Tag Archive for: Museum Studies

Museum Godeffroy, Hamburg: The South Sea in the North Sea

MfN Kleinschmidt Bird

Senior Research Fellow, Understanding Written Artefacts, University of Hamburg  (2019-2020)

 

The ‘Museum Godeffroy’ of Hamburg was both short-lived (1861-1885) as a public venue and incredibly long-lived in terms of its impact. Its extensive trade with other significant collections worldwide — collections which still retain large numbers of Godeffroy natural history specimens — include the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin and London’s Natural History Museum. Through its highly effective and standardised duplicate sales catalogues and logistical streamlining, it distributed and sold natural historical and ethnographic materials across the globe, including sales made back to the very regions from which it collected in Australia-Pacific among others. Skilfully interwoven with the vast Godeffroy & Sohn trading empire in what was then known in Europe as the South Sea, the Museum was ‘scientized’ through an equally well-distributed network of learned natural historians willing to assist in species determinations in exchange for rebates on purchases, as well as through the creation of a lavish publishing programme.

 

 

For most of the academic year 2019-2020 I have been effecting research on the Museum Godeffroy as a Petra Kappert Visiting Research Fellow with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures. The Centre is home to one of the most prestigious research grants awarded by the German State — an Excellence Cluster – the funding for which has supported my Fellowship. Understanding Written Artefacts investigates the material objects of manuscript cultures, globally and in a wide range of time periods.

 

One of the five major areas of inquiry for Understanding Written Artefacts is the node on ‘Archiving Artefacts’ — examining the physical and spatial contexts for the structuring of written information into conceptual and retrievable formations. Of course, these archival practices have a direct bearing on the production of knowledge, be it in property law or in religious observance, and naturally ‘Archiving Artefacts’ also looks at ‘the relationship of collections of written artefacts with other objects, e.g. in museums’. The spokesperson for this area of inquiry on the larger Excellence Cluster is Markus Friedrich, the author of the magisterial The Birth of the Archive: A History of Knowledge.

 

archival folder museum godeffroy files mfn

 

I first met Markus when we were both Visiting Scholars at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in 2012, in the framework of the ‘Sciences of the Archive’ project led by Lorraine Daston. Both Markus and I were effecting research on the materiality of collections inside a working group that generally had much more esoteric and malleable bodies of knowledge in their sights, such as astronomical or meteorological data. At that time, I was beginning to trace some of the epistemological links between the natural history collection management practices of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) and 21st Century practices in high-throughput genomic databases like BOLD (Barcode of Life). Markus was working on his manuscript for The Birth of The Archive. It was a pleasure to share notes on our messy, organic subjects and the organised disorganisation of collecting and categorisation in early modern Europe.

 

When I saw that Markus had included a study of a natural history collection in his area of the ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ Cluster, I got in touch. ‘Label, object and collection — principles, practices and reflections of the genesis of knowledge’ was initiated by the Director of the University of Hamburg’s natural history museum (CeNak) Professor Matthias Glaubrecht. He saw that the labelling of natural history collections constitutes a form of manuscript culture that clearly plays a crucial part in knowledge creation in the natural sciences. Matthias’s interest in, and knowledge of, the Museum Godeffroy is of long date, stretching back to his dissertation years based at the University of Hamburg in the Museum of which he is now the Director — a Museum which holds a substantial proportion of what was once the Museum Godeffroy. Between his disputation in 1994 and his appointment as Director of CeNak in 2014, he held a range of other posts, including twelve years at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin – where there are also considerable Godeffroy-related materials.

 

Museum Godeffroy Label Octopus

 

The three of us met in June 2019 and agreed to propose a Fellowship to enable me to bring my experience of research on histories of knowledge production in museum and collection practices to bear on the project outline that Matthias had created. Through my extensive work on the early modern manuscript catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections of natural historical and economic botany specimens and research documents formed the basis of the British Museum / Natural History Museum, I am very familiar with the complex and evolving indexical and epistemological relations between specimens, labels and catalogues. These information architectures are key paper tools with both significant materiality and critical agency in the development of morphology and taxonomy, yet we still lack a full understanding of their emergence, history and imbrication with specimens in knowledge- and method-producing practices over time.

