Go back to article: Functionless: science museums and the display of ‘pure objects’

Going beyond the celebration of art and contemplation

When Sandra Dudley, a well-known scholar in the field of museum studies, visited the art gallery at Compton Verney (Warwickshire) for the first time, she experienced a strong emotion while standing in front of a Chinese artefact, a bronze horse dating back to the Han Dynasty:

I was utterly spellbound by its majestic form, its power, and, as I began to look at it closely, its material details: its greenish colour, its textured surface, the small areas of damage. I wanted to touch it, though of course I could not – but that did not stop me imagining how it would feel to stroke it, or how it would sound if I could tap the metal, or how heavy it would be if I could try to pick it up. I was, in other words, sensorially exploring the object, even though I had to intuit and imagine rather than directly experience most of the encounter. […] Nonetheless its three-dimensionality, tactility and sheer power had literally moved me to tears (Dudley, 2012, p 1).

Is Dudley’s reaction unusual? Absolutely not. I feel similar overwhelming emotions every time I visit the Musée Gustave Moreau in Paris. In fact, we all experience at one moment or another such powerful sensations at the sight of objects. What Dudley is attempting to convey and emphasise here is how significant the material qualities of objects are in producing these emotional reactions. The latter are not spawned by a descriptive label on a wall, but by the object itself – by the thingness of the thing. In the same edited volume Simon Knell calls this inherent state of objects the ‘intangibility of things’. He argues that any object, ipso facto a museum artefact, is actually composed of two things: the material and tangible (real) thing itself – not always reachable – and an intangible one, ‘the product of experience and negotiation… [It] exists in our world but is made in our thoughts; it is ever present and inescapable’. Though this immaterial creation ‘appeals to the truth of the material object’ it remains detached and fluid. ‘The object in our thoughts may seem material, definite and fixed but it is in fact intangible, contingent and transient’ (Knell, 2012, pp 326 and 328, emphasis original). In other words, what Dudley experienced so strongly in front of the Chinese artefact is completely dependent on her own personal being. Without the possibility of experiencing the real and tangible museum object with the help of more than one sense, in this case sight, there is no experiential common ground possible. Each visitor is left with her own and distinct contingent ‘intangible object’ based on her own idiosyncratic knowledge and familiarity with matter.

It is interesting to note that there is virtually nothing about the material culture of science in this edited volume. The properties of things are studied under the discipline umbrella of, to name a few, art history, anthropology, archaeology, management studies, history, religion, and of course museum studies. Why not science and technology? Is it not conceivable to feel overwhelmed with emotion when standing near one of Galileo’s telescopes at the Museo Galileo in Florence or underneath the massive space shuttle Discovery at the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center, companion facility of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC? The answer to this question is obviously yes. But what happens if the object (scientific or not) encountered in a museum is unfamiliar and strange – the opposite of an iconic artefact? Will it produce the same intense emotion on visitors? What would occur, however, if one could fully interact with it? This was the position taken by the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard when it displayed a 1930s teleprinter in the Go ask A.L.I.C.E.: Turing tests, parlor games, & chatterbots exhibition, produced in celebration of Alan Turing’s centenary in 2012.

Figure 1

Collage of 4 colour photographs showing a 1930s teleprinter on display along with detail close ups of its keys types and mechanism

1930s teleprinter (and details) located at the entrance of the Autumn 2012 exhibition entitled Go ask A.L.I.C.E.: Turing tests, parlor games, & chatterbots. Photographs by Samantha van Gerbig. For more information, visit the exhibition’s website: http://chsi.harvard.edu/chsi_goa.html

In Turing’s test for machine thinking, we explained in the introductory panel near the entrance, a human interlocutor poses questions to a human and a machine. If the machine can fool the interlocutor into thinking that it is the human by answering the questions, it has passed as a thinking agent. This test assumes that intelligence does not hinge on any particular physical embodiment. Quite the opposite – the bodies of all human and machine participants following the parameters of the test, are hidden from one another. Turing proposes: ‘In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The ideal arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms’ (Turing, 1950, p 433). Turing turned to the technology available in his time in an effort to efface the human body from the question of intelligence. The teleprinter becomes the medium for asking, ‘Can machines think?’[2]

Visitors confronted with our teleprinter were asked to feel it with all their senses. They found that the keyboard was slightly different than the common QUERTY we are now accustomed to. The keys offered a strong resistance, not unlike old typewriters. The staccato produced by the type bars hitting the paper, especially when the machine received an answer, was alien to the ear. Likewise, with the humming sound generated by the motor and the electro-mechanical vibrations produced when the machine operated, all of which contrasted with the remarkable silence of modern-day portable computers. The faint bitter smell of ink and the radiating heat from the motor completed the sensory experience of the machine. Visitors discovered with pleasure that typing questions on this older artefact generated answers from the chatterbot A.L.I.C.E., which is freely available on the Internet.[3] Though we had to leave out the human factor due to technical issues, the old and the new were still united in a fully functioning machine. Visitors, through their sometime awkward conversation with A.L.I.C.E., were being acquainted with Turing’s concept of communication and intelligence – and with this strange machine. The physical, hands-on interaction with the 1930s teleprinter made Turing Test’s conceptual understanding easier to grasp. And since the visitors’ dialogues were recorded on a roll of paper, their personal connection became a shared experience, not an individual, intangible, contingent or transient one (as discussed above).

