Documenting Collections: Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
Post on 12-Dec-2016
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)
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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 Research Unit for the History of Science and Technology, University of Lisbon;both authors are research members. The National Museum of Natural History and Science was formelydesignated Museum of Science of the University of Lisbon. The bilateral partnership has not been developedin isolation from international networks. Partners that have contributed to the discussions include theMuseum of Astronomy (Rio de Janeiro), the Instituto de Historia de la Medicina y de la Ciencia LpezPiero (University of Valencia), the Jardin des Sciences (University of Strasbourg), the ScientificInstrument Commission and Universeum networks, the Reading Artefacts network (both the Ottawa andDartmouth branches), among others.
Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
2 Documenting Objects for the History of Science
In a museum, the term documentation does not refer exclusively to archives or manu-
scriptsit is more process than content. There is an extensive literature about museum
documentation, often quite technical.3 For the purposes of this paper, let us consider that
museum documentation is concerned with the development and use of information about
objects in museum collections. Ultimately, museum documentation provides the big
picture about objects lives before and in the museum. Collecting data about objects pre-
museum lives involves historical research and collecting data about objects lives within
the museum involves good collection management.4 For a variety of reasons, museums of
science have been most concerned with the latter, although it is the former that is of interest
to historians and thus our focus here.
A museum does not need to conduct in-depth research into the pre-museum biography
of every single object. This is usually impossible and beside the point. However, the
museum is responsible for actively procuring every possible source (material, documental,
bibliographic, oral, tangible and intangible) associated with objects pre-museum biogra-
phies. The museum is also responsible for the preservation of these sources and their
relations with objects, as well as making them available for future use. Compiling data
about objects past lives can be done in any given moment, but it is particularly crucial at
the moment of collecting, before the objects enter the museum. Doing it well requires an
understanding of the lives objects live.
The typical life of scientific instruments involves three stages. Stage I can be designated
regular use. In a university, a research laboratory, a hospital or a school, instruments are
acquired or developed and used for a given purpose (teaching, research, innovation,
demonstration, entertainment, or a combination of purposes). Stage II begins when a given
instrument is considered obsolete and replaced by one that performs better, is more
accurate and precise. At Stage II, designated the limbo, several things may happen to an
instrument: for example, it can be further developed though design improvement or
technical innovation and go back to Stage I, with the same purpose; it can also return to
Stage I with a different purposee.g. downgraded from research to teaching; it can be
used as parts for other instruments; it can also be put aside in the laboratory or cabinet and
linger somewhere half-forgotten between life and death. The latter are the first to be
considered ready to join Stage III, designated elimination. At Stage III, scientific
instruments are considered useless and are physically removed from their location to an
attic or a basement, for example. Their ultimate destination is the trashor a museum
collection. Although simplified here, this process is dynamic and complex. Instruments can
co-exist physically in different stages. Permanence at each stage varies considerably from
instrument to instrument. Instruments can have very short Stage II periods or even go
directly from Stage I to III. As seen earlier, they can relapse from Stage II, and even III, to
Stage I. The museum normally intervenes during Stages II or III. For the purposes of our
discussion, it is important to underline that scientific instruments carry a significant part of
their biographical contexts (bits, parts, manuscripts, manuals, marks of use, and so on)
through Stages II and III. In other words, they are loaded with raw data about their past.
3 See e.g. CIDOC (1995), McKenna and Patsatzi (2005).4 This involves keeping track and record of everything that happens to an object after it enters the museum(exhibitions, restorations, photography, publications, etc.). It has been considerably facilitated throughmodern databases but almost every museum has, at any given moment, a backlog in keeping up theserecords.
M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner
It was during our encounters with disorganised and chaotic collections of scientific
instruments in university storage rooms and atticspacked with complete instruments but
also bits and parts stuffed in their original boxes with documents, operation manuals,
students notebooks, used punch cards, tools and general laboratory debristhat we came
to understand more profoundly why historians often say they prefer archives untouched by
Let us assume a museum has been created from the materials in this imaginary attic and
we return years later for a visit. We cannot avoid a strange feeling that something went
terribly wrong. Instruments are clean and restored. They have been purged from pests.
They are stored in acid-free metal cabinets and shelving. Temperature and relative
humidity are monitored. Instruments have been arranged in neatly organised categories
(microscopes under Optics, electrotherapy devices under Electricity, quadrants under
Astronomy). They have been catalogued and the database is even accessible onlineat
first sight, all according to the finest museum standards.
However, the gap between before and after is striking. The bits and parts are missing.
The punch cards cannot be found either, presumably because the computer had been lost or
was too large to preserve. Students notebooks and laboratory manuscripts were ignored or
separated from the associated equipment. Operation manuals entered the university library.
