Tag Archive for: London

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]

Deputy Director: V&A Research Institute


VARI — the Victoria and Albert Museum Research Institute is a new programme of research and teaching partnerships to enhance access to the V&A’s collections and develop new approaches to research, training, display and interpretation. I have been appointed Deputy Director of VARI in its initial development phase over the next year: VARI was was launched in 2016 with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation following a successful VARI Pilot Project in 2014-2015. 


Nestled inside the V&A Research Department, the Institute aims to co-design new research methodologies that can dovetail a range of different approaches, setting out to foster new forms of collaboration between experts in curation, conservation and collections management; academics from across the humanities, social sciences and sciences; artists, designers and performers; and pioneers in the field of research administration.

Of course, research takes place on a daily basis throughout the Museum, in its Conservation and Collections Departments as well as in its Learning Department and in collections management, where information architecture is a crucial spine holding together objects and our knowledge of them.  VARI also aims to accommodate research interests of visitors as well — both to the South Kensington HQ and to the planned Education Quarter in East London, where the V&A are close neighbours with UCL, London College of Fashion, Sadlers Wells, and other significant institutions to be based on what was the Olympic Park.

A portfolio of residencies, Visiting Professorships, Fellowships and Postdoctoral positions will traverse several structured research projects embedded in V&A Collections.  The Leman Album: An Enhanced Facsimile brings together conservation knowledge with textile curators and historians, as well as binding and paper specialists.  Encounters on the Shop Floor: Embodiment and the Knowledge of the Maker seeks to surface and articulate the cognitive aspects of making and knowing, and to position them at the core of the craftsmanship that is everywhere in evidence in V&A collections.  Collections Access and Display Fellowships will experiment with the V&A’s modes and methods for exhibition curation and find new ways of bringing research to bear on the access the Museum gives to its objects.



Further Links: V&A Research Institute Pilot Report; Leman Album in Collections Online; Encounters on the Shop Floor Video by Paul Craddock

[Image References: Facade of the Victoria and Albert Museum; ‘fruit machine’ VARI logo; Album of designs for silk textiles created by James Leman in the first years of the 18th Century — V&A Collection]

Artists Work in the (Science) Museum


‘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.




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]


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)]

Natural History Museum: CAHR

Vice-Chancellor’s Investment Fund Secondment, Centre for Arts and Humanities Research, Natural History Museum (London):  Kingston University  (2009 to 2011)


This key two-year post was central to a small dynamic team developing an arts and humanities research hub inside this national museum with international reach, where 300 scientists are at work studying plant and animal genetics, geology and mineralogy, the structure of the universe, biodiversity, climate change and more.

Having worked at the Science Museum (London) and the Medical Museion (Copenhagen), as well as a number of fine art museums, I was excited to see the advertisement for this post — which was headlined: “Would you like to work in a creative, fulfilling and exciting environment, where you will have the opportunity to explore the world class Natural History Museum collections?”

I felt I could answer that question clearly and succinctly in the affirmative.

The ad continued: this is “an innovative new project, which aims to explore the potential of the Museum collections as a resource for arts and humanities research. With a relevant postgraduate degree and a successful record of applying for and obtaining external research income, you will have the ability to build effective networks within the field of humanities and work in productive partnership with academic colleagues.”  Just as interesting to me as the collections was this opportunity to help operationalise the highly interdisciplinary practice that would be the outcome of a successful integration of arts and humanities researchers into this scientific research institute.

I already had experience of aligning methodologies across arts and science through individual projects, and had been consulted for strategic development advice by institutions such as the Royal Society and the Science Museum vis à vis resourcing the research potential of their collections. This project would be a chance to be directly effective at an institutional scale in implementing change.

The NHM is essentially UK science infrastructure for systematics, taxonomics and biodiversity: the excitement for me was in the potential for enabling productive links between the vast range of biological research methods at the NHM and those of arts and humanities researchers that CAHR, as it came to be known, would bring in.