Why does it matter? It matters because material culture studies have demonstrated repeatedly the importance of the shifting and fluid, even unstable use of objects in all socio-cultural, historical and scientific fields and time periods. Hide this lesson, shroud it in a learned narrative about emergence and transience and the actual object – particularly the museum artefact – loses its multiple meanings. Its function is destroyed. Caroline Walker Bynum, for instance, reminds us in a remarkable book that medieval ‘Christian materiality’ was all about the senses, the visceral need to be in the proximity of sacred objects to gain the direct and immediate ability of experiencing their powers:

The physicality we encounter in devotional objects (often in their combination of colors, depth of relief, textures, and materials) reflects and results from the fact that they are not so much naturalistic (that is mimetic) depictions as disclosures of the sacred through material substances. […] They ask to be touched, more than seen (Bynum, 2011, pp 38 and 41, my emphasis).

How does this translate into the context of a museum? Jan Geisbusch, writing in Dudley’s edited volume, agrees that museums have done a lot to save a wide variety of sacred objects, but ‘they have done so in their fashion, preserving their physical existence, yet bleaching them of energy and meaning’ (Geisbusch, 2012, p 208, emphasis original). He concurs with Bynum on the power of touch vis-à-vis sacred objects, emphasising how much they are ‘a matter of engagement, interest, desire, captivation, manipulation rather than dispassionate contemplation, study, or belief’ (Geisbusch, 2012, p 207).[4] Such a dramatic (I dare say ontological) shift has relegated sacred objects exhibited in museums to the realm of universal and timeless aestheticism. Removed from their original religious context and disconnected from their primary functions they have become objects to be admired only for their beauty (Lipovetsky and Serroy, 2013).[5]

Anthropological artefacts have suffered an identical treatment over the years. In Malaise dans les musées, first and foremost an attaque en règle against the Louvre Abou Dhabi project, Jean Clair criticises the over embellishment of the Musée du quai Branly, calling it a ‘reductio ad aestheticam’. The renowned French conservateur général du patrimoine condemns the museum’s penchant for dismissing the objects’ function to emphasise their form:

Le dialogue que le Musée du quai Branly prétend mener suppose que les œuvres qu’il expose ne veulent ‘rien’ dire. Oublié leur contenu, mises entre parenthèses leurs fonctions ou leur destination, ne demeurent que leurs formes. Cette mise entre parenthèses des destinations, propre à tous les musées d’art, est particulièrement choquante dans un musée qui rassemble des objets qui, hier encore, étaient, et étaient d’abord, des objets de culte (Clair, 2007, p 110).

Clair is not the only one. The philosopher Bernard Deloche, in a small and sometimes vitriolic pamphlet, disapproves of the Musée du quai Branly’s ‘exotic aestheticism’. He underscores the fact that such a practice devitalises the objects and transforms them into relics that Westerners can henceforth fully appropriate for themselves (Deloche, 2010, pp 46–47). The art historian emerita Svetlana Alpers calls this very act the ‘museum effect’. She argues that the museum effect is a way of seeing, or ‘the tendency to isolate something from its world, to offer it up for attentive looking and thus to transform it into art like our own’, i.e. Western art. She finds her own conclusion troubling because it means ‘[i]t is to ourselves, then, that we are representing things in museums’ (Alpers, 1991, pp 27 and 32). A good exhibition does not simply let visitors marvel at the beauty of objects, tuned in to their own idiosyncratic knowledge; it should provide instead the ‘contexts and resources that enable audiences to choose to reorganize their knowledge’ (Karp, 1991, pp 22–23).

I have nothing against art, au contraire. Most early modern instruments now kept in science museums, such as Joseph Pope’s Grand Orrery on display at Harvard, were purposefully designed to be attractive and decorative works of art. Science and art do inform one another, as physicist Robert Wilson demonstrated throughout his long career.[6]

Figure 2

2 colour photographs one of which is of a late 1700s orrery with cast figures of Isaac Newton Benjamin Franklin and James Bowdoin the other of which shows a smooth bronze alloy sculpture on display outside the Putnam Gallery in the Science Center at Harvard University

(Left) Joseph Pope’s Grand Orrery made between 1776 and 1787 in Boston. It is believed that the figures representing Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, and James Bowdoin were cast by Paul Revere. Photograph by Samantha van Gerbig. (Description available on Waywiser: http://waywiser.rc.fas.harvard.edu/view/objects/asitem/items$0040:2186) (Right) Topological III, bronze alloy, by Robert Wilson, 1978. Currently exhibited in front of the Putnam Gallery in the Science Center at Harvard University. Photograph by Jean-François Gauvin.