In the collections database, information regarding provenance and contexts is minimal and
associated documentation is scarce. In other words, instruments have been purged from all
evidence of past lives and userspre-museum raw data is gone.5
These practices have been standard inmanymuseums of science. They have a structural and
historical reason: they express the sanitised view of objects consistent with a science
communication agenda. The galvanometer is collected with limited concern for pre-museum
raw data because its value is not in (its) history but in the representativeness of its function
(Bennett1998,2005). It is itspurified,almostvestal, encapsulatedscientificconcept thatmatters
and will later be displayed in a temporary exhibition about energy transformation for example.
Regardless of museum agendas or traditions, these museum practices should be chal-
lenged for three reasons: (1) first, because they do not follow current museum
documentation standards; (2) secondly, because they limit the possibilities of object
interpretation and display; and (3) finally, because they considerably limit the possibilities
of object use for research, namely in the history of science. The only history un-docu-
mented galvanometers can contribute to is the history of galvanometers. Undocumented
collections close windows; documented collections open windows.
Documenting pre-museum biographies of scientific instruments means collecting as
much comprehensive raw data as possible from all three stages (I, II and III). The adequate
moment to do this is before objects enter the museum, when they are loaded with contexts
and meanings. The museum does not have to immediately interpret these contexts and
meanings but it is responsible for preserving their material and immaterial evidence for
future use by researchers and by the museum itself.
3 Improving Collection Documentation in Museums of Science: The Lisbon Toolkit
Let us assume, however, that we are in a museum of science with scarce pre-museum
object data. The collecting moment is long gone and nothing can be done about it. This is
5 Including material evidence, e.g. marks of use. For issues related with the conservation and restoration ofscientific instruments, see e.g. Giatti and Miniati (1998), Brenni (2010).
Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
the most frequent situation for a multiplicity of reasons. The limited perception of objects,
mentioned earlier, is one reason. However, there may be other, more pragmatic, reasons.
For example, scientific instruments may have been collected in haste due to a preservation
emergency. They may have been retrieved literally from the trash. Moreover, instruments
acquired at auctions or antique shops have normally minimal informationso do early
scientific instruments. In short, often pre-museum data are simply scarce or non-existent.
Given time and resources, museums may increase the documentation of their collections
and objects, in other words research their history.
The National Museum of Natural History and Science at the University of Lisbon has
several undocumented collections. It holds c. 15,000 scientific instruments, mostly from
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Lourenco 2010; Lourenco and Eiro 2011). Created
in 1985, the Museum inherited the historical spaces, archives, books and scientific
equipment from the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon. There was no sig-
nificant dispersal and objects were kept in Stages II and III for many decades. Moreover,
long Stage I periods were observed as a considerable number of late nineteenth century
instruments were still in use in the 1980s. The nineteenth century Laboratorio Chimico andthe Astronomical Observatory were also at Stage I when the Museum was created. The
Faculty attics were packed with old equipment, books and documentsapparently dis-
posed chaotically, but in fact arranged in stratigraphic layers of use and disposal. It was
therefore possible to identify and preserve significant data associated with object history.
Although a discussion is beyond the scope of this article, this consistency and thickness is
relatively common in undispersed university collections (Lourenco 2005; Brenni 2012) and
that is probably why some university museums and university departments with collections
are at the forefront of the material turn in the history of science.6
In the 1990s, the Museum received a group of c. 40 scientific instruments with minimal
associated documentation. The provenance was a secondary school in Lisbon and,
according to oral sources, the instruments were formerly owned by the Portuguese royal
family.7 Given the importance of the instruments, the lack of security and poor conser-
vation conditions, the Museum accepted them on permanent loan. They have been kept on
stand-by to be documented.
Recently, financial and institutional conditions were met and research into the history of
the royal collection was initiated. Meanwhile, more scientific instruments of royal
provenance were identified in Portuguese and Brazilian palaces and museums. Research is
still ongoing, involving c. 20 researchers from Portugal and Brazil. Its outcomes are not
relevant here,8 but its methodology is. The research has been evolving on two simultaneous
frontsthe collection level and the object leveland for each front a specific method has
been developed, based on material culture literature.
The research question is of relatively simple enunciation. Our universe of study is
composed of 120 scientific instruments with confirmed royal provenance currently dis-
persed through 12 palaces and museums in Portugal and Brazil. The oldest are a 1573
6 For example, the Museum of the History of Science (University of Oxford), the collections of scientificinstruments at Harvard University and Dartmouth College, the Whipple Museum (University of Cam-bridge), the collection of scientific and medical instruments at the University of Valencia, the MedicalMuseion (University of Copenhagen), among others.7 According to one of the older teachers of the school. It should be noted that Portugal has no royal familysince 1910, when the country became a republic.8 For more about the research project, designated On the Instruments Trail: Exploring Royal Cabinets ofPhysics, see Lourenco (2012). For preliminary outcomes see e.g. Gessner (2010), Lourenco and Felismino(2013), Tirapicos and Pereira (2012).
