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

Exhibits, objects and the modern science museum

This issue of the Science Museum Group Journal presents four narratives by the curators who were intimately involved in experimental projects, describing how they developed exhibitions which worked differently from ways inherited from their own institutional legacy. The papers each explain the institutional ambitions expressed by the exhibits they built, illuminating the usually invisible and often painful intellectual struggles behind the finished product. The challenge for each museum was to break out of their own traditional ways of doing things and to create exhibitions that were genuinely novel for them.[15] Conducted in the wake of the crisis of the 1990s, and of the local issues by which it was inflected, in Macdonald and Basu’s terms, these were experiments. Authors here describe the processes of conceiving and implementing innovative exhibitions at the Boerhaave in Leiden, the Chemical Heritage Museum in Philadelphia, the Medical Museion in Copenhagen and the Vienna Museum of Technology. In each of the four cases, the approach could be extended to the ways in which the entire museum worked. The authors explain how the exhibits for which they were responsible expressed a dream of how the entire organisation could be reconceived, and the exhibit itself was an experiment both in institutional reinterpretation and in the reinterpretation of their subject. Thus, the examples are presented here not as showcases of best practice, but as unique historical moments of institutional innovation and change.

The nature of the experiments varied, according to the institution. The Boerhaave is the national Dutch science museum, which was a target for reinvention by a new director. Formerly a collection which had been exhibited, it would now become a forum for the telling of stories, albeit by means of its great collections. Its director, Dirk van Delft, explains that he started with redefining the audience: from connoisseurs of scientific instruments to a more general community of ‘culture-loving Dutch (and foreign) visitors’. The Museum would be radically reformed, including a programme of major temporary exhibitions.

The Chemical Heritage Museum in Philadelphia also sought to tell stories with objects. It was seeking to break out of its role as a private archive and research centre, to reach out to a broader public with an interpretation of a distrusted science without losing its core stakeholders of committed chemists. The institution had originally intentionally eschewed the name ‘museum’ to emphasise its service to the community of chemists that the rest of the building served. However, senior management and fundraising staff recruited an exhibition team with ambitions to serve a rather wider, if nonetheless scientifically literate, public as well. Jennifer Landry explains the tension between museum professionals used to engaging with a wide public and the core supporters originally concerned with an exhibition for people like themselves. As Landry explains: ‘The curatorial team believed the exhibition should focus on the history and the social importance of science and technology instead of teaching scientific principles or explaining the technological “how” of the instruments.’ The exhibition therefore had to express the values of a changing and complex organisation. Moreover, it had to contend with the ambitions of a design company more used to linear narratives than to the confusing interconnections highlighted by object collections. In describing the issues Landry provides a remarkably candid account of the complex exhibition development process of the time.

The third of the case studies described here sought explicitly to exploit confusion. The Medical Museion is an academic exhibition space and collection which, in the 1990s, was seeking to escape its past as a dusty medical collection and to demonstrate the potential of research and experimentation within a museum that expressed a rapprochement between the university and the museum. The team’s approach was very different from the audience-building ambitions of the first two organisations. ‘The core aim of the exhibition is to facilitate visitors’ informed reflections upon the ways in which recent biomedicine challenges significant cultural categories including the body and identity, therefore influencing our very understanding of ourselves as human beings, our sense of “personhood”’, writes lead curator Martha Fleming.

In his paper, Peter Donhauser locates the development of a science centre within the history of the predominantly object-based Vienna Museum founded early in the twentieth century. He portrays the interactive engagement with young people in terms of its continuity with the aim to popularise science, which had animated the foundation of the museum at the beginning of the century. At the same time, the rise of interactivity represented a radical shift from an emphasis on technology itself towards a focus upon scientific principles, which then had a wider currency.

Thus the four museum case studies presented here each locate their detailed accounts within a broader analysis of museum strategy at the turn of the millennium. However, read together, the collection goes beyond this to confront common issues for the museum of the early twenty-first century. In particular, they address the continuing issue of how to integrate and combine the various interests, aims and stakeholders of the modern science museum.  

