Go back to article: Ventriloquised voices: the Science Museum and the Hartree Differential Analyser

Ventriloquism, museums and objects

This paper proposes the analogy of ventriloquism as a way of extending the discussion about how objects speak and tell different stories in museums. Although there are limitations to this analogy — objects do not literally speak to audiences — these objects are essentially on a stage to be viewed and ‘listened to’ by visitors to the museum. In a theatrical context, ventriloquism is a comedic convention that is seen and understood by audiences to be performed by the puppeteer, whom the audience willingly ignores. While Museum staff do not literally sit next to the Hartree Differential Analyser on show, I would argue that their presence behind the scenes in cultivating and editing the voices of the object renders them ventriloquists in their own right. This ‘voice-based’ analysis of the Hartree Differential Analyser allows us to explore how the different voices, stories and physical and instrumental functions of the Trainbox have been changed in different contexts and circumstances within the Museum. The functions I am concerned with here relate in part to the physical form of the object; the Trainbox had a single-integrator and no input or output tables, yet the voices ventriloquised through it indicated it was a ‘full-size’ analyser. An example of the instrumental functions affected by the process of ventriloquism includes the Museum’s descriptions of the Trainbox as a ‘working differential analyser’ used during the Second World War, instead of a machine created with parts of the original in 1947.

The ventriloquism of the voices of the object is distinct from the process of object re-interpretation, which is a necessary aspect of the work of museums, stemming from their core missions: to preserve objects and use them to educate their audiences, without destroying or damaging the object in the process.[8]  However, as many of these objects cannot be physically altered or used in a way that risks damage, museums have to change the voices with which an object speaks to an audience. These new voices are often required because collected objects are either displayed in a static, ‘non-working’ way (to avoid damage) or have had parts changed or removed from them before their collection, altering their original physical and instrumental characteristics in the process. This leads these types of objects — including the Hartree Differential Analyser — to be ventriloquised, provided with new voices to evoke previous physical and instrumental aspects of the original version of the object. Interestingly, this analysis of the voices of the Hartree Differential Analyser demonstrates that some of the new voices ventriloquised through the machine are not linked to previous aspects of the object but have been created to allow the object to tell new stories.

Samuel Alberti discusses the idea that objects have significant ‘ages’ relating to how their status and stories have changed during their careers in the museum (Alberti, 2005, p 560). The idea of ventriloquism builds upon Alberti’s work: it shows that Hartree’s Differential Analyser has not been ‘mute’ or had a ‘stable meaning’ since it was collected by the Museum in 1949 but instead has been encountered by collectors, curators, and audiences in diverse and varied ways (Alberti, 2005, pp 560–562:571). Through exhibit labels, cataloguing information, and re-interpretation by the Museum, the object has gained a number of different voices, which are in continuous dialogue with its audiences in the Information Age gallery today.

The idea of objects ‘speaking’ was a development of the ‘material turn’ within material culture, which has its roots in the 1980s and has developed into the new century. Two examples of this literature are relevant to the focus in this article; the first is Christopher Tilley’s work on the similar metaphorical meanings of objects and language, and the second is Lorraine Daston’s book Things That Talk, in which she discusses objects that ‘speak’ (Tilley, 1999; and Daston, 2004). Tilley’s argument that material culture must be understood through metaphor in the same way as language, invokes the idea that our understanding of objects as things is premised on the fact that they are highly malleable, according to the specific cultural factors and attributions we place upon them (Tilley, 1999, p 14). This type of a semiotic approach to objects will feature in the analysis of the different versions of the Hartree Differential Analyser in this paper. Complementing Tilley’s ideas of object metaphor and language, Daston argues that the way in which an object speaks evolves, such that changing contemporary meanings that we place on objects become compounded, eventually creating multiple layers of meaning. She explores her ideas using the example of Peacock Island (a world heritage site with a fairy-tale castle on an island in Berlin’s Havel river), arguing that the layers of meaning present on the island are the result of a history of different cultural functions, each of which leave deep impressions in the landscape (Daston, 2004, p 101). According to Daston, things talk in their ‘own’ voice, rather than merely repeating or playing back the human voice (Daston, 2004, p 10). Her assertion that our understanding of objects (as ‘loquacious palimpsests’) is based on their layered meanings is central to the case study in this paper, which argues that the differential analyser is an example of a ‘material polyglot’ that speaks to audiences with all of its voices at the same time (Daston, 2004, p 11).