M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner
Leuven-made quadrant and a 1575 copper celestial globe by Christopher Schissler. The
most recent is an 1893 Edison phonograph. There are also telescopes, octants, vacuum
pumps, geometry games, globes, armillary spheres, microscopes, balances, slide rules and
didactic planetary devices, among many other objects.9 Given the 320-year time span, it is
unlikely that they all belonged to the same cabinet. Preliminary research suggested that the
instruments have been assembled for five distinct cabinets of physics, possibly organised
for the education of different generations of princes.
The projects aim is to research the history of these instrumentshow and why they
were acquired, used and dispersedusing them as main primary sources and therefore as
our main windows into the past. Outcomes from their material and documental study is
guiding exploratory research into the five cabinets, which are now lost. Results from the
study of instruments and cabinets will also bring new perspectives to the history of science
in Portugal and Brazil, addressing issues such as knowledge transfer and circulation,
scientific patronage, mutual relations between science, power and trade, and the devel-
opment of science and science education.
The role of material culture in the study of history is complex (e.g. Lubar and Kingery
1993; Kingery 1996; Caple 2006; dos Santos 2006; Granato et al. 2007). Approaches vary
from the impact of materiality and material objects in science (e.g. Daston 2004) to the role
of instruments in the development of research, teaching and scientific institutions (e.g. Bud
and Cozzens 1992), philosophical and epistemological aspects of scientific instruments (e.
g. Hacking 1983; Baird 2004) and re-enacting of historical experiments using historical
instruments or replicas (e.g. Sibum 1995; Heering 1994, 2007; Chang 2011; Hottecke
2000; Eggen et al. 2012).10 Disciplines that routinely use objects as sources for research (e.
g. archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, history of art and architecture, among others)
have developed material culture methodologies, such as artefact observation and analysis
(e.g. Kopytoff 1986; Stocking 1985; Buchli 2002; Hicks and Beaudry 2010). However,
reference literature on the material culture of science is still scarce.
In the study of the royal cabinets, we have used Fleming (1974), Hacking (1983),
Lubar and Kingery (1993), Kingery (1996), Alberti (2005) and Soderqvist and Bencard
(2010) as main references for methodological development. A number of instrument
studies also had influence on methods (e.g. Nasser 2008; Taylor 2009; Bennett 2011;
Simon et al. 2009). Soderlund (2010) was used for the interpretation of relevant scientific
iconography, for example depictions of scientific instruments in paintings and sculptures in
royal palaces. Reflections made at successive Reading Artefacts Summer Institutes
(Canada Museum of Science and Technology) were also important (Wittje 2010; Anderson
et al. 2011). Pomian (1990), Pearce (1992) and the case-studies developed by Elvas et al.
(2009), Oliveira (2011) and Granato and Oliveira (2012) were used for the collection level
of the study.
9 Purely ornamental instruments were considered out of scope.10 Although here we are interested in scientific instruments in their relation with historical research andtherefore exhibitions and public interpretation are outside the scope, it should be noted that re-enactinghistorical experiments with historical instruments or replicas has been used before by museums (e.g. Heeringand Muller 2002). Provided conservation requirements are met, it has considerable potential as it bringshistorical scientific instruments to life, facilitating understanding of their function and providing oppor-tunities for more meaningful educational programmes. It has also potential for science education and forscience teachers training (e.g. Heering 2000; Riess 2000; Hottecke et al. 2010). For a more visual intro-duction to the topic, see the videos produced by Paolo Brenni for the Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica inFlorence at http://www.fstfirenze.it/filmati/filmati.html. Accessed 15 November 2012.
Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
4 Approach to the Collection Level
The collections of this research have nomaterial existence. The surviving royal instruments
are too dispersed, too broad chronologically and too diverse to be internally consistent as a
group and qualify as a collection. The five lost cabinets are our collections, but today they
exist only on paper and their study poses several challenges. First, we are not dealing with
clearly defined entities. Cabinets are mentioned in the literature and manuscripts but their
boundaries in time and space are vague. They were created in different moments and in
different palaces. Their purpose and duration remain unknown. Gradually, as data from the
material study of the instruments and from the archival sources are compiled, the cabinets
themselves will in principle materialise and acquire clearer boundaries.
Secondly, the establishment of credible relations between the surviving instruments and
the lost cabinets is a highly complex task. In practice, it means allocating 120 instruments
covering a 320-years time span to at least five different cabinets. This is equivalent to
reconstructing as thoroughly as possible five sunken ships using as sources the mess of
debris remaining floating at the surface of the ocean with no direct access to the wrecks
below. Moreover, some instruments are likely to have belonged to more than one cabinet.