Dirk van Delft deals with early-twentieth century Dutch Nobel prize-winner Kamerlingh Onnes, who first liquefied helium in 1908. Here van Delft combines his role as scholarly expert on the work of Onnes with his roles as curator and museum director (van Delft, 2007). He links the ambitious transformation planned for the Boerhaave, the shift in visitor base to the nature of, and rationale for, the temporary exhibition. The challenge he explores is how the Boerhaave could share the understanding of massive and important equipment which lacked both aesthetic appeal and obvious comprehensibility. His belief is that ‘The general public is only ready to accept into their heart these difficult objects if they form part of an accessible and attractive cultural or historical story’. The resolution chosen was to focus upon the rivalry with Onnes’ contemporary, the Scotsman James Dewar, who had a very different approach to engineering. Dewar had won the race to liquefy hydrogen, but Onnes went one colder with helium, at the very time that other competitors were racing for the South Pole. This narrative approach is seen as key both to the appreciation of objects and to the overall experience. ‘In practice, in the case of Quest for Absolute Zero this approach led to a process of selecting artefacts on a basis of their potential to contribute to the story. The objects in the exhibition should trigger the visitor’s empathy. Aesthetics or an iconic status of an object are less important in such an approach.’

In her paper dealing with the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Jennifer Landry shows how the curatorial team dealt with institutional tensions in the process of creating a new museum within an existing institution. The team also favoured narrative but the emphasis was much more on structuring narratives around artefacts: ‘the two guiding principles were to structure the narratives around the artefacts and to emphasise the social context over the scientific or technical information.’ The focus on social context and technical impact, and the ambiguous status of chemistry, which was identified both with science and technology, enabled the gallery to have a fluid relationship with both. Landry highlights, moreover, the need to satisfy several competing interest groups. It was important to emphasise distance from the chemical industry, normally assumed to be calling the shots in exhibits such as this, but also not to be so distanced from public expectations as to evoke the well-recalled wrath that had attended the Smithsonian exhibition Science in American Life. The crisis in museums, as perceived by the team, therefore was an active factor both in provoking the approach to issues of social and technical impact and in warning of the limits. Landry is articulate about the conception of the visitor as interested and knowledgeable about science and public affairs.

The paper by the artist and curator Martha Fleming takes a very different tack. The visitors at the Medical Museion were assumed to be immensely knowledgeable about their own bodies, and the 2008 exhibit was consequently conceived as a conversation, formally eschewing the one-to-one relationship between artefact and story. More than perhaps any other museum, the Medical Museion has been influenced by the work of the German philosopher Hans Gumbrecht who emphasises the material presence of things rather than the symbolic significance of concepts, and has taken seriously the presence of the object (Söderqvist, Bencard, Mordhorst, 2009; Gumbrecht, 2004). Accordingly, rather than representing a narrative, the presence of the artefact was intended to prompt the visitor to rethink his or her relationship to bodies and machines. The language of Fleming’s paper, with its allusive style and reflexive emphasis, as well as the primacy given to the work of Michel Foucault, highlights the ambition of the award-winning exhibition it describes.

The fourth case study reports on the development of the Vienna Museum of Technology. There the modern experiment involved a formal division between a historically-oriented, object-based permanent gallery dealing with the evolution of scientific knowledge, and a learning area dealing with phenomena and experiments. ‘A wide variety of historical objects [are] presented in their cultural, economic and societal contexts, complemented by cutting-edge educational methods to make complex issues easier to understand.’

In their different ways, these papers show how museums have struggled to demonstrate how science can be relevant to their publics. These museums could take neither their audiences nor their patrons for granted. In the wake of the crisis of identity in the 1990s, they had to reinterpret long-established roles. No longer could other professionals be treated as threats or competitors, and nor could other means of interpreting science be ignored. Instead, institutions sought, imaginatively, to take their visitors on journeys which engaged with contemporary cultures and identities, and also economies. In these exhibits the interpretation of science and science’s relationship with technology has been coupled intimately to the evolving identities of museums as a whole. This issue is a reminder that such concerns have been and are still argued about, not just in the pages of books and the avenues of power, but also in the exhibition halls and back corridors of the great museums.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170809/005