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


In August 2015 The Daily Telegraph reported research showing that the Science Museum in London was the most ‘googled’ museum in the world; other research shows that the National Air and Space Museum in Washington is among the most visited.[1] Clearly such institutions have huge interest to the public, yet of all museums they are among the most complex in mission and scope. Many show historic objects, but they are not purely historical museums and the role of such objects is deeply problematic. Science objects are, in general (with many exceptions), not aesthetically beautiful, and are engaging instead on account of their material presence and their meaning. Many of the stories to which they allude are not well known and the significance of these narratives to general audiences often lies not in their inherent interest but in their relationship to contemporary issues. For many visitors, interest in the museum will be, at least in part, framed by the significance of science today and by its association with issues close to the hearts and minds of citizens, such as innovative technology, medical progress, contemporary conflicts, chemical pollution and genetic modification, and the role of powerful stakeholders such as government and big business. And yet, time and time again, the appeal of this frail skein of artefacts, history, education, propaganda and science engagement has been renewed. 

The need for constant intellectual renewal underlies the series of annual Artefacts conferences which was launched in 1996 and is continuing lustily in 2017 when it meets in Paris. A group of papers in this issue of the Journal (see also Fleming, Landry, van Delft, and Donhauser) are derived from presentations made at such a conference.[2] They reported on innovative experiments made in the wake of a crisis of confidence across museums in the USA and Europe in the late twentieth century. Museums are expected to be scholarly and object rich but also relevant to the cultural challenges facing science and accessible to wide publics. A sense of conflicting responsibilities has led to sharp debate in recent decades but has also resulted in some potent and fascinating experiments which remain relevant today. 

This paper introduces articles by museum directors and senior curators across Europe and the USA that look at how the modern science museum has re-created itself in recent years. This interest in the transformation of science museums is not an isolated theme. At the time of this issue preparing for publication (June 2017), a leading international journal in the history of science has published a collection of papers under the section title Why Science Museums Matter: History of Science in Museums in the Twenty-First Century.[3] The papers presented here illuminate the debate generally by describing radical innovations introduced after a key moment of change in the late 1980s and early 1990s which, I argue, caused such a crisis that science museums had to respond or be consigned to history. In this introductory paper I set the scene by discussing the longer-term development of the science museum as a category and by describing the short-term context of that widely perceived crisis in the science museum around the turn of the twenty-first century.

The ambiguity of the category of ‘science’ museum is deeply rooted in our culture – such institutions have an ambition often wider than a traditional reading of the word would suggest. Typically, they also promote the machines devoted to the making of wealth, whether it be steam engines or automobiles or the curing of the sick. Engineers and historians are clear that technology is not merely applied science, and the relationships between science, technology and engineering have a complexity not taken into account in past histories of such institutions. In fact, the very existence of many science museums is predicated on the assumption that interest in one of these categories will blend with an interest in the other. Moreover, while there might be agreement about the need to display the peaks of the great achievements of fundamental science on the one side and the massive materiality of steam engines on the other, this can make the low-lands between seem unworthy of exploration either because they are uninteresting or simply too complicated. Yet the combination of science and technology in the science museum – that very variety and complexity – is itself important and interesting, as a way of establishing a better understanding of the exhibits, of the topics and of the categories of collection and display themselves. Seeing, and then interpreting, the relationship between science and industrial and medical practice as problematic and constantly renegotiated, rather than as natural and fixed, has proved liberating and stimulating. 

Such a work of renewal has been experimental within a genre which has itself a long history of change. To understand the past and present challenges of this distinctive category of museums, it is worth reflecting on the inheritance which underpins the ambiguities they have and are experiencing. Certainly they owe part of their inheritance to the Cabinets of Curiosity of the eighteenth century, and indeed to the collections associated with honoured forebears, including distinguished men and women of science. This last is itself a complex category with its own association to investigation and knowledge (Arnold, 1996). Yet, there is also another key part of the ancestry of science museum collections which continues to be seen as crucially significant within the modern science museum. From the mid-nineteenth century, public interest in science, enthusiasm for the skills of science and engineering and support for scientific innovation have been seen by governments and promoted by interest groups as keys to future prosperity. The museums were therefore supported not to promote the aesthetics of the individual artefacts within them, but instead on account of the propaganda and educational effects of exhibits in which artefacts were just a particular kind of rhetorical device.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170809/002