Everyone on an interdisciplinary team will have widely differing skills and methods that are in large degree opaque to the other members of the team. Very fundamental project activities and scheduling issues will not even be tabled for discussion at the project’s outset because they are so deeply embedded as to be invisible. This can lead to uneven expectations of each other, bad project management and schedule planning, limited knowledge exchange, projects which do not fulfil their full potential, frustration, anger, disillusionment.

Another challenge has to do with the uneven playing field between art and science in financial terms and in economic models. Even a life sciences lab that is underfunded is actually funded at levels of a much higher magnitude than that of the fine arts — including film and media.

Underinvestment in the project of culture and aesthetics has led to uneven development between the arts and the sciences. This has also forced huge differences in the basic economic models: science does not now start up its research activities without front-end investment, and art often only sees a return on its necessarily speculative investment at the end of its research, when there is a product.

This can mean that it is difficult to align resources in relation to cash flow, as well as to effect fundraising, across varying disciplines. In Universities, budgeting across departments, both for costs and the recovery of overheads, can be very difficult. Managing the sharing of limited resources such as technologies and admin support as well as other infrastructure, is complex across a campus. And yet waste occurs in silos; ineffective communication means shared interests are rarely identified.

For real breakthroughs, it is agreed that joint appointments are essential, and yet nigh on impossible to effect. When they are instated, it often means two full time jobs for the incumbent, whose work then falls between two stools, because REF-based management of research is divided along disciplinary units of assessment and not along the lines of the larger-scale ‘big questions’ that need to be addressed. This means a loss of identity and value both for the institution and the individual.

A further problem comes from the fact that with infrastructure comes bureaucracy. Science often labours under highly competitive conditions and almost unbearable scrutiny. It would surprise artists to know how difficult it is for scientists to access meaningful larger-scale resources and instruments. Detector time on X-Ray telescopes is lined up years in advance and is based on applications and peer judging that is incredibly exacting. If it is not easy to share this kind of infrastructural resource even within a discipline, how much more difficult to carve out the time for something experimental across boundaries, with little funding behind it and unpredictable outcomes?


There is much more to be said about how to overcome these problems, pragmatically and strategically. I was able to outline a few approaches that were specific to Dundee in the lecture and also in the ensuing day workshop. By way of inspiration, Navigating Interdisciplinarity ends with a quote from Hermes/The Northwest Passage by Michel Serres:

“It is the link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, through the Great Canadian North. It opens, closes, and twists all through the immense arctic archipelago, all along a wildly complicated maze of gulfs and channels, of basins and straights, between the islands of Banks and Baffin. One enters it by the Davis straight and one ends up in the Beaufort Sea. The voyage is arduous, the openings rare and often blocked.” says Serres.

“It is a difficult trajectory, hampered with encumbrances, a true labyrinth of earth, water and ice. The very image of the crossing between the exact sciences and the human sciences. And it is not a path that is given once and for all, but must be built and discovered each time it is attempted. One wants to go everywhere, build a world where there is almost everything – mathematics, biology, philosophy, painting. The North-West passage is, in the end, the project of one’s entire life.”


This lecture has been videocast by DJCAD Exhibitions on their YouTube Channel.

Further Links: Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art Exhibitions (Curator Sophia Hao); University of Dundee Life Sciences (Dean of Research Professor Mike Ferguson)

[Image References: Chart of the Northwest Passage; coast guard icebreaker the Polar Sea in Arctic waters, United States Coast Guard; Martha Fleming speaking at Shared Imagination, Dundee; powerpoint slide from Navigating Interdisciplinarity lecture]

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]

Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime

Painting by Numbers: Image, Data and the Mathematical Sublime in Late Twentieth Century Astrophysics, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (May 2006)


Very large data sets are ‘collections’ too: in an increasingly digital world, we need to understand their materiality as continuous with other forms of material culture.  We need to understand how they are generated, how they are analysed, how they produce knowledge, and what this means in epistemological terms.

Shortly after the completion of my NESTA residency at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, I was invited to present my research findings at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Under the direction of Professor Lorraine Daston, the ‘History of Scientific Observation’ project had just got underway, and I chose to make a contribution to this project with an extensive paper about numerical databases in recent astrophysical research.  In particular, the paper concerns the coming into being, use and impact of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine which for thirty years had been at the heart of data generation in UK astronomy.

