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]