My work with organic collections and with contemporary molecular and microbiological practices at the Medical Museion was a very good grounding for moving into natural history fields like zoology and entomology. I was at home in both the collections environment and the lab areas: it is an amazing institution and every day of the week there was something astounding to see and understand.

A crucial linchpin of information management about specimens from across the Museum — in Zoology, Entomology, Botany, Mineralogy and Palaeontology — is the incredibly rich NHM Library and Archives. For the 350 pre-digital years of the Museum’s specimen collecting practice, any relevant observations including locations and dates were kept in notebooks and manuscripts, and the trade in specimens involved of necessity various forms of scientific visualisation. Thus 500,000 images of nature from the world over are also part of the collection.



Taken as a whole, these rich and diverse collections trace a wide spectrum from the history of science to the history of empire, from epistemologies of observational practice to ontologies of data-mining. With associated field notes, films, photographs, diaries, drawings, ship’s logs, correspondence and both GIS and DNA data, the Natural History Museum specimen collections are a rich resource for investigation. Fields as varied as history, philosophy, museology, anthropology, literary studies, film and photo studies, animal studies, cultural theory and area studies relating to South Asia, Africa, China and elsewhere find firm purchase and important primary materials in the NHM collections.

My post involved me in gaining a detailed understanding of the historical and scientific basis of the NHM collections, their management and use. With the generous support of NHM staff, I effected more than 25 specimen collection and laboratory research visits, and produced a 35 page strategy document outlining an appropriate and fundable research programme divided into several interlocking sections:

  • Natural History, Global History
  • Visual Cultures Of Natural History
  • Literatures And Texts Of Natural History
  • Museum As Laboratory: ‘Improving Natural Knowledge’
  • Facilitating Interdisciplinarity
  • Sharing Knowledge


Under ‘Natural History, Global History’ I wrote:

The co-production of understandings of the natural world with the development of empires – both financial and geo-political – is the subject of this Research Cluster. The recent ‘material turn’ in historical research is beginning to extend beyond the holdings of cultural museums to address collections whose primary purpose has been scientific investigation, with its attendant specific histories and economies.

The unique qualities of natural history specimens and the geospatial and temporal data which accompanies them means that they function as information-rich pivots for historical investigation. Who collected these specimens – from indigenous groups to Presidents of the Royal Society – and how and why they were collected – from instrumentation and instruction to economic botany – is in essence a history of the world since 1500. The circulation of specimens, ideas and goods is concomitant, and an examination of this nexus over time is a key epistemological endeavour in which the Museum can play a central role.

Humanities researchers are best placed to analyse the often widely divergent and physically disparate sets of written records which can join up dots to plot the movement of ideas and objects through time and space. This would be a contribution not only to history and epistemology, but also to current science, by enabling the reintegration of point reference data with earlier collections.


I identified and developed contacts with researchers internationally who have the skills to effect this work, including drawing up a longlist for the Centre Advisory Board, and assisting with its formation. With other members of the team (Julie Harvey, Centre Manager; Dr Charlie Jarvis, Scientific Advisor; Nadja Noel, Project Coordinator) I organised and hosted both pro-active and responsive meetings and collection visits with potential partners, individual and institutional. A considerable part of the post involved enabling and promoting partnerships for CAHR with universities, research councils, foundations, libraries and other major museums.

Zoology, taxonomy and systematics are structurally very interesting activities, with complex institutional and linguistic regimes and instrument practices, and I also developed two research project proposals rooted in these fields. One of them related taxonomic nomenclature to philosophy of language, and another outlined a methodologies-exchange between zoological scientists and animal studies researchers. One outcome of the latter was the lecture programme Unruly Creatures, convened by Kingston Professor John Mullarkey. I also represented CAHR at a range of external conferences, from Scientific Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation to In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science and Museums and Restitution.

