Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Future of The Science Museum Debated by the New York TImes

Thanks so much, Matt, for sending me this really timely and thought-provoking article about the future of science museums--and a discussion of their fascinating past, as seen above--in today's New York Times. Much to mull over here, and it covers a lot of things that I have been thinking about of late. Following is an excerpt:
A science museum is a kind of experiment. It demands the most elaborate equipment: Imax theaