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

Science museums and the display of instruments

In the late 1980s Peter Galison (1988, p 211) described what was – and perhaps still is – one of the most interesting and ambitious programmes of instrument research when he wrote:

We need a history of the material culture of science, but one that is not the dead collection of discarded instruments. In its place we need a history of the way that scientists deploy objects to meet experimental goals whether or not these were set by high theory; a history of instrument-construction linked to the history of technology; a history that encompasses the relation of instruments to forms of demonstration; a history of the laboratory that tracks the development of the organization of scientific work; and a history of the embodiment of theory in hardware.

Going over Galison’s argument the editors of a special Osiris issue on scientific instruments acknowledged a few years later ‘[t]he traditional mix of experiment and theory needs a new ingredient – instruments. It is not just a matter of getting the quantities right; we need an entirely new recipe’ (van Helden and Hankins, 1994, p 6). No institution is better equipped than a science museum to tackle the ‘dead collection of discarded instruments’.

The intellectual undertaking laid out by Galison was also identified by Gerard L’E Turner (1987) in his Presidential address to the British Society for the History of Science. In looking at ‘scientific toys’ over the longue durée, Turner questioned in the conclusion whether the new model of science centre and its appeal to homo ludens was entirely satisfactory. He recognised that in both the old-style science museums and the novel science centres the ‘historical element is excluded’, therefore concealing the crucial transmission of craft skills and the economic and social factors on which the making of scientific instruments depends. For Steven Shapin (1992) it is more than just a case of historical amnesia: it is about the processses by which science is made. Scientists need not be viewed as magicians, brandishing a magic wand called ‘the scientific method’ – which provides the solution to every scientific problem. Shapin believes that to counteract this erroneous, and potentially dangerous, image of science we need to show and explain such things as:

...the collective basis of science, which implies that no single scientist knows all of the knowledge that belongs to his or her field; the ineradicable role of trust in scientific work, and the consequent vulnerability of good science to bad practices; the contingency and revisability of scientific judgment, and thus the likelihood that what is pronounced true today may, without culpability, be judged wrong tomorrow; the interpretative flexibility of scientific evidence, and the normalcy of situations in which different good-faith and competent practitioners may come to different assessments of the same evidence (Shapin, 1992, p 28).

This is the narrative science museums – and perhaps more importantly science centres – need to produce to demystify and de-aestheticize science. In this context scientific instruments are indeed an essential ingredient to support the recent science, technology and society (STS) programme.

What seemed novel twenty-five years ago has become nowadays textbook material – in academia and, one should add, in an increasing number of science museums. Historians, philosophers and sociologists of science have recognised the key role instruments play – and have historically played – in the structure and development of a robust scientific community. According to philosopher of science Ian Hacking (1996, pp 68–69), for instance, instruments were often seen as better epistemic unifiers than grand unified theories during the twentieth century. One could even consider an ‘instrumentalist’ thesis, he says, that would enunciate the following: ‘...it is not high-level theory that has stopped the innumerable branches of science from flying off in all directions, but the pervasiveness of a widely shared family of experimental practices and instrumentation’. The sociologist of science Terry Shinn (2000, pp 467–70) also observes in the ‘universal practices’ begotten through ‘generic’ or ‘root’ instruments the formation of an intellectual and social cohesion that thwarts the effect of centrifugal forces pulling apart the various scientific disciplines. From Bruno Latour’s early concept of science in action and actor-network theory to Andrew Pickering’s dialectical mangle of practice, Otto Sibum’s performative gestural knowledge, and Peter Galison’s trading zones, contemporary scholarship in science studies by and large focuses on experimental practices, where the intricate and physical operation of instruments has become one of the chief points of analysis. Often defined as ‘tacit knowledge’, the study of laboratory performance is not an easy task to solve. Harry Collins (2010) spent most of his career sorting out the various accounts and interpretations of tacit knowledge in relation to not only scientific practices but to life itself.

Science museums have a fundamental role to play in presenting – and preserving – the past, present and future of scientific research. In doing so, their collections of instruments and technological devices are an asset that needs to be better exploited. How? Simon Schaffer (2011, p 707) observes that instruments in ‘states of disrepair’, those which show signs of heavy wear and tear, are often deemed unworthy of display. It is, he argues, a mistake and offers ‘a plea for shows of shards and fragments alongside glamorous devices’. Such an original presentation would bring to the forefront the crucial role of recycling – often referred to as cannibalising – in early modern and modern science. These material culture practices of repair, adaptation and reuse can be easily associated to contemporary work in environmental history, a research topic gaining momentum in academia over the last few years (Werrett, 2013). In the words of a former director of the Science Museum, London: ‘In a technical museum objects are shown on account of their utility, not for their beauty or their attractiveness.'[16] This statement from 1922 seems to have lost most of its weight nowadays. Displays of instruments in science museums appear closer than ever to those of decorative arts artefacts than to the presentation of real functional and practical objects. As I have explained above, ‘beauty’ is often an integral feature of an instrument’s purpose and function. Decorative art analyses also open new approaches to the contextual understanding of such objects (Dunn, 2014). In most cases, however, overly polished and shiny instruments on display simply do not convey the real biography of the instrument. As long as they remain trapped in their glass cases these instruments will never fully express their full historical narrative and practical functions. Going beyond the very superficial understanding of science requires innovative hands-on approaches to historical instruments. As Baudrillard (2015, p 92) asserts: ‘An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject, but in the passionate abstractness of possession all objects are equivalent.’ All objects are not equivalent. It is often their specific functions that define them. It is the role of science museums to explain and demonstrate why it is so in the case of scientific instruments and technological devices.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160506/004