Some may have had lives outside the cabinets (e.g. individual gifts to monarchs, acquired
as antiques, spoliations, etc.). In general, a clear and univocal relation between one
instrument and one documentfor example a given vacuum pump and a given invoice or
an inventoryis difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in most cases.
For these reasons we kept the methodology as simple and practical as possible. Sources
continuously oscillated between material (instruments) and archival (documents and ico-
nography). Research on the history of the cabinets progressed on three simultaneous fronts.
First, we assigned the surviving instruments to each of the five royal cabinets, based on
date. For example, if a cabinet was created in the 1780s, instruments manufactured around
that date were assigned to it. This was a working hypothesis, plausible within certain
limits,11 and aimed at providing a preliminary relation between the two levels (cabinets and
instruments). Instruments could always be added or removed as research progressed, which
in fact happened.
Secondly, we identified our research questions about the cabinetsthe basic where,
why, what and howthat were later translated into five parameters: (1) physical details of
the cabinet (e.g. location, number of rooms, furniture, inside a library, etc.); (2) purpose
and aim (e.g. teaching, study, entertainment, etc.); (3) cabinet use and development
(instruments entering and leaving, major acquisitions, gifts, inheritances, etc.); (4)
instruments involved; and v) people and institutions involved (princes, tutors, schools,
etc.). Although at least in theory they can be characterised at any given moment depending
on the availability of sources, these parameters vary through time for each cabinet.
Third, external events likely to have had impact on the cabinets were also considered
for example the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that practically destroyed the Palace of Ribeira,
where one of the cabinets was located, or the transfer of the royal family from Lisbon to
Rio in 1807 due to Napoleons invasion of Portugal. Typically, these events have a short
11 In principle, scientific instruments are acquired to be used (Stage I), so it is unlikely that a seventeenthcentury instrument would be acquired in the nineteenth century, unless it was considered an antique.Moreover, as mentioned earlier, scientific instruments may have long periods of use (longer Stages I and II)due to a multiplicity of reasons (institutional policies, lack of resources, downgrade from research toteaching use, cannibalisation, etc.). Although plausible, assignment of instruments to collections basedmerely on date has exceptions and therefore requires thorough examination of both material and documentalsources.
M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner
duration and can be pinpointedthey were designated critical points. Being dynamic
entities subject to multiple external factors, all collections have critical points. Their
identification is paramount to our understanding of the history of a collection.12 Moreover,
critical points provide time frames to guide archival research, which is crucial when
collections have long periods of existence.
In practice, variable parameters and critical points (Table 1) are being compiled in five
large tablesone per cabinetand simultaneously projected into a diachronic diagram
designated cabinet genealogy (Fig. 1).
In short, our three-step history of collections programme includes: (1) identification of
the collection today; (2) establishment of parameters that can characterize the collection at
any given moment in the past; (3) identification of critical points. Variable parameters and
critical points are mutually dependent and do not need to be exhaustive. Their combination
has proven simple to use and valuable to explore and organise data from multiple material,
documental, iconographic and bibliographic sources. They also facilitate the integration of
data collected at object level for subsequent calibration and historical interpretation. As
any other categorisation system, they simplify data analysis but they also require constant
evaluation and critical interpretation. Further applications to other types of collections will
enable methodological improvements.
Table 1 Parameters and critical points applied to the study of the cabinets
Variable parameters Critical points
Physical detailsPurposeUse and DevelopmentInstrumentsPeople and Institutions
CreationSingular events (relocations due to institutional, political andsocial change; death of owners; wars, revolutions; naturaldisasters such as fires, earthquakes, etc.)
Fig. 1 Diagram from the early stages of the research, representing the genealogy of the five royal cabinetsstill combined, with critical points (dots). As research progressed, this diagram was converted into fiveindependent genealogies, one for each cabinet
12 In the case of the royal cabinets of physics, critical points were easily identified as they coincided, to aconsiderable extent, with major political and social change in Portugal. If a university cabinet of physics isbeing studied, critical points may be more difficult to identify and, apart from broader social and politicalchange, institutional history needs to be closely examined (creation of a discipline, a new professor, newscientific policies, transfers to new laboratories, etc.). In our research, factors such as scientific developmentand technological innovation were not considered critical points as their impact can be directly charac-terised through one of the variable parameters (Use and Development).
Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
5 Approach to the Object Level
One of the authors (Gessner) developed a model for the study of artefacts that has been
successfully applied to the royal scientific instruments, particularly the early ones from the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The approach is based on the well-known Winterthur
model proposed by Fleming (1974). It combines material, bibliographic, written and
iconographic sources and organises data according to two dimensionstime (chronolog-
ical dichotomy) and similarity (classification dichotomy). It can be used as an exploration
tool for documenting historical scientific instruments in museums, as well as a point of
departure for material culture studies in the history of science. In this section, we explain
the core of the method and we briefly demonstrate its application to one of the royal
instruments, Oughtreds circles of proportion.