The notion that an object has different voices is similar to Steven Shapin’s idea of multiple technologies – material, literary and social – in his article ‘Pump and Circumstance’ (Shapin, 1984, pp 481–520). Focusing on Robert Boyle’s Air Pump, Shapin discusses each of these technologies individually to demonstrate how Boyle used them to increase the impact of his experimental works and to establish them as ‘matters of fact’ (Shapin, 1984, p 484). Borrowing from Shapin’s way of splitting an object into different aspects, this paper adopts a similar methodology exploring voices rather than technologies. The core theme of this literature is that as the cultural narrative changes, so too does the museum, whose role it is to stay relevant to its audience, something it achieves through changing the narrative of its objects (Vergo, 1989; Kavanagh, 1990; Falk and Dierking, 1992; Dudley, 2010; and Dudley, 2012). Thus, objects gain meaning based on changing cultural factors, and their narrative changes over time when they are used to tell a story as part of a specific cultural narrative (Pearce, 1992; Elsner and Cardinal, 1994).

An alternative way of understanding how objects change in museums is by exploring accessioning, the process by which objects are classified and categorised when they are added to museum collections. In 2014, Jody Joy, a Senior Curator of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, described how the process of accessioning ‘...has the effect of resetting the biography of the object making it a very different thing as it becomes part of a museum collection’ (Joy, 2014). This interpretation of the process of accessioning – as a way of changing an object’s narrative – is framed by the idea that objects have biographies. Ethnographic historians developed the idea of object biographies in the 1980s to explain the change in the identity of objects in specific cultural settings (Appadurai, 1988, pp 64–95).  However, there have been many critiques of this approach which suggest that this idea places too much emphasis on specific ethnographic identities of an object at the expense of its broader narrative, while also making the object a passive part of the subject/object dialectic (Latour, 1993; Pinney, 2002; Wollen and Kerr, 2002; and Harvey, 2009). It follows that using concepts of object biography to understand an accessioned object would place too large an emphasis on specific aspects of the object’s identity at the expense of others. The example Joy uses is a Palaeolithic hand axe in the Cambridge gallery. The label attached to the hand axe describes it as a ‘Hand axe knapped around [a] fossil shell, Palaeolithic (about 400,000 years ago), Elvedon, Suffolk’ (Joy, 2014). This object biography gives a time frame for when the object was made, describes its physical form, and gives a geographical location for where it was discovered. However, it does not attempt to tell the story of the object beyond these specific aspects, meaning that this is the only information that museum visitors will take from viewing it. As an alternative, contemporary material culture literature advocates that objects need to be approached as things that could (and should) ‘speak’ with their audiences (Daston, 2004).

In contrast to Pearce and others, Eileen Hooper-Greenhill adopts a more ‘internal’ view of understanding how objects change in museums. Eschewing the role of external cultural changes, she asserts that the narratives of objects are dominated by policy shifts within the museum, such that by themselves, objects have no essential identity other than that which the museum gives to them (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992, p 191). Kevin Moore develops this argument by emphasising the importance of observing the governing documents of museums when trying to understand how and why the narratives of objects are changed (Moore, 1994, p 23). However, this institutionally-focused approach to understanding how object meanings change is as problematic as the exclusively culture-driven explanations explored above (Durant, 1992; Butler, 1992; Findlen, 1994; Kaplan, 1996; MacDonald, 1998; and Morris, 2010). Both approaches rely on single factors as explanations for change, underplaying the agency of the object in the process. Where traditional literature has described objects collected by museums as being ‘wrested from their setting and alienated to perform’ (Pope-Hennesy, quoted in Hall, 1987, p 11), this paper will argue that the opposite is true. It demonstrates that the Science Museum has imposed many different voices upon the Hartree Differential Analyser in an attempt to place the object back into previous contexts, changing the voice and meaning of the object in the process.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181005/003