The Centre ran a number of larger projects during the period of my tenure, some of which I was also directly involved in. I co-organised the conference Science Voices (at the Royal Society) which examined oral history of science as part of Museum Lives — a Kingston University AHRC-funded Knowledge Transfer project to interview 50 NHM members of staff. I also became closely involved in the project initiation phase of ‘Reconstructing Sloane’ — a cross-institutional project between the NHM, the British Library and the British Museum, which intends to reunite, analyse and make accessible the original foundation collections of all three institutions as constituted by Sir Hans Sloane in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project initiation document is now the backbone of the project, supporting the Consortium’s unfolding work on Sloane.

Institutional business planning, communication strategy creation and implementation, participation in policy and procedure development advocating for the humanities researcher, lecture series curation and management, mentoring, fundraising and more were also part of my work for the Centre. Working across both the Museum and Kingston University, I helped Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences researchers formulate projects through the Museum, and collaborated with KU’s Museum and Gallery Studies director Dr Duncan Grewcock and NHM Public Engagement Staff to design and deliver postgraduate teaching and learning.

Since the end of my tenure, Kingston University has instated five research Fellowships at the NHM Centre under the rubrics I identified in my CAHR strategy document: I look forward to the outcomes.



You can hear a podcast of my lecture Natural History, Global History, presented at the launch of the Centre for the Historical Record conference ‘Providing Public History: Challenges and Opportunities‘ (10/06/2011) Kingston University.

Further Links:  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Natural History Museum; Unruly Creatures 1; Unruly Creatures 2; London Graduate School, Kingston University; Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation; In Kind: Species of Exchange in Early Modern Science; Museums and Restitution; Museum and Gallery Studies, Kingston University; Centre for the Historical Record; Reconstructing Sloane’

[Image References: Lepidoptera Collections, Natural History Museum; Earth Sciences Librarian Hellen (Pethers) Sharman displaying William Smith’s Geological Map of English (1815) for geological historians; the Central Hall of the NHM]

Full Solar Spectrum

You are Here: The Design of Information

You Are Here: The Design of Information, Curatorial Advisor, Design Museum, London (2005)


Curatorial Advisor to Lead Curator James Peto concerning overall exhibition structure and science content on this important exhibition looking at information design and graphics; curation of the Cosmos section of the exhibition relating to the history of astrophysics and the development of the universe.

This wonderful and wide-ranging exhibition, curated by James Peto, included everything from street signs to geological maps, morse code, pie charts, timelines, timetables and teaching models.  The exhibition concentrated on areas of information which affect all of us: “information that helps us understand what we are, where we are and how we get from one place to another, literally and metaphorically.” The show set out to “explore the history and evolution of information design and consider the extent to which advances in knowledge and technology have affected the way that designers approach their fundamental task” (quotes from the exhibition introduction).

James consulted me for advice about the science fields he wished to explore with this interdisciplinary exhibition. These ranged from astronomy to anatomy, mathematics to meteorology.  The design of information of course involves the practice of science as well as science communication: without the use of the information design technique of the grid, for example, Mendeleyev would have had difficulty discerning the structure of the periodic table and predicting those elements which had not yet been discovered.

The exhibition was loosely structured on a scale from the cosmic to the microscopic, taking its cue from one of the most significant information designs of the 20th century: Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, which was first produced as a film in 1968, and then published as a book in 1982 by Scientific American.

I curated the COSMOS section of You Are Here, which was the show’s ‘opener’.  It was an exciting way for me to build a bridge between a major cultural museum and hard-science aspects of astrophysics. Having spent the previous year at the Institute of Astronomy of the University of Cambridge as part of my NESTA Fellowship, I knew that the processes by which astrophysicists create the beautiful images of distant stars and galaxies is even more amazing than the images themselves.  It involves complex particle detectors mounted in space stations, huge databases of numerical information, algorithms to analyse those databases, and high-spec software to polish up the final product. There is a long and fascinating history to unravelling the messages starlight brings us, and it is a history of information design.

