Go back to article: A symposium on histories of use and tacit skills

Tim Boon: Introduction

The Science Museum Research Centre Inaugural Conference in April 2016 provided the opportunity not only to celebrate mature programmes of research, but also to highlight areas that seem to us to be growth points for future activity. The histories of tacit skills and knowledge that were entailed in the use of objects from our collections during their ‘working lives’ is one such topic. The conference provided a first opportunity to ‘go public’ with some conversations between the participants that have been underway for the last few years. In these enthusiastic encounters, the potential of re-enactment, reconstruction, replication, restoration of behaviour and object-guided oral history to enrich understanding of practice and objects has become clear.

We are optimistic that it will soon be possible to commence funded research projects in this area, but we are also sufficiently convinced of the virtue of combining insights from the differing traditions of practical investigative technique represented here to feel that it is worth publishing the authors’ contributions at this stage. Klaus Staubermann, a curator, starts our selection with insights from practice at National Museums Scotland, as he argues for going beyond the study of two-dimensional evidence ¬– including photographs – to the replication of artefact experiences. Peter Heering illustrates the kinds of insights that can be gained from operating late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century physics apparatus, in this case, solar microscopes. Roger Kneebone, in a summary of his work in simulation-based surgical replication, demonstrates how practical research techniques can yield a panoply of unexpected insights. Yves Winkin concludes our selection with a helpful battery of theoretical resources for thinking about the performances and gestures that constitute the basic ‘language’ of the operation of machines, instruments and equipment.

These sections may well seem disparate, but that is the point. Our shared intuition is that, although practical investigative techniques have been in widespread use, they have ploughed rather separate furrows, and so there is much to learn from bringing these techniques into dialogue with each other, for the sake of gaining deeper understanding of past practices and, in the museum context, of illuminating the histories of the objects we curate. Certainly, on the day of the conference, there was considerable shared excitement about the potential for shared investigations.

We are here concerned with two intimately related concepts: histories of use of objects (which is becoming a significant interest for museum curators) and tacit skills (those unspoken, unrecorded, aspects of practice that have been the concern of philosophers, sociologists and others beyond the museum world). We propose that these two aspects are, in fact, two sides of the same coin: histories of use will benefit from being understood in the light of a wide range of intellectual traditions, whilst the study of tacit skills will benefit from its re-association with the material world of objects.

There is another binary distinction that lies at the heart of our shared areas of interest, and the division lies at the horizon of human memory, as Roger Kneebone concurs in his section. Several of the techniques of practical investigation of the past rely on recall, whether that is verbal or ‘muscle memory’. But for earlier periods as represented by Peter Heering’s contribution, or Kneebone’s time-travelling operating theatre, past practice must be painstakingly recreated by close study of a wide range of sources. Here, the museum object itself – as we can see with the example of the solar microscope – may be the most eloquent of witnesses. But the insight gained is radically different from that provided by the object-guided oral history of, for example, an anaesthetist reunited with a ‘Boyle Machine’ anaesthetic ventilator as used earlier in his career. In the first case, there is witness to an experience enjoyed by our antecedents; in the other, there is the potential of disinterring buried recollection. But distinctions invite comparison and dialogue, and that is the aim of the work we have in prospect.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170808/001