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 historical background

This tension between the conventional ambitions of museums to collect, preserve and interpret artefacts and a sense that the science museum had its own vocation to support the enthusiasm for, and understanding of, science, and economic vitality, can be seen in the work of the three late nineteenth-century pioneers, Arthur-Jules Morin at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris, Norman Lockyer in London and Oscar von Miller in Berlin (Butler, 1992).[4] These men were not passengers on the train to the future, but active pioneers whose institutions pioneered the new science museum genre. The first of these men is arguably the greatest but also the least known, for it was Morin who effected the integration of Industrial Exposition and Cabinet of Curiosities. The Conservatoire had been founded at the end of the eighteenth century as a school for workers and with it was associated the former royal collection. Early in the nineteenth century, under the management of Gerard-Joseph Christian, it became a cabinet of machines, a sort of natural history of machines appropriate to the founder of ‘technonomie’ (Sebastik, 1984). With the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the restoration of the Bourbons in the government, however, a most significant coup was engineered at the Conservatoire (Fox, 1974). From an institution devoted to the arts as they were traditionally understood, it was transformed into a centre of ‘science applied to the arts’. Immensely popular lectures (attended by audiences measured in the hundreds of thousands), rather than the collections became the key parade ground for the presentation of the contemporary formation of knowledge and its implications. The expert in science had grabbed primacy in understanding and developing industrial processes and an understanding of industry was thus coupled to the understanding of science. This science knowledge was abstract rather than material and so the exhibition of objects connected to its natural history lost significance, as did an interest in the history of science (Pickstone, 2000). At this point a minor eighteenth century institution might have fossilised with little notice and no descendants.

However, in the mid-nineteenth century, under its new director the military engineer Arthur-Jules Morin ‘the collection’ was forged into a new sort of ‘museum’ (Jacomy, 1995; Fontanon, 1990). Morin’s enterprise involved a serious engagement with the inherited objects. He was responsible for a catalogue of the 21,000 artefacts held by the institution (1851) and in 1866 the apparatus of France’s greatest chemist, Lavoisier, was acquired by the Museum. Morin was also himself a leader in the organisation of three universal fairs, in 1855, 1867 and 1878. His fundamental objective, however, was the development and sharing of an understanding of the relationship between science theory and practice. The chief engineer of the Conservatoire explained in 1861 the impact of the crowds at London’s Great Exhibition ten years earlier flocking to see moving industrial machinery. This had convinced the French of the power of the visual experience of objects to provide a precise understanding of industry (Tresca, 1861). Morin therefore also created a laboratory for experimental mechanics at the Conservatoire (1856). Collections, a distinctive pedagogical form, and cultural evangelism had all been brought together. Regrettably, despite the importance of Morin, and the value of the preliminary work of the historian Claude Fontanon in researching it, we still lack a biography of this seminal museum leader. Certainly, by the 1870s, his museum with its collection combining historic firsts in both science and engineering – typical tools of the trade in the laboratory and the factory, and working machines – inspired envy and demanded emulation in Great Britain, France’s old competitor in war and new partner in trade.

In Britain, Norman Lockyer, the Editor of the new Nature magazine and Secretary of the Royal Commission on Scientific Education, used his magazine to express admiration for the achievements in Paris.[5] The Fourth Report of the Royal Commission highlighted the need for a British equivalent, which did not exist at the time (Bud, 2013).[6] Accordingly, Lockyer promoted first a major exhibition of ‘scientific apparatus’ in 1876 and then from the 1880s a permanent museum, within the administrative framework of the old South Kensington Museum.[7] This, like its companion applied arts museum (which eventually became the V&A) was based on objects. However, its point was not the aesthetic interest of the artefacts themselves but the story they told in the cause of promoting science as a key part of culture. In deciding which inherited objects to keep, the committee had a firm view expressed to Parliament in no uncertain terms: ‘The principle of selection that we have followed has been to throw out such objects as have no historical interest, and are neither good examples of accepted practice or modern improvements, nor steps or links in invention.’[8] Moreover, the Museum was willing to make its objects dynamic by running them and to illuminate their principles by sectioning them (Mann, 1989).
Competition within Europe took its typical course and the new Imperial Germany soon was able to justify its own new museum under the leadership of Oscar von Miller in Bavaria, drawing on the precedents of London and Paris. His ‘Deutsches Museum’ too, combined the roles of promoting reverence for the past and inspiration for the future (Bud, 2013). In their search to show the visitor that science was relevant to ‘his business and his bosom’ (to use the phraseology of the Science Museum engineering curator, Dickinson, in 1924), these museums put together, as if in natural harmony, diverse types of things: historic tools of great men [sic], iconic technological achievements, and working machines. In fact, general object-based museums dealing with the past and present of science and industry became common across European states. Not just France, Britain and Germany but most other European countries; Russia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy also established and presented major collections. Many of these were founded in the forty or so years before the Second World War. Different in emphasis as these were, each dealt with both science and industry. In London, the Science Museum adopted a subtitle during the 1920s, ‘National Museum of Science & Industry’. The ampersand indicates that the close relationship between the two subjects was a matter of considerable emphasis.