My COSMOS section included a range of objects from an 1880s Browning spectroscope (on loan from the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford) to one of the first photon counting devices sent up a hundred years later on the Hubble Space Telescope (on loan from Alec Boksenberg and the Institute of Astronomy).  Images included a photograph of the ‘Harvard Computers’ — an extraordinary group of women mathematicians who effected many of the photographic plate measurements, calculations and classifications of stars and their spectra at Harvard in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries — and a magisterial diagram of the evolution of the cosmos from The Book of Dust (1989) by the artist Agnes Denes.

Below you will find three ‘photo-focused’ references from my COSMOS section of the exhibition.  The rest of the show, containing over 350 objects and images, was as rich and info-packed as the COSMOS section, but — sadly — there was no catalogue.


COSMOS:  Light, medium and message

Locating our world in the universe means decoding information conveyed to us by the laws of physics before we can formulate anything resembling a map. Light itself is both organising principle and transportation vehicle for data about the composition and history of the cosmos.

Light travels as packets of particles called photons in waves at a constant speed: these key facts help us unlock the mass of facts organised in light’s complex structure and behaviour. From this ultimate ‘medium’, astrophysicists can extract timelines of development from the big bang, the evolution of atomic elements, galactic maps, and more.


Full Solar Spectrum

Solar spectrum showing the absorption lines which mark the presence of individual atomic elements in the sun’s composition. NOAO/AURA  1984  (National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science Foundation/Tucson Arizona)

Getting the information out of something often involves breaking it down into component parts. Light is no exception: the prism in a spectroscope bends visible light to show an orderly rainbow of colours. Without the spectrum colour-coding would not exist.

In 1814, Joseph Fraunhofer detailed dark lines appearing apparently at random in the sun’s spectrum. The startling accuracy of his diagram gave birth to astrophysics: others later proved the lines to be markers — a map — showing the various atomic elements of which the sun is composed. Spectroscopy techniques now extend far beyond the limited lightwaves visible to the eye.


Southern Sky Survey showing Orion and its immediate region. UK Schmidt Telescope Unit of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh for the UK Science and Engineering Research Council and European Space Observatory, 1985 -1999  [The full ESO/SERC Southern Sky Survey in several wavelengths contains 1,956 fields]  Thanks to Dr Mike Irwin, Director: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit, Institute of Astronomy/Cambridge.

Taking pictures of the sky through telescopes began with photography itself and originally was limited to plates of particularly ‘interesting objects.’ This evolved into the All Sky Survey: the whole visible sky is divided into a vast image-grid. Astronomers measured and analysed varying intensities of the recorded light and distances between stars.

By the 1980s scanners were systematically used to extract information from these pictures. Each plate generates hundreds of thousands of digits of raw numerical data. Long before a ‘pretty picture’ of a new astronomical discovery appears in a newspaper, an elaborate processing of data received from space missions has occurred.


The “Harvard Computers” including Annie Jump Cannon, and the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Edward Charles Pickering, 1912  (Harvard University/Cambridge Massachusetts)

In the early 20th Century, many of the photographic plate measurements, calculations and classifications of stars and their spectra were done by an extraordinary group of women mathematicians known as the “Harvard Computers” decades before the computer as we know it was even conceived.

The patterns they saw emerging from the sea of information they were hired to handle have become fundamental to the mathematics of data mining in current astrophysics. The work of these ‘information designers’ 100 years ago contributes structurally to how we model the evolution of the cosmos today.



You Are Here: The Design of Information was reviewed by the Guardian, EYE Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. (Press Release from the Design Museum.)