Flemings (1974) aim was to propose a model to guide artefact study in museums. One of
its virtues consists in making this task purposeful and conscious by introducing clear dis-
tinctions between the properties of artefacts and our ways of looking at them. Fleming
designated the latter operations and distinguished between: (1) examination of the artefact
(from naked eye observation to micro-analysis); (2) comparison of the artefact with similar
ones (judgement based on connoisseurship); (3) cultural analysis (establishing links between
the artefact and its original culture); and (4) interpretation (establishing links between the
artefact and present-day audiences cultures).AlthoughFlemings proposal is 40 years old, its
widespread use across multiple disciplines and the many discussions and adaptations it has
suffered (e.g. Granato et al. 2007; Anderson et al. 2011) are a clear measure of its success.
The model proposed by Gessner, like Flemings, aims at disentangling questions about
objects that are complex and require distinct methods to be answered. It also seeks to
address the relations with scientific theories implicit or explicit in scientific instruments. It
Fig. 2 The model and its dichotomies: singular/generic and synchronic/diachronic. Applied simultaneously,the dichotomies organise the universe of questions into four quadrants that facilitate instrument study. Fromtop left, clockwise: Quadrants I, II, III, IV
M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner
is based on the premise that two distinctions need to be made during the study: first, a
distinction between the individual instrument (e.g. a given galvanometer) and the class of
instruments that share the same designation (the class of galvanometers), in other words a
distinction between their singular and their (arche)typical aspects; and second, a distinction
between synchronic aspects (resulting from direct inspection of extant instruments) and
diachronic aspects (relating to history). Gessner calls the former classifying dichotomy andthe latter temporal dichotomy. They divide the universe of questions into four quadrants(Fig. 2). All questions formulated during object study are mutually dependent and equally
important to our understanding, but they are different in nature, thus depending on different
types of sources and requiring different methods to be answered.
The four quadrants combined provide a research programme consisting of four parallel
and interdependent tasks: (1) the material individual instrument under study; (2) its
biography; (3) the group of surviving similar instruments and their scientific function;
(4) local and global narratives in the history of science where such instruments played a
role. Questions, methods and sources are summarised in Table 2.
This model has been used to document the royal instruments and, more broadly, to
document instruments from the Museum collection. A brief application follows, merely to
illustrate typical questions, answers and sources in each of the four quadrants. A small
brass royal instrument, initially designated in the Museum catalogue as circular astro-
labe, was chosen (Fig. 3).
5.1 The Material Singular Instrument (Quadrant I)
The instrument was thoroughly examined as prescribed in the first quadrant. The instru-
ments designation was confusing as it is not similar to the typical astrolabe. It consists of a
thin polished brass plate, circular with the exception of an ornamental element for sus-
pension. Both faces have rotating parts: one consists of a pair of indices joined by a
friction-tight hinge (with fiducial lines passing through the centre and marked with letters
M, H, S, T, T, E, N, T, T, S) and the other an alidade (marked with an altitude scale),
equipped with sighting vanes. The diameter of the plate is 205 mm and its thickness c.
1.8 mm. Material analysis by X-ray fluorescence yielded a copper zinc alloy and traces of
gold at the tips of the indices. The various circular scales on both faces are graduated,
numbered and labelled in English. On one face there are eleven nonlinear scales with the
exception of the fifth, ninth and tenth scales, which are equally divided. These are num-
bered as follows: (1) [S: Sine] 690; (2) [T: Tangent] 645; (3) [T:] 45 to 84; (4) [N:]
1 (artificial numbers, logarithms); (5) [E: Equal parts] 110; (6) [T:] 8489; (7) [T:]
16; (8) [S:] 16; (9) [H: Hour] 112, 112; (10) [M: Month] Ianuarie, Februarie, March,
Aprill, May, Iune, Iuly, August, September, October, Nouember, December; and (11)
abbreviations of twelve stars around the circle (Table 3).
The reverse of the instrument comprises a stereometric projection of the heavenly
circles on the horizon plane for the latitude of 5430 North, surrounded by a degree scaleof four times 90 on the limb, which will not be described in detail here.