This pivotal instrument was designed by Ed Kibblewhite on the cusp of the 1970s and operated by Mike Irwin at the Institute of Astronomy until 2005, when it was finally decommissioned.  The photograph you see above, taken by IoA Graphics Officer Amanda Smith, shows it leaving the building that was constructed to house it.

The main function of the APM was to scan very high quality all-sky survey photographic plates of the near universe and turn the numerical data generated into coherent, searchable databases. Its use precedes the wide use in telescopes of particle detecting CCDs (charge couple devices) which deliver a constant stream of numerical data. As such, it was the machine that produced an entire algorithmic lexicon for understanding the universe.

Here is an abstract of the paper, which I am currently preparing for publication:

What does “observation” mean in a digital age and how is this related to its origins in eras when visual culture was more physically tangible? Beginning with the material culture of astronomical photography and extending into current computational astrophysics, this paper traces the intertwined evolutions of data and image in astronomical practice. I will argue that, far from there existing a philosophical or methodological split between those practitioners who use images and those who use logics as ’observational’ tools, in astronomy image and logic are synonymous, collapsed into each other.

I will explore this phenomenon in part through its origin in traditional observational practices of technical and computational data extraction from photographs of the sky over a hundred year period, showing how this ’tribal memory’ affects not only contemporary astronomers’ relationship with avalanches of post-digital data, but also in turn culturally informs the production of present-day images synthesized from the accumulated data itself. The paper pays close attention particularly to the 1970s, a period in which overlap between the material culture of ’sky survey’ photographs, the design of automatic measuring devices and the rapid evolution of computer power — all functioning at the very limit of their capacities — created a nexus of image-data systems which enshrined the mobile equivalence between the two.

This evolving relationship from image to data and back again to image via scanners, computers and display technologies is a very important one for science in general and for culture at large in the last 40 years. In astronomy, the build-up of large data sets in what has been a supremely visual science of light extends the very notion of what the adjective ‘visual’ means and thus it is a good test case to examine these cultural changes.

Starting with an overview of recent historical, sociological and art historical attention paid to late 20th century astrophysics, I show different approaches to the visual culture of astronomy and to notions of aesthetics. I conclusion, I propose a mathematical sublime at the core of the production of photo-illusory visualisations of the universe produced for public consumption, and suggest that the feature missing from a clear understanding of all image-making in contemporary science is the still undeveloped context of a logic of aesthetics.


This project is one of several outcomes of my NESTA residency at the IoA: another was the assistant curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

It was to be the first of several visits to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science as a guest researcher. On that occasion in 2006 it was fantastic to be able to compare notes across astronomical image and data with photo historian Dr Kelley Wilder (now running the Photographic History Research Centre at De Montfort University) and historian of 19th century physics and astronomy, Dr Charlotte Bigg (now a senior researcher at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris), both of whom were at the MPIWG at that time.

I have also more recently been a guest researcher again at the MPIWG in March of 2012, developing an exhibition project and giving the Institute Colloquium on 21 March 2012 — about the very different subject of natural history museums.


Further Links:   Institute of Astronomy University of Cambridge; History of Scientific Observation, MPIWG; Dr Kelley Wilder; Dr Charlotte Bigg

[Image References: the decommissioning of the Automatic Plate Measuring Machine (Amanda Smith, 2005); black and white photo of the prototype automatic plate measuring machine by Ed Kibblewhite]

Charles Darwin Trust

Looking With Darwin, for the Darwin and Twentieth Century Culture working group convened by the Darwin Trust (Wellcome Trust, 2005)


A closed consultation on developing Down House and other outreach activities of the Darwin Trust, this event convened a group of about 25 scientists, authors, academics, artists and broadcasters under the direction of Jon Turney.  The intention was to assist the Trust in the orientation of its stewardship of Down House and other of its outreach and science communication activities.

I was invited to speak for about ten minutes as one of several kick-off presentations for what became a lively and productive day.  The following are excerpts from that contribution:


In the same way that genes will express very differently in two different chemical environments, visions of life will express differently from one culture to the next.