 

It has been wonderful to be part of the international research arena that has been created at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures under its Director, Professor Michael Friedrich, the eminent sinologist. The range and scope of research at the Centre is unparalleled, and has given me a chance to return to my training in history of the book, as well as to tie this in with my work in history of collections and of natural history. As with many of my projects, this one has also involved moving back and forth between museum and university contexts, and I have also been welcomed and supported through collaborations with highly knowledgable curators and collections managers at the CeNak.

 

With their help, I have been able to effect primary research at the CeNak on Godeffroy-related historical collections and labelling practices, and we have also worked with the UWA ‘Object Profiling Team’ to analyse inks and paper compositions of Museum Godeffroy labels from the later 19th Century. We will be co-authoring an article about our findings in the coming months. I’ve also visited archives where outgoing correspondence from the Museum Godeffroy – mainly from its then ‘Custos,’ Johannes Dietrich Eduard Schmeltz (1839 – 1909) — shines a clear light on the reciprocity between collections and duplicate sales of the materials that the Godeffroy empire was able to commission from envoys and scouts across the Pacific. This subject of duplicates is the focus of a working group at the Department of the Humanities of Nature at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin, and I will be participating with my findings. I’ve also been able to delve into business history, which is a new field for me, and have had some excellent guidance from the Stiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv in Hamburg.

 

object profiling team UWA Hamburg

 

The Fellowship period has enabled me to refine the project scope and research questions and give clearer definition to the methods and aims of the project. It is clear to me that the scale and reach of a coherent project concerning the Museum Godeffroy and its afterlives must match the scale and scope of the original 19th Century project in a number of significant ways. Both natural history and ethnographic materials were collected and traded: the link between these two disciplines, and between science and commerce, are sharply delineated in the case of Godeffroy. A rigorous research project concerning the Museum Godeffroy would also look closely at the intertwined nature of colonial practice and logistics, as well as the practices in museology and biology that these have engendered. It must involve museums from all across Europe which purchased significant specimens from Godeffroy. Ultimately, any project hoping to address the Museum Godeffroy as a phenomenon should include researchers from the Pacific nations, great and small, where all this teeming life was collected, and which reflects an ecosystem that has now been profoundly altered.

 

Perhaps the forensic work of ‘understanding written artefacts’ can hope to understand not just the epistemes, but also the deeper existential and even ethical connections between trade practices and science practice, and in so doing also perform a kind of colonial provenance research for the natural world of the Pacific, in which historical, environmental and climate justice could all hope to be served.

 

museum godeffroy doubletten catalogue detail

 

 

Further Links: Centre for the Study of Manuscript CulturesCentrum für Naturkunde HamburgHumanities of Nature – Museum für NaturkundeStiftung Hanseatisches Wirtschaftsarchiv

 

[Image References: Egg of the Ardea sacra, collected for Museum Godeffroy on Lunado Levu 15 September 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Bird specimen (Pachycephala torquata) collected by Kleinschmidt on Tavinui December 1875, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; bound correspondence files, Historische Arbeitsstelle, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin; Museum Godeffroy label for an Octopus specimen, CeNak Hamburg; Object Profiling Team of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures setting up a multi-spectral imaging session with Museum Godeffroy specimen labels]

 

Exhibition Histories in Science and Technology

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Exhibition histories matter to historians of science because from the mid-1800s onwards, exhibitions have been created, produced, and experienced in almost all the sites of significance to science, technology, and medicine. This includes spaces such as clinics and labs as well as both international and specialist trade fairs, naval and other military posts, physics workshops, hospitals and public health centres, marine stations and aquariums, arboretums and botanical gardens, planetariums and observatories, zoos, and more.