David Edwards (2008) even developed an epistemological concept based on the close relationship between art and science, which he calls ‘artscience’.[7] What we see happening nowadays, however, is an imbalanced tilt toward the arts, what Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy have called the ‘aesthetization of the world’. The authors contend that today’s society of mass consumption has completely merged with art to form the hypermodern category of ‘capitalisme-artiste’. According to the latter category ‘all is art, seen and valued as art’. The hyperconsumer individual has lost all learned appreciation of the past and can nowadays assess objects purely on his or her own personal subjectivity and aesthetic taste (Lipovetsky and Serroy, 2013, p 396). The hyperconsumer homo æstheticus is also confronted with a modern style of architecture that shapes whole buildings into works of art. This ‘visual shock’ emphasises form over functionality. A telling example are the new art museums built in the last few decades: ‘It is them we come to see, more than the collections they house, of which we often know nothing about’ (Lipovetsky and Serroy, 2013, p 282).

Science museums have taken that aesthetic turn as well, and the consequence is a critical loss of socio-historical context and epistemology. Take two recent examples among dozens. The Musée des Confluences in Lyon, recently opened, defines itself as a museum of science and society. On the architects’ website the building’s concept is described as ‘The crystal cloud of knowledge’. Crystal, for the transparency of its meaning and the openness to the visitors and the citizens of the region; cloud for the image of how knowledge of the future is stored.[8] Highly criticised in France for its cost (over 250 million euros) and look, this ‘space-age’, spaceship-looking museum is clearly after the drawing power of the building – the Frank-Gehry-Bilbao effect. (Or, for the pop-culture reference, the Field of Dreams-effect: If you build it, they will come.) Expected to get 500,000 visitors per year, the museum’s collection appears at best secondary, no longer sufficient by itself to bring people in and epitomise the scientific ethos and practices. Some 5,800 miles away, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, at a price tag of 500 million dollars, has been completely rebuilt recently by a ‘starchitect’, Renzo Piano. According to the institution’s Director of Exhibitions, ‘The building is and of itself a large draw for many adults who are fans of architecture and design’. The building itself, not the objects or the science, has become the arbiter of exhibit design: ‘We try to think about the materials that we’re using in our exhibits. […] [They have] to be of an aesthetic and design quality that’s up to par with the building. I think a lot of adults pick up on it consciously or subconsciously’ (Kehl, 2013, p 50). The medium is the message, literally. And that message shouts art history consideration over scientific epistemology and functionality.[9]

This is a recent trend. In Do museums still need objects? Steven Conn (2010) examines the changing role of objects in museums since the end of the nineteenth century. While artefacts were then at the centre of the museum’s discourse and the focus of the visitor’s visual landscape, today we can easily foresee a museum almost entirely devoid of objects – though equipped with a café, gift shop, high-end dining and an IMAX cinema. Conn also notices a direct correlation between the rise of museum educational programmes and the sharp decrease of exhibited artefacts over the last several decades. He justly notes that artefacts ‘are no longer as central to the conception and function of the museum’. And when they are made the focus of an exhibition the ones chosen for display, e.g. anthropological artefacts, ‘are selected for aesthetic, rather than cultural or scientific reasons’ (Conn, 2010, pp 58 and 35 respectively).[10] Scientific instruments suffer the very same treatment in science museums. Most of the time they are buffed until they shine (how dare we see dirt and grime!) before being carefully put inside modern, sparkling glass cases. Can we learn anything from these ‘beautiful’ objects? Not if they are fleetingly gazed at. As Baudrillard (2005, p 100, note 23) puts it, ‘any object immediately becomes the foundation of a network of habits, the focus of a set of behavioural routines. Conversely, there is probably no habit that does not centre on an object. In everyday existence the two are inextricably bound up with each other.’ If no means of access is provided to an object’s specific ‘set of behavioural routines’, nothing can be learnt from this object. It has been converted – distorted – into a pure and functionless object.

I will describe in the following section how habit, aesthetic considerations and epistemology were embedded in the instruments designed by Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet (1700–1770). The multiple functions attached to Nollet’s instrumentarium provide a key analysis of Enlightenment socio-cultural context and natural philosophical practices, which are better understood in light of hands-on knowledge and ‘networks of habit’.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160506/002