This projective nexus of “multiple allusions” in which animals are caught up, this nexus of anthropomorphisation, denigration, lionising, fear, idolatry and so much else, is something that has to be tackled in order to truly see the life which we share. In Steve Baker’s important book The Postmodern Animal — about animals, philosophy and contemporary artists’ practices — he makes the point that “the representational, symbolic and rhetorical uses of the animal must be understood to carry as much conceptual weight as any idea we may have of the ’real’ animal, and must be taken just as seriously.”

Like the production of scientific knowledge, works of art are the product of sustained observational practices and sometimes overlap directly the purposes and interests of science. Sometimes works of art extend the arenas of science and even the methodologies of science. Visual art is not just an interpretive tool or a communicative tool in its long relationship to scientific practice. I identify with one of the few skills that the modest Charles Darwin knew to be key about his work: the skill of close and sustained observation. It is not just the stunning accuracy of Durer which makes his work ’scientific’, but the fact that he chose at that moment in time to do something as unusual as to spend an entire week observing an insect such as a stag beetle.



One of the things I find most moving about Darwin’s work is the awe in which he held the organ of sight. This awe has been seen as a weakness by both Darwinists and opponents. Dawkins has called the eye “the most formidable cliff Mount Improbable has to offer.”

A very great deal of research — not least by Dawkins himself, and people like Mike Land at the University of Sussex and Andrew Parker at Oxford — has gone into understanding the eye and its evolution since Darwin first admitted freely that its depths were unfathomable to him. His statement never led me personally to doubt that the theory of evolution was a sound proposition. I am not one of those who think the rainbow is unwoven by what science can tell me, or that complexity is always irreducible. But there is a nuance: I am one of those for whom scientific knowledge is, however often unimpeachable and amazing in itself, only a part of the picture. I have friends and colleagues at the Institute of Ophthalmology, others in quantum optics, and still others who design photon-detectors. But, if asked by Edge Magazine — as many senior scientists were last year — to articulate a belief I hold which is not yet provable, I would say that I believe that the eye emits a ray of some kind.

Though some colleagues admit that it is very likely that there are both particles and radioactivity that we don’t yet know how to detect, most people in science to whom I have confided this belief think it’s preposterous, a throwback to the Pre-Socratics. It is quite possible that even expressing this hunch will mean that you will discredit everything else I have said here — in much the same way that some people discredit the entire theory of evolution based on Darwin’s own expressed concern that the eye’s complexity was so great as to set it outside a process of evolution.

What I am trying to say is that there is as much potential science in doubt on the one hand and in persistent belief on the other hand as there is in actual scientific proof. I am trying also to draw your attention to arenas which have become so polarised that they are avoided, when in fact their very messiness — like that of our relation to animals or our feelings about sight — offer exciting potential to explore ideas that do not stop being science just because they enter a cultural realm.

It is important to remember, in defending the theory of evolution, that there are complex human beliefs — not any of them religious — which engage contrapuntally with, live alongside, and sometimes even produce science. One of the most trenchant ripostes to the tenet that folk belief is just pre-science comes from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough:

“The same savage who, apparently in order to kill his enemy, sticks his knife through a picture of him, really does build his hut of wood and cuts his arrow with skill and not in effigy.”

The new Darwin Forum would do well to pay attention to the contiguity of belief and proof. What and how we see and how we feel about this is bound up in what we make for each other to look at. This has physiological, cognitive and phenomenological underpinnings; effects and affects.  It is something we do with our bodies. The electromagnetic radiation of light is a deep driver of evolution and possibly part of the origin of life itself. An exciting programme at the Darwin Trust would put visual art, light and the eye close to the heart of its activities, not just as an instrument of communication, but as a means to nurture conjecture.



Further Links: The Charles Darwin Trust; Down House

[Image References: Rabbit, by Albrecht Durer (1502); Rabbit, by Jeff Koons (1986); the eye of a squid; visualisation of the evolution of the eye as a landscape in which height represents optical quality and the ground plane evolutionary distance by Professor Mike Land (1996)]