Further Links:  Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames; Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge; Agnes Denes

[Image References: Periodic Tables of the Elements; Solar Spectrum, NOAO/AURA; Orion, ESO/SERC Southern Sky Survey; Harvard Computers, Harvard University; views of You Are Here by Rose English and by Jonathan Hares, one of the exhibition’s designers

From Le Musée des Sciences to the Science Museum

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

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


Here is the abstract:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

From the thesis:

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

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


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

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

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

Consultant: Science Museum

Consultant to the Science Museum, London (2003 to 2004)


The revival of national museums as research centres, and an increasing recognition of museum culture as inherently a research culture, has been an important feature of the last 15 years in UK intellectual life.  Following my work as Development Manager at the Royal Society, I was approached by the Science Museum for strategic advice on the structuring of their Research and Residencies Unit; on implementing internal mechanisms for research facilitation; on building partnership networks; and on matching projects to fundraising targets.

The corporate importance of ‘museum research’ started to gain real headway in the early 1990s.  The instatement of a dedicated Research Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, with post-graduate programmes in history of design run jointly with the Royal College of Art, became a model to follow. For other kinds of museums, such as science museums, this was a difficult route to follow, as it pre-supposed a shared understanding of the value of their work to humanities disciplines.

This situation improved in the UK with the creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board in 1998, which recognised history of science as an important field, and it began to get really interesting when the AHRB made moves to become a full-fledged research council from 2002. As the case for this was made, a number of museums were approached and asked to consider how they could contribute strategically to humanities research and what they would require infrastructurally to effect such a contribution. When the AHRC — for Council — was created, one of the first acts of the Council was to create a status for non-university research centres, known as Independent Research Organisation status, or ‘IRO.’

The Science Museum has a long-standing and productive relationship with Imperial College, and it both serves and benefits from an international group of colleagues in history and museology of science. Funding this activity, and creating a profile for it, was an important goal.  In 2004, before the AHRB became the AHRC, I was approached by Dr Tim Boon (now Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum) as a consultant to help shape the Science Museum’s research programme to be fit for purpose.

I have known Tim since my research residencies at the Science Museum from 1996 – 1999, during which time I produced — with his help and that of other curators — both Open Book (1996) and Atomism & Animism (1999). When I was designing a proposal for a history of science research centre at the Royal Society during the tenure of my post as Development Manager, I asked him to be a member of the proposed Advisory Board* and shared with him my 40 page business plan.  He was thus aware that my knowledge of the intersections between history of science, museums and archives, and funding opportunities, were very much up to date.

By 2005, the AHRC had been created, and in 2009 the Science Museum became (as the National Museum of Science and Industry) an AHRC-recognised Independent Research Organisation — just as I began work next door at the Natural History Museum, helping to set up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research.



* Though there is now a fantastic Centre for History of Science at the Royal Society, it differs somewhat from the structure I had proposed in 2001, and does not have an advisory board to my knowledge.

Further Links: The Science Museum; Arts and Humanities Research Council; IRO Status

[Image References: bird’s eye view of the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World galleries (co-curators Tim Boon, Andrew Nahum and Alex Hayward); close-up of the reconstruction of Babbage’s Difference Engine at the Science Museum]

Consultant: Wellcome Trust

Consultant to the Wellcome Trust, London (2003 to 2004)

I have been a judge of the Wellcome Trust SciArt Research and Production Grants and also participated in the international development workshop exploring the form and direction of what was to become the Wellcome Collections exhibitions space in the Euston Road.  I contributed to the evaluation of the Medicine Man exhibition that took place at the British Museum in 2003 prior to its reworking for permanent installation in Wellcome Collections. The Wellcome Trust also sought my views in this period for a Discussion Group formulating grants policy in arts, public engagement, and medical humanities.


In 1996, the Wellcome Trust initiated an ambitious and forward-thinking funding stream to bring visual artists, film-makers, theatre practitioners, composers and musicians, choreographers and dancers and more together with their peers working in biomedical practice.  Though this was in the main a ‘public engagement’ activity for the Trust, it began to produce some very interesting artworks that begged as many important questions as they answered.  Granted, not all of what was produced under the short-lived title of sciart was very good — but then, there’s a lot of not terribly good science and not terribly good art out there already!