5.2 The Group of Surviving Similar Instruments and Their Scientific Function
Comparison with similar extant instruments belongs to the second quadrant and requires
considerable connoisseurship. A total of six similar brass instruments were found and
Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
examined (Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh (2), Harvard, Lisbon).13 All differ in minor
aspects. They are usually designated Circular Slide Rule and Horizontal Instrument
(Oxford) or Circular slide rule with Oughtred-type sundial (Harvard). All six instruments
display similar engraving styles. The ones from Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh are
signed Elias Allen (ca. 15881653), London. The attribution of the Lisbon instrument to
Table 2 Organisation of questions, methods and sources according to the model
Questions Methods Sources
Questions about thecurrent materialconstitution andcondition of theinstruments
Questions about ourpresent-dayexperience of them
Examination by all senses(visual, tactilemanipulation: i.e. re-enacting the historicalexperiments, olfactory,CT-scan etc.).Disassembling,measuring (size, weight,focal length etc.).Comparing. Micro-observation, e.g. withmagnifying lens.Material analysis, e.g.X-ray fluorescence
The singular instrumentand associated existinginstruments. Present-day state of the artliterature about physicalreality, biologicalphenomena,mathematical properties
Questions about theinstruments past,from their pre-historyto yesterday
Historiographicalmethods, particularlyreconstitution of paststages (I, II and III).Historical experiments
Historical sourcesThe instruments, archivalmaterial and literaturedocumenting theinstruments pre- andpost-museum lives.Historical accounts ofthe object, descriptions,explanations,interpretations given bypast actors
Questions aboutaspects that arespecific to andsingular in the oneinstrument underscrutiny
Connoisseurship.Microstoria. Localhistory of science
The one instrument understudy and all documentslinked to its trajectoryand provenance
Questions aboutaspects the giveninstrument shareswith equivalent orsimilar instruments(e.g. contemporaryones of the sametype, or otherinstruments by thesame maker)
Theoretical explanationsof scientific, historical,cultural phenomena.Re-enacting thehistorical experimentswith replicainstruments. Statisticalmethods. History ofscience: evaluation ofthe cognitive andcultural role of this typeof scientific instruments
The universe of allassociated instruments(same type, samemaker, same geographicorigin, same timeperiod), extant in worldcollections. Alldocuments related tothis type of instrument(treatises, manuals,trade catalogues etc.)
13 At the Museum of the History of Science of the University of Oxford, the National Museums of Scotland,Harvards Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments and the National Museum of Natural History andScience, University of Lisbon, respectively.
M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner
Allen by G. LE. Turner was probably based on Allens style of engraving. Turner also
dated the instruments manufacture in the 1630s.14
Each of the six objects combines a logarithmic instrument with a nocturnal and, on the
reverse, a horizontal dial. They share most of the scales. They represent an early form of
logarithmic slide rule that bends the logarithmic scales of numbers, sine and tangent into
circular shape. This allows for stretching the scales to a greater length without over-sizing
the instrument. The nocturnal and the horizontal dial served time telling by day or night,
and the solution of numerous questions related to dialling. The circles of proportion could
Fig. 3 The item Inv. No. UL501, National Museum of Natural History and Science, University of Lisbon(photo J. N. Lamas, NMNHS Archives)
Table 3 Transcriptions of the star labels on the innermost circular scale of the instrument
Inscription Corresponding date on month scale Star/constellation name
spi 13th September Spica Virginis
La[n]x B 14th August Lanx borealisa
cap oph 9th July Caput Ophiuchi
vultur 6th (or 7th) June Aquila
os peg 10th May Os Pegasi
ext ala 31st March/lst April Extremitas alae [Pegasi]
Luc 1st March Lucentior Arietis
ocu 21st January Oculus Tauris
seg or 2nd January Humerus dexterb Orionis
can mi 9th December Canis Minor
cor 5th November Cor Leonis
ca[u]a 10th October Cauda Leonis
a On the instrument n instead of ub Deduced from English star name in Oughtred (1632:108)
14 Scientific Instrument Society visit to the Museum, Lisbon, 1999.
Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
serve simultaneously as table of decimal logarithms, logarithms of sine and logarithms of
tangent, as a computing instrument for multiplication, division, root extraction and powers,
when both indices on the friction tight hinge come into play.
5.3 Biography (Quadrant IV)
Quadrants III and IV are directly related to history. Quadrant IV comprises pre-museum
and post-museum biographical data about the instrument UL501.
The instrument has a shiny brass surface. It was cleaned and restored after it was
incorporated in the Museum in 1992. The conservation diagnosis is documented, as are the
material (copper-zinc alloy) and techniques used in the restoration. This recent bio-
graphical event contributes to our knowledge of the instrument today.
Little biographical information exists from before its entrance in the Museum. After the
revolution that abolished monarchy in Portugal in 1910, a complete inventory of the royal
palaces wasmade and by then this instrument was at the Palace of Ajuda, Lisbon, inside a box
with other brass instruments.15 Later, the Palacewas transformed into amuseum, but there are
no records indicating that the instrument had ever been displayed. In 1957, the Palace curator,
Manuel Zagallo, transferred the instrument to a secondary school in Lisbon.16 It stayed in the
school until 1992. The life of the instrument in the school is undocumented.