 

Exhibition histories as a form began to appear in several disciplines at once in quick succession at the end of the 1990s.  These three seminal publications were each the result of at least a decade of research: Thinking About Exhibitions (1996); The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture (1998); and The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (1999).  ‘Thinking’, ‘politics’, and ‘power’ are the operative words in the titles of all three, and this should come as no surprise given that these exhibition histories range across art, science, and technology.

Researchers in the history of science have begun to focus more intently on twentieth century exhibitions as a discursive locus recently. I’ve just published an article in the scholarly journal History of Science, which is published by SAGE and edited by Lissa Roberts of the University of Twente. Entitled Embodied ephemeralities: Methodologies and historiographies for investigating the display and spatialization of science and technology in the twentieth century, the article draws together a range of methods and historiographic considerations for historians of science and technology wishing to research the exhibition form, particularly in 20th Century contexts. Having both made exhibitions and studied them, as well as having taught collections-based research at doctoral level, and worked in research leadership in museum and collection contexts, I was particularly happy to be able to make this article contribution while serving as a Council Member of the British Society for the History of Science under its current President, Tim Boon — Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum (London).

My article was commissioned for a special issue of HOS, edited by Charlotte Bigg and Andrée Bergeron on ‘The Spatial Inscription of Science in the 20th Century.’ I first met Charlotte nearly 20 years ago in 2001 at a ground-breaking conference organised by Jim Bennett with colleagues from the Museum of the History of Science (Oxford) and the Paris Musée des Arts et Métiers, entitled Les Rêves et Les Choses (Dreams and Things): joint meeting on the history of science in museums. Now a Senior Researcher at the Centre Alexandre Koryé, and an accomplished historian of science, Charlotte was a doctoral student in 2001 when that conference took place.  Yet her comments and questions at the time were some of the most interesting to be posed at the meeting, demonstrating a clear interest and understanding of what collections and museums spaces could and should do in history of science, and what the agency of objects in science practice could reveal.

The special issue of HOS that Charlotte has edited with Andrée Bergeron is among the wider research outcomes of their international research network “Matières à Penser: les mises en scène des sciences et leurs enjeux. 19e – 21e siècles” (2013–2015). Together with an earlier investigation entitled “Voir/savoir: Manières de voir et représentations visuelles dans les sciences” (2012–2013), these distinct projects addressed, in discursive interplay, the visual and material cultures of science, the evolution of science communication and its spatialisation, and collections and exhibitions. History of design, both in relation to history of modern science and technology and in terms of history of exhibitions, is a seriously under-developed and yet highly significant field, and I hope to have opened up some methods for redressing that in the article I have just published.

I have also been teaching methodologies for exhibition histories with regard to science and technology this year: the University of Göttingen is running an exciting Doctoral College with seven research doctoral students addressing exhibitions histories in the 20th Century.  Funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung and entitled ‘Wissen / Ausstellen’, the College is led by the University’s Professor of the Materiality of Knowledge, Margarete Vöhringer with assistance from the University’s Zentrale Kustodie.  In April, I returned to Göttingen (having spent much of 2018 there as a research fellow) to be part of an intensive training methods week for these doctoral students, giving a seminar in collections based research with particular focus on exhibition histories.  This means looking not only at museum collections, but also at museums’ own institutional archives about how they deploy those collections, and going beyond that to the curators and designers who create exhibitions.

Among the observations that I have had about current research in 20th century visual and spatial practice is the fact that many students are at sea when it comes to photographic histories in a pre-digital era.  Knowledge of photographic processes is crucial to understanding exhibition-making: the differences between a photographic negative, a positive, a slide, and a 3 1/4 transparency can tell you so much about what that photograph was used for in an exhibition context.  Was it used for a slide-show as part of the exhibition’s multi-media?  Was it a press photograph or was it a working photograph for the designers?  Was it used as part of the ‘pitch’ the designers made to the museum in order to win the contract for the exhibition design?  Increasingly this kind of knowledge will be essential in charting accurate epistemologies of exhibitions — exhibitions which can have deep influences.  The exhibition, wherever it takes place, must be understood as a key element in any chaîne opératoire that connects practices in science, technology, and medicine with the social sphere, thus influencing commerce, policy, and public opinion alike.