Sciart ran as a funding programme for a decade, and went through a period of partnership with Arts Council England, Scotland and the Gulbenkian Foundation before being wound down by Wellcome in 2006.  It was then absorbed into the general grants programme of the Trust.  The year I which I was a juror both for Research and Development and for Production Grants (2004), the programme was still run by Bergit Arends, who co-authored with her colleague Verity Slater the book Talking Back to Science: Art, science and the personal (Wellcome Trust, 2004).  Bergit is now Curator of Contemporary Arts at the Natural History Museum, where I met up with her again when I was working at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the NHM.

Later that year, the Trust led an international workshop with directors and curators from medical museums, broadcasters, artists and others to discuss new uses for the Wellcome Trust building on the Euston Road.  Updating The Wellcome Story: 183 Euston Road gave a clear picture of the Trust’s plans for what was to become Wellcome Collections, and it was an exciting few days in which exchanges helped to finesse and improve the project design and also the potential for partnerships of the centre.  I spoke on the practicalities, advantages and future development of working with artists in science museums and museums of medicine.*

That workshop was the first official working day of the Wellcome Collections’ new curator, James Peto.  James and I had first worked together on my project Open Book, which he curated in 1996 while he was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  We also worked together later in 2004/2005 as he straddled his new Wellcome Collections post and his final project at the Design Museum, where he had worked for almost a decade: I assisted James in the curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

Ken Arnold, who is now Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, directed and co-curated the exhibition Medicine Man. It first opened at the British Museum in June of 2003, while the buildings on the Euston Road were being constructed — and closed for reconstruction.  This first incarnation of Medicine Man was one of the most exciting exhibitions I have ever seen.  Between Ken’s deep knowledge of Henry Wellcome’s collecting practice, and the skills of Caruso St John applied to the exhibition design, a true sense of the collections emerged from the very high density of object display.

It was here that one felt both the enormity and magnitude of the collection, and an inkling of Wellcome’s thinking and his vision for it.  While making Atomism & Animism, I worked at Blythe House where the Science Museum keeps and cares for the remains of Wellcome’s collections; I can assure you that as installed at the British Museum, Medicine Man evoked the real thing.

Here is an excerpt from my written report about the exhibition:

I believe that the choices made for this exhibition’s contents and design were extremely sensitive and intellectually sound, and that the structure of Henry Wellcome’s collection both revealed and reformed itself like a crystal lattice around the organising principles of the show.

It is not a revisionist history of Wellcome’s collecting practice, but one which addresses the mind of the man himself in a way that evokes the intellectual context of his work in this domain, and by extension, how these thought patterns entered the more health-progressive and lucrative areas of his activities.

Echoes of the collecting model of the Pitt-Rivers collection can also be seen in the choice of the curators to use form as a teach-tool for contemporary visitors in the design of the exhibition. This is not just a museological trope or reference: Wellcome would have been very aware of the Pitt-Rivers Museum and it would have influenced his collecting and his rapport with material culture and the culture of health and healing the world over: several of the contributors to the catalogue reference this explicitly.

For the design of Medicine Man to incorporate Pitt-Rivers’ display principles is in fact a way in to the mind of Henry Wellcome. It also happens to be a display form accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of education or the language they speak: one can literally see the evolution of an instrument or an idea unfolding from one object to the next. Thus the curators and designers were able to leap from Wellcome’s mind directly into the mind of the visitor by organising the exhibition this way: it seems to me that this kind of communication is what the Trust is all about.



* I also gave this talk — Working With Artists in Science Museums — in 2007 at the Steno Museum, University of Aarhus, and am currently preparing it for publication.

Further Links:  Wellcome Trust; Wellcome Trust Sciart Programme Outline; Report; Medicine Man; Wellcome Collections; Caruso St John Exhibition and Museum Design

[Images references:  Mechanical arm (detail), Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum London (1850 – 1910); Installation of Medicine Man at the British Museum, design Caruso St John (2003)]