Its early biography is even more obscure and requires further research. Currently, we
assume that it was produced at Elias Allens workshop in London, over against St.
Clements Church in the Strand (Higton 2006). As the instruments horizontal dial was
designed for a latitude of 5430N and latitude tables from Elias Allen astronomicalcompendia indicate that this corresponded to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in Northern England,
one may assume that its first owner was from there. Circumstances of the instruments
incorporation in the royal cabinets are unknown at this point.
5.4 Local and Global Narratives in the History of Science (Quadrant III)
This type of instrument was developed in the early days of logarithms in the seventeenth
century.17 The first printed publication about the instrument appeared in London in 1631
by Richard Delamain.18 He coined its designation mathematical ring or grammelogia.
Today, its invention is attributed to the mathematician William Oughtred (15751660). In
1632, in rather controversial circumstances, Oughtreds student William Forster (fl. 1632)published a translation of Oughtreds notes about the same type of instrument and accused
Delamain of plagiarism.19 Forsters publication baptizes the instrument as circles of
15 Arrolamento Judicial do Pao da Ajuda (1912), vol. 10, L Capella, f. 3506r, No. 50, item 2, NationalPalace of Ajuda Historical Archives.16 Together with other scientific instruments from the Palace. Ofcios e pedidos, 19561957, Folder 69,National Palace of Ajuda Historical Archives.17 See e.g. Cajori (1909, 1916); Bryden (1976, 1978); Turner (1981); Higton (1996).18 Gramelogia or the mathematical ring. Shewing (any reasonable capacity that hath not Arithmeticke) howto resolve and worke all ordinary operations of Arithmeticke. And those which are most difficult with greatefacilitie: the extraction of roots, the valuation of leases, &c. the measuring of plaines and solids. With theresolution of plaine and sphericall triangles. And that onely by an ocular inspection, and a circular motion.London, John Haviland .19 The Circles of Proportion and the Horizontall Instrument both Invented, and the Uses of Both Written inLatine by that learned mathematician Mr W[illiam] O[ughtred] but translated into English, and set forth forthe publique benefit by William Forster, louer and practizer of the mathematicall sciences, London, Aug
M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner
proportion, subsequently considered the legitimate designation. It included an engraving
by Elias Allen showing both sides of the instrument with all scales, labels and also the star
and constellation names (Table 2). Extant instruments, including the one in Lisbon,
resemble closely that engraving. The controversy Oughtred/Delamain was partly about the
role of instruments in teaching mathematics. Oughtred defended that theory should be
taught before the student is introduced to the instrument insinuating that Delamains
readers or students were merely becoming doers of tricks (Hill 1998).
Early descriptions, discussions about operation principles, invention and manufacture
contexts are part of the diachronic analysis. Information, obviously, is not limited to the
Lisbon instrument; it is of generic nature concerning the whole class of lost and extant
The Lisbon instrument is part of this broader history but it also encapsulates local
history. It would be particularly important to understand the circumstances of its arrival in
Lisbon, presumably from Newcastle upon Tyne. Seventeenth century manuscripts by
Ignacio Stafford (15991642), an English Jesuit and talented mathematics teacher, active
in Lisbon at the College of Santo Antao, indicate that he was familiar with the circles of
proportion, having owned such an instrument before 1638.20 This is currently being
examined. Clarifying the open questions of all four quadrants of the model will contribute
to our understanding of the history of logarithms and mathematics, particularly in Lisbon
and Portuguese former colonies.
In short, the model proposed by Gessner provides a practical exploratory map to guide
gathering and interpreting of data combining multiple sources. It is not an end in itself but
rather a tool in constant reformulation. At any given moment, it shows the interdepen-
dency of multiple questions about objects and also the main research gaps. In the context
of the royal instruments project, it has been useful in instrument research and their
allocation to the five royal cabinets through data gathered from the collection level
described above. In the Museum, it has been consistently used to establish relations in the
collections database with associated documentation and bibliography. In broader terms, it
can be a convenient museum tool to document objects biographies in its multiple local
and global dimensions.
Lessons learnt from recent discussions at the University of Lisbon about the role of
scientific instruments in the history of science are plentiful. First, museum professionals
and historians should work together. It is not enough for museums to passively open their
storages and make their collections and archives accessible to historians. The best results
come from active and engaging partnerships.
