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: mclourenco@museus.ul.pt

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

    123

    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

    publications.

    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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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

    archivists.

    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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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.)

    Dismantlement

    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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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[10] (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

    (Quadrant II)

    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

    123

  • 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

    Temporaldichotomy

    Synchronicview

    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

    Diachronicview

    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

    Classifyingdichotomy

    Singularaspects

    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

    Genericaspects

    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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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 [1631].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

    123

  • 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

    instruments.

    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.

    6 Conclusion

    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

    123

  • 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

    123

  • 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

    123

    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)

    ConclusionAcknowledgmentsReferences

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