Go back to article: From 2D to 3D: the story of graphene in objects

The legacy of the 'Wonder Materials' exhibition

When scientific instruments are unique, beautiful or explanatory, they have traditionally been more likely to be valued and accessioned by museums. However, it is often the more mundane items that are lacking in museum collections. Exhibiting the material culture of graphene put us in the position of presenting ordinary, modern, mass-produced items as the science relics of the future, significant not in and of themselves, but because of who used them, why, and how. In this case, these ’ordinary’ items were selected in consultation with the scientists themselves and their part in the story confirmed and recorded. Objects like the tape dispenser, the lab book, the samples – these objects have already played their part in the graphene origin story and their significance and legacy is secured by their accession into accredited permanent museum collections.

Accessioning an object means making it legally a part of the permanent museum collection; it will be the museum’s statutory obligation to preserve and store it for future research and display on behalf of the nation. Accessioning is a solemn undertaking due to the commitment of resources implied in agreeing to preserve an object in perpetuity. Most museum collections are in storage, and curators need to consider the practical implications of the valuable resources required for the future management and care of objects.

Many of the privately-owned objects featured in the Wonder Materials exhibition and explored closely in this paper were on loan (for example, personal possessions belonging to the scientists – the Nobel medal replicas, Novoselov’s razor, the letter to Geim from Alaska). Loaned material is important in supporting and enriching museum exhibitions. However, part of the process of developing an exhibition is thinking curatorially about the legacy of the exhibition content: would any of the items exhibited or researched for the exhibition be a valuable addition to the permanent museum collection?

The sticky tape dispenser (figure 1) and the graphene samples (figure 8) were accessioned into the Museum of Science and Industry collection in 2006, just two years after evidence of the graphene breakthrough was published. This meant that these objects were available, accessible, researched and recorded ready for display in an exhibition. What was quickly apparent was that while the Museum held objects related to the origin story of graphene, there was little material to represent the fast-moving, unpredictable wave-front of graphene technology that succeeded its initial isolation.

Museums often undertake contemporary collecting to fill gaps in the collection (Rhys, 2014, p 21). These gaps can be there because there has been little or no contemporary collecting practice in the past. Historically, much museum collecting has been passive, meaning that the only items represented are those deemed of significance by the people who offer them to the museum, leaving museums lacking in objects which provide context or which illuminate an issue in a surprising way. To change this – to enhance our museum collections with rich and diverse material culture – we need to undertake active contemporary collecting (Rhys, 2014; Moist and Banash, 2013).

The current Science Museum Group Strategic Priories document states that ‘Researchers in universities and the private sector rarely have posterity in mind when disposing of their equipment and records, so important parts of our science heritage are at risk’ (Science Museum Group, 2017, p 22). Part of the challenge of collecting contemporary science material is that scientists may not themselves identify the material that would be of interest to a museum for research and display. Museum professionals use expertise in curating and exhibition interpretation to identify the objects which enrich and develop a story. Some objects are directly related to the practice of science and are identified as of interest for a museum exhibition or collection quite quickly and easily. Some take a little more research and time to discover, as they are not necessarily something the individual or institution would think to offer to a museum, but rather something which the museum professional must uncover and request. Scientists may think first of lab equipment, which is important and central to the story, however a curator or archivist might identify material around the directly science-related objects that tell the social history of an object – examples could include ephemera demonstrating press reactions, evidence of public response whether positive or negative, associated papers, letters, video, film, or oral history.

The Strategic Priorities document goes on to state that ‘Through pre-emptive communications in identified areas we will encourage the deposit of relevant items at our museums’ (Science Museum Group, 2017, p 22). Following the isolation of graphene at the University of Manchester, curators at the Museum of Science and Industry began to have conversations with key individuals at the University to explain the fact that the museum would be interested in acquiring items for the museum collection. Over several years of researching the material culture of graphene in developing content for the Wonder Materials exhibition, the content team developed contact with knowledgeable, passionate individuals involved in graphene in Manchester and around the world. These contacts were diverse: some academic, some commercial, some had been involved with graphene from the start, some were new to the field. By utilising this network of invaluable contacts and visiting the places where graphene is being researched and commercialised, we surveyed the material culture of graphene and identified items of interest.

The primary objective was to identify items which might be acquired or borrowed for display in the Wonder Materials exhibition. However, a secondary objective was the legacy of the exhibition, and the possibility that further items would be accessioned to join the sticky tape dispenser and the five graphene samples in the permanent museum collection. The final two objects I will look at are the result of this contemporary collecting. In these cases two examples of each object were obtained – one example of each featured in the Wonder Materials exhibition while the other was accessioned and now forms part of the permanent museum collection.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181004/013