Secondly, we also learned that reference literature and methodological tools for this
collaborative work were scarce. The current history of science canon and the museum
canon are too limited per se for planning a history of science research programme using
Footnote 19 continued[ust] Mathewes, printed for Elias Allen, maker of these and all other Mathematical Instruments and are to besold at his shop ouer against St Clements church without Temple-barr, 1632.20 De la Arithmetica practica geometrica logarithmica, in: Varias obras mathematicas compuestas por el.P. Ignacio Stafford, mestre de mathematica en el Colegio de S. Anton de la Compaia de Iesus, y no acavadaspor cauza de la muerte del dicho Padre, Lisbon, 1638. National Library of Portugal, Lisbon, Ms. Res PBA240.
Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
collections as primary sources. Basically, three levels of issues have required innovative
methodological approaches. First, at instrument level, there were issues related to the
diversity of materials, aesthetic and functional features, evidence of manufacture and
craftsmanship, provenance, changing ownership, symbolic significance and actual usage.
Second, at cabinet level, there were issues related to collection scope, purpose and
boundaries, incorporation and dispersal, physical location and the definition of collection
itself. Finally, there was the issue of validating and integrating data from multiple archival,
material, iconographic and bibliographical sources. These issues had to be addressed
before any broader historical narrative could even be considered.
A toolkit comprising multiple tools to be applied simultaneously at collection and
individual object levels was developed for this purpose. At collection level, the toolkit
comprises the identification of parameters that characterise a collection at a given point
(purpose, use and development, people and institutions, objects, physical location) and the
association of critical points in the collection biography, including creation and disman-
tling. At object level, an exploratory model was developed to organise and analyse data
according to the dimensions of time (chronological dichotomy) and similarity (classifi-
cation dichotomy). The toolkit can be used as a conceptual framework in collections-based
history of science and in museum documentation. It has been successfully used both ways
in Lisbon, with minor adaptations.
A third lesson is that a lot remains to be done and discussed before the history of science
can play a more relevant role in museums of science. More reference literature is needed.
Concepts such as the material culture of science, collections-based history of science,
instrument-oriented research and instrument studies, among others, require clarification.
Often, the terms are used as synonyms. This is normal in emerging fields of study and may
consolidate as more research is published. More training is also needed, both in terms of
material culture for historians and history and historiography for museum professionals.
Finally, although the discussion is outside the scope of this article, we have also learned
that the methodological approach described here could have broader implications for
science education, museology and exhibition development.
The history of science is not intrinsic to museums of science. As Bennett (2005: 606)
succinctly writes, history of science has no divine right to rule just because the objects in
the museum are old. Historical collections in museums of science can contribute to
historical studies but this requires that documentation and research be given a more central
role in the museum. The timing is right as the material turn in the history of science
provides extraordinary opportunities for active collaborations between historians and
museums. However, placing research and documentation at the heart of museums of
science is a major challenge for three main reasons. First, it challenges what museums of
science are and what they do, at least since the creation of the Conservatoire des Arts etMtiers in Paris in 1794. Secondly, for the past decades research has generally had adecreasing role in the museum sector. Finally, it will require specialised staff and
resources. At a time when survival is the main issue for many museums across Europe, this
challenge even risks being perceived as frivolous.
At the same time, many museums of science are recognising the potential wide-range
and long-term impact of more history. Gradually, but with immediate results thanks to
modern databases and documentation systems, collections become thicker and better
documented and new windows for history can be opened in exhibitions and educational
programmes. At a time when many museums are going through an identity crisis, focusing
on difference is crucial. The intricate stories and the historical and local contingency of
scientific practice behind their collections are precisely what make each museum different.
M. C. Lourenco, S. Gessner
Knowing their collections makes museums stronger, especially in times of crisis.21
Knowing their collections makes the difference between museums with beautiful objects
and museums with beautiful objects with historical depth and significance.
Acknowledgments In Lisbon, we were inspired by Jim Bennetts texts about history and museums ofscience, particularly a paper he gave at the Gulbenkian Foundation, January 2006. Research described in thisarticle is being conducted thanks to a grant from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology(PTDC/HIS-HCT/098970/2008). We are also grateful to the following institutions for access to collectionsand archives: in Portugal, the Palaces of Ajuda (Lisbon), Sintra, Mafra, Queluz, Pena and Vila Vicosa, aswell as the University of Coimbra (Astronomical Observatory and the Science Museum), the GeographicalSociety and the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon; in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the National Historic Museum,the National Museum, the Museum of Astronomy, the Museum of the Polytechnic School and the CollegePedro II.
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Cornerstones for More History of Science in Museums
Documenting Collections: Cornerstones for More History of Science in MuseumsAbstractIntroductionDocumenting Objects for the History of ScienceImproving Collection Documentation in Museums of Science: The Lisbon ToolkitApproach to the Collection LevelApproach to the Object LevelThe Material Singular Instrument (Quadrant I)The Group of Surviving Similar Instruments and Their Scientific Function (Quadrant II)Biography (Quadrant IV)Local and Global Narratives in the History of Science (Quadrant III)