In my article for HOS I also propose that exhibition making is not only a valid research activity, but also a valuable experience for those wishing to understand exhibition histories.  That exhibition-making is a research process, and that its methodologies can extrude and highlight historical realities specific to material cultures of science and technology is a fact that has also been gaining traction.  Two important publications exploring this historiographic territory are:

 

Both are the proceedings volumes from exploratory conferences: I contributed papers in both events and contributed to both publications.  My comments on the field can be found here:  Thinking Through Objects.  And, when asked as part of my ‘Viewpoint’ Interview for the British Society for the History of Science, which might be my favourite publications in the field, I responded instead with a list of the recent history of science exhibitions that I felt to be the most successful and influential!

 

[Image References: Charles and Ray Eames’ 1961 exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond. Featured image shows the Eames photographing their model of the exhibition; image header shows visitors enjoying the exhibition. Photos courtesy © Eames Office LLC / www.eamesoffice.com]

Senior Research Associate, Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage

Svalbard_Global_Seed_Bank_Matthias_Heyde

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

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

 

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

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

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

AAFH_Team_Kalmar_2014

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Traditional medicines for sale at kiosks; Wolong Nature Reserve,

 

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

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

Museums as Social Learning Spaces: Denmark

thomas_ravn_speaking_at_den_gamle_by_open_air_museum

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

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

 

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

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

naturama_svendborg_denmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

skagens_museum_brondums_dining_room

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

Artists Work in the (Science) Museum

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

gene_sequencer_nhm

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Senior Research Associate: Reconstructing Sloane

Research and Project Management, Reconstructing Sloane (2011 – present)

 

The vast Enlightenment-era collections amassed by Sir Hans Sloane are the foundation-stone of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum. A major interdisciplinary digital humanities research project to virtually reunite and analyse Sloane’s collections and his own catalogue inventories is now being planned, led by curators and research staff of these institutions. I am collaborating with these colleagues to design, develop and resource the Reconstructing Sloane project. My own related research, investigating collections management as a knowledge producing practice in the early modern period, is supported by both Visiting Fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a Research Scholar Affiliation at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.

 

Sloane’s early modern collections of natural history, ethnographia, antiquities, artworks, numismatics, books and manuscripts are now divided across the three world-class institutions which were created by his gift to the nation: the British Museum in Bloomsbury, the British Library in King’s Cross, and the Natural History Musem in South Kensington.  Over the 260 years since his death in 1753, the materials have followed the paths of the disciplines which they themselves in part had spawned: thus the integrity of the collections and their meaning as a coherent site of early modern intellectual practice has been slowly obscured.

Of course, the collections also changed a great deal, in their form and use, over Sloane’s own lifetime, as he was collecting internationally for some 70 years in a period of immense global and intellectual change. The 18th century is arguably the first period of globalisation, and the relationship between trade and intellectual life in this epoch is a subject of considerable interest in a wide range of humanities fields.  The world in which Sloane paid close attention to the messy business of organic life – irreducible to mathematics –  is also the world of Boyle and Hooke, of Locke and Newton, of Leeouwenhoek and Leibnitz.

This exciting project was first proposed in 2010, when a 350th anniversary of Sloane’s birth in 1660 was celebrated by the British Library with a conference. From Books to Bezoars was a wide-ranging two-day event that showed the astonishing breadth of Sloane’s work and influence, even today.  It was organised by Alison Walker, who has been the driving force behind the Sloane Printed Book Project, which aims to locate and identify all books owned and used by Sloane and subsequently bequeathed to what would become the British Library.  It was common practice then, as today, for libraries to sell off duplicate copies of books: a number of Sloane’s books, well used and full of highly significant marginal notes, were auctioned through the 18th and 19th century – no doubt considered at the time to be the grubbier of any two copies the Library owned!

