documenting collections: cornerstones for more history of science in museums

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  • Documenting Collections: Cornerstonesfor More History of Science in Museums

    Marta C. Loureno Samuel Gessner

    Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

    Abstract Historians of science have recently become increasingly involved with col-lections and scientific instruments. This creates opportunities for a more significant role of

    history in museums of science, as well as more meaningful and contextualized exhibitions

    and educational programmes. However, complementing the mainstream focus on universal

    scientific principles with history requires structural and cultural changes in museums

    approaches and practices. In this paper we draw from recent collaborative work with

    historians of science at the University of Lisbon to reflect on the challenges museums face

    as they prepare for a more meaningful historical approach to science. We argue that

    documentation is crucial both before objects enter the museum and as regular collections

    practice. We propose a conceptual and methodological framework comprising two oper-

    ational levels: documenting individual objects and documenting collections.

    [Historical scientific instruments] are not used for opening and questioning our understanding of the pastso that it illuminates the present. The present illuminates these objects, not the other way around.

    Jim Bennett (2005: 606)

    1 Introduction

    Historians have always been interested in museums and collections. In recent years

    however, they have also been increasingly using objects as primary sources for research.

    This is excellent news both for history and for museums. The study of historical objects

    brings new perspectives to both local and global narratives in the history of science,

    technology and medicine. Objects can provide important insights into the development of

    M. C. Lourenco (&)National Museum of Natural History and Science/CIUHCT, University of Lisbon,Rua da Escola Politecnica, 56, 1250-102 Lisbon, Portugale-mail:

    S. GessnerFaculdade de Ciencias, CIUHCT, University of Lisbon, Edif. C4, Piso 3, Gabinete 15,Campo Grande, 1749-016 Lisbon, Portugal


    Sci & EducDOI 10.1007/s11191-012-9568-z

  • experimental inquiry, theoretical speculation, research and teaching practices, technical

    application and innovation, interactions between instrument-makers, laboratory staff and

    scientists, as well as broader historical, social and political contexts. For museums,

    increased use of collections for historical studies is beneficial not only to collections care,

    research and conservation but also to enrich exhibitions, educational programmes and


    However, mutual relations between historians and museums are recent and require

    consolidation.1 Challenges faced by historians when they approach material sources have

    been discussed elsewhere (e.g. Lubar and Kingery 1996; Lourenco 2002). For historians,

    the biggest challenge is probably to increase their early training in material culture so that

    retrieving data from artefacts becomes as familiar as retrieving data from written sources.

    As Kingery (1996: 1) succinctly indicated, learning from things requires rather more

    attention than reading texts and the grammar of things is related to, but more complex and

    difficult to decipher than, the grammar of words. While a considerable body of literature

    has already been published, reference materials are scarce and material culture studies has

    only marginally penetrated graduate and post-graduate training of historians of science.

    This will come with timehistorians are naturally interested in, and curious about, all

    evidence of the past.

    Less attention has been paid to the challenges museums of science face as a result of

    the material turn in the history of science (Taub 2011: 690). One needs to keep in

    mind that museums of science come in many sizes and shapes. There is no such thing

    as the museum of science. The definition provided by the International Council ofMuseums (ICOM), the largest worldwide UNESCO-affiliated association of museums

    and museum professionals, comprises museums of the history of science, science and

    technology national museums, industrial and engineering museums, eco-museums,

    medicine and health museums, astronomical observatories, planetaria and science cen-

    tres. Their typology is complex, fragmented and intricate. Missions, purposes, scopes

    and audiences vary considerably. Many do not have collections. Literature about the

    purpose, mission and history of museums of science abound, but a good place to start is

    e.g. Butler (1992), Schiele and Koster (1998) and Lindqvist (2000). In this paper, and

    unless clearly stated, the term museums of science is meant to apply to museums with

    historical collections.

    Museums and historians of science are out of pace. After decades of complaining that

    historians were not using museums as frequently as they used libraries and archives (e.g.

    Lindsay 1962; Greenaway 1984; Corn 1996), when historians of science were approaching

    objects, museums of science were moving away from objects. The 1980s and 1990s was

    the time of the science centres boom and the public understanding of science movement,

    along with a vogue of politically motivated ideas such as scientific culture as constitu-

    tional to an informed citizenship. This period was all about the science and little about its

    history; it had a major impact on how museums of science perceived, displayed and used

    objects and collections. As Bennett (2005: 606) convincingly argued, historical objects do

    1 Although difficult to identify precisely, the turning point seems to have been the special volume of Osiris,edited by Albert Van Helden and Thomas L. Hankins in 1994. Since then, texts resulting from collections-based research have been increasingly frequent in mainstream history of science journals, e.g. FocusSections of volumes 96 (2005) and 102 (2011) of Isis and special volumes 38 (2007) and 40 (2009) ofStudies in History and Philosophy of Science, edited respectively by Adam Mosley and Liba Taub, amongothers.

    M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner


  • not fit in clear and de-contextualized presentation of the science. They are too

    ambiguous and too marked by their previous biographies.

    Probably museums of science have always been about the science. They were not

    created to pursue the history of science (Bennett 2005). If we consider museums where

    research is intrinsic toif not a synonym ofthe very act of curating (e.g. natural history,

    archaeology museums), we realise that their routine practices involve the regular exchange

    of objects, the paramount role of documentation associated with objects, the importance

    given to collecting data related to object context (strata, geography, habitat, climate), the

    role of scholarly publications, essays and theses, and the frequent and intense object

    requests for research purposes from other museums and external researchers. These

    practices were at best occasional in most museums of science, let alone routine. Tradi-

    tionally, museums of science have had a science communication agenda, often combined

    with a national or regional identity agenda. As we will explain, their collection practices

    reflect and materialise this agenda.

    What role, if any, can museums of science play in the history of science? How can they

    prepare to deliver in a field that has never been a major concern? How can they reconcile

    traditional collection practices with historians needs? The material turn in the history of

    science provides an excellent opportunity to include more history in museums of science.

    More history of science does not necessarily mean less scienceon the contrary, it

    should mean more and better science, and for visitors, a greater understanding.

    In this paper we discuss the challenges museums of science face as they prepare to

    play a more significant role in researching and interpreting history to the public. The

    paper compiles reflections and practical experience resulting from a collaborative pro-

    gramme, established in 2007 at the University of Lisbon between the National Museum

    of Natural History and Science and the CIUHCT.2 The programme aimed at bringing

    historians and curators together to debate the consequences of the material turn in both

    fields. It has had major implications on how the Museum perceives, selects and docu-

    ments their objects. It has also resulted in significant reorganisation of its collections and

    archives in order to increase their role as primary sources for history.

    We summarise the rationale behind these changes, arguing that documenting scientific

    instruments, particularly their pre-museum biographies (Alberti 2005), is the cornerstone

    of a more historical approach in museums of science. Given that documentation in

    museums of science has traditionally been given low-priority, this represents a major

    institutional and cultural challenge. It comprises changes in collecting practices and pro-

    active research into the history of collections. Using one casethe collection of scientific

    instruments from the former Portuguese royal familywe contribute with a multiple tool

    methodological approach for documenting collections. This toolkit, as we may call it, has

    been tested and can be used by museums and also by historians as a first approach to

    collections and objects.

    2 CIUHCT: Interuniversity