Go back to article: Museums theme – Adventures in Museology: category building over a century, and the context for experiments in reinvigorating the Science Museum at the turn of the twenty-first century


The legitimacy of the object-based science museum was therefore being widely and fundamentally challenged in the late twentieth century. This multiplied a sense of uncertainty felt across the museum sector, expressed by the term ‘the new museology’ in which institutional objectives as well as methods were problematised. The two-decade period around the turn of the millennium was contemporaneous with other fundamental changes both in funding and in conceptions of the public. Government funding, on which many museums depended, was increasingly targeted to meeting policy objectives. The success of exhibitions was evaluated in terms of audience response. The publisher’s blurb for a classic volume by Eileen Hooper-Greenhill, a leading Professor of Museum Studies reported, ‘In order to ensure survival into the next century, museums and galleries must demonstrate their social relevance and use. This means developing their public service functions through becoming more knowledgeable about the needs of their visitors and more adept at providing enjoyable and worthwhile experiences.’ In the book Hooper-Greenhill argued that museums were being transformed from ‘storehouses’ to ‘learning environments’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994). More attention was given to ‘learning’ and to the visitors’ construction of meaning (Hein, 1998). Experimental private museums, such as Ironbridge, became the trend-setters rather than the large national institutions.[12]

In the United States the challenge to the science and industry museum led, but also exemplified, international trends. An anguished 1997 article by curators at the National Museum of American History reported a crisis as stories had replaced artefacts as the focus of their museum (Post and Molella, 1997). The following year, a meeting to discuss the establishment of the new National Museum of Industrial History (which ultimately opened in 2016) heard a powerful call from Harold Skramstad, Director of the Henry Ford Museum. Skramstad complained of a disconnect between the interests of visitors and of curators and, in the words of the conference organisers, suggested ‘the need for museums to break out of the traditional artefact- and scholarly content-centered paradigm and instead view themselves as “experience providers”’ (Skramstad, 2000; see also Cutcliffe and Lubar, 2000). He was answered by Matthew Roth, formerly Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. For him it was the artefact not the narrative that had to stay at the heart of the experience (Roth, 2000). Such tensions were international. How it felt in Britain was described by anthropologist Sharon Macdonald who embedded her research in an exhibition team at London’s Science Museum. She points out how the conception of the new Food Gallery responded to a sense of crisis in the institution. At the heart of her ethnographic study is the chapter ‘A new vision for the 21st century: Rewriting the Science Museum’ (Macdonald, 2002).

As Macdonald showed, the role of the museum as a whole, conceptualisation of individual exhibits, and the treatment of historic objects within them have been deeply intertwined. How were museums to respond to the pressures to be responsive to the wishes of their users and make sense of their collections in ways that were acceptable to their wide range of stakeholders? A meeting held at London’s Royal Society of Arts in 1990 to discuss research in museums was so venomous that one participant, the Science Museum’s Director Neil Cossons, described it as ‘a show trial’ (Cossons, 2000).[13] Much more seemed to be at stake than research, other issues ranging from the importance of an historical approach to charging for admission seemed to have been significant too. While the paper of Neil Cossons actually described a rich variety of curatorial historical research, it was reported as emphasising that ‘visitors are now “customers”’ and the future priority was the ‘public understanding of science’ (Cossons, 1991; Hill, 1991). The 1996 establishment of the ‘Artefacts consortium’, which aimed to bring together the efforts of curators and historians of technology in museums and universities to develop a better understanding of the meaning and use of historic objects, can be seen as a communal curatorial response to this sense of crisis. In general, however, debates were local, private and bewildering to the outsider, conducted in terms that were themselves institution-specific. Museums were split internally with traditional curatorial teams feeling under pressure, while contemporary science, interactive gallery, and education teams expanded their influence.[14] The complexity of the experience of great battles well evoked by Stendhal’s description of the experience of the Battle of Waterloo in the Chartreuse de Parme has its parallel in the conception and construction of museum exhibits!

In response, as new ways forward were sought, many experiments were contemplated and some consummated. Museums, like other custodians of complex technological systems depend largely on tacit knowledge, and experiment therefore reflects a going beyond their own institutional legacies and the confidence bestowed by inherited tacit knowledge. It is certainly expensive and potentially risky. Some experiments became famous. Controversy raged over the proposed redisplay of the Enola Gay, which had dropped the first atomic bomb, at the National Air and Space Museum (1995). The Museum’s interpretation of the military purpose of the ‘bomb’ dropping was so fiercely contested between the curators who suggested (drawing on academic historical writing) that the post-war strategic balance was at stake and those veterans who were angry that the exhibition had glossed over the hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives which would have been endangered in an alternative battle for Japan, that resignations followed and the exhibition was changed (Smith, 1998). In the nearby National Museum of American History, there had been fierce argument over the ‘Science in American Life’ exhibit which featured a nuclear shelter and was accused of being ‘post-modernistic and relativistic’ (Molella, 1999). But these experiments were seen by commentators as integral to the intellectual struggles of the time. In their review of museum exhibits as experiments, Macdonald and Basu emphasise their concern not with efforts ‘to innovate ever more effective ways of disseminating knowledge that has been preformulated and authenticated by experts to those who are inexpert and presumably in need of it’; rather they are concerned with efforts ‘to reconfigure the way in which exhibitions work’ (Macdonald and Basu, 2007, p 16).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170809/004