Later that year, in August 2010, a meeting of curatorial and research staff from the British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal Society Centre for History of Science, the Wellcome Library and beyond took place at the NHM under the auspices of its  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research. I was at that time seconded into CAHR as part of its small dynamic research development team, and for that meeting I collated an overview survey of the state of Sloane collections and research across the three institutions.

Before my secondment ended in Spring 2011, we organised several exploratory meetings internally and between the institutions, and the project quickly developed momentum.  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 development roadmap is now the backbone of the undertaking.  My current research and project management work with the three national institutions picks up from there, and we are now working on project design and resourcing. A particularly exciting prospect is that of working with digital humanities colleagues to quite literally reconstruct, albeit virtually, Sloane’s intellectual world, and to explore what a deep history of ‘information science’ might look like.

Throughout 2012, with support from an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Science in Culture’ Networking Grant to the British Museum, the three institutions led some of the most exciting cross-disciplinary seminars and meetings ever to be held about early modern intellectual life and legacy.  These events brought together dozens of disciplinary fields and areas of curatorial expertise, showing just what can be done when museums and universities work together (recordings of many of the proceedings are available online from Backdoor Broadcasting).

 

 

At the Network meeting which took place at the British Museum, I led a breakout session about cataloguing as research, and research into cataloguing itself.  What is of interest to me with Sloane is the unique triangulation between history of science, history of collections, and history of the book – three fields I have always found highly productive.  Sloane’s world is one which could be called ‘pre-disciplinary,’ and requires a highly interdisciplinary team if we are to understand, in the 21st century, what exactly that might mean.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I first heard about Sloane from the man who first brought the history of collections to the attention of other humanities disciplines, Dr Arthur MacGregor.  Arthur edited the volume Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary (1994), which has become the bible of those of us working on the meanings and use histories of Sloane’s collections.  In a more recent publication, Arthur’s Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries (Yale 2007), we read:

“A parallel evolutionary process can be traced between the development of the cabinet and that of the catalogue.  More than mere inventories, catalogues had a dynamic of their own that contributed not only to the formal registration or recording of collections but also to their analysis and explication at several levels.  Furthermore, the catalogue developed a distinct literary and philosophical programme through which it evolved into a genre that, even if (at least normally) dependent on the collection, was more than merely reflective of it.”

I have been investigating the implications of these ‘evolutionary processes’ between the cabinet and the catalogue during research fellowship periods at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and as an Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science of the University of Cambridge. This is essentially a study of collections management as science, and though my research remit is not limited to Sloane’s work alone, his meticulous attention to the documentation and organisation of his collection is a major focus.

 

 

Three Collaborative Doctoral Awards focusing on Sloane’s collections are now underway:

Collecting and Correspondence: Sloane’s Papers and Scientific Networks (Supervised by Dr Arnold Hunt, British Library and Dr Anne Goldgar, King’s College London)

Putting Nature in a Box: Sloane’s Vegetable Substances (Supervised by Dr Charlie Jarvis, Natural History Museum, and Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary University of London)

Visualizing Natural Knowledge: Sloane’s Albums of Natural History Drawings  (Supervised by Dr Kim Sloan, British Museum, and Dr Elizabeth Eger, King’s College London)

 

Further Links:  Sloane’s Treasures British Museum; Sloane’s Treasures Natural History Museum; British Library Foundation Collections; Sloane Printed Books Project; From Books to Bezoars; British Museum Collections Online; Backdoor Broadcasting Sloane Workshops Podcasts

[Image References: Onyx Cameo of a Goat (16th-17thc, Sloane Collections), British Museum; view of the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum; page spread from Sloane’s own catalogue of Miscellanies, British Museum; cabinet drawer (c1670), Centraal Museum, Utrecht.]

Science Voices, Museum Lives

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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]

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]