The Deutsches Museum model deeply influenced the American movement as framed by Charles Richards, author of the classic 1925 report Industrial Museums (Richards, 1925). Waldemar Kaempffert, the first director of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago testified to its impact on his patron Julius Rosenwald (Kaempffert, 1929). By the 1920s the combination it expressed had so dramatically transcended the particular dynamics of individual institutions that a study visit to Munich would be the basis of the widely influential text Technics and Civilisation by American journalist and writer Lewis Mumford (Mumford, 1959).[9] At the heart of this book was the belief that in the new era of ‘neotechnics’, technical change would grow out of a more organic scientific development.

Within a generic category of ‘industrial museum’, large institutions – generally privately funded – were established in cities such as New York, Dearborn, Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago (Holzmeyer, 2012; Jones, 2001; Sneddon, 2009). Institutions such as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry were ambitious in their museological technique and in their evangelism for science-based industry (Sastre-Juan, 2014). Yet, because none of these seemed to have the standing appropriating to the United States compared with the largest European museums, there was a campaign to build a suitable US institution. In 1946, a few months after the publication of Vannevar Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier, a curator in the Division of Engineering at what was then called ‘The U.S. National Museum’ began an article with the prophesy, which suffered no questioning, ‘One day the United States will have a national museum of science, engineering and industry, as most large countries have’ (Taylor, 1946). The new and spectacular building of the Museum of History and Technology duly opened in 1964, while the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa was founded in 1967. Each was based on the assumption that ‘science, engineering and industry’ is a natural set. Museums had effectively merged the categories of ‘science’ and ‘industry’. This is also clear in the many specialised centres founded more recently, particularly in the United States where the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia hosts a major display on chemistry (see Landry, in this issue) while on the other side of the country in California, the Computer Museum celebrates the information age. A fuller, more global listing is provided by the website of the Artefacts consortium.[10]

The attitudes expressed by these museums mirrored those of policy makers and foundation leaders, and after the Second World War national governments funded science intensively in the hope of industrial payoff. Since the 1970s even more intense campaigning for the benefits of certain sciences, and an emphasis on the importance of ‘high tech’ for economic renewal, has been complemented by the wish to combat public distrust of many institutions employing scientists and of science itself (House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, 2000). Governments have poured money into biotechnology and information technology, and museums have reflected the trend. Accordingly, the Deutsches Museum opened a museum for contemporary research and technology in Bonn in 1995. At London’s Science Museum, the Wellcome Wing, dedicated to contemporary bioscience and technical change, opened in 2000. Yet policy makers’ own questioning of the automatic benefits of science funding since the 1970s, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, challenged museums’ own institutional past and the uses they make of the past (see, for example, Parker, 2016).[11]

This challenge to the stories of the past presented by mainstream science museums gave strength to the alternative institutions and initiatives dedicated to promoting informal science education. In Paris, as early as the 1930s the more pedagogical but certainly informal Palais des Déscouvertes was created to supplement the more traditional Musée des Arts et Métiers (Eidelman, 1985; Schiele, 2008). Individual progenitors, including the Museum of Science, Boston, and San Francisco’s Exploratorium became a social movement in the US from the early 1960s, when, in the words of Rob Semper (a key player in the development of the Exploratorium), science technology centres ‘were born out of the confluence of the learner-centered educational movement of the mid-1960s and the investigation-focused science education reform movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s’ (Semper, 2007; see also Koster, 1999). By the end of the twentieth century there were some three hundred science centres across the United States. Such institutions, which contained ‘collections of ideas rather than things’ came to pose both a cultural and an existential threat to the more traditional science museums, even in Europe. A few institutions such as London’s Science Museum sought to incorporate science centres within their own walls but these were generally completely separate from the object-based galleries (Nielsen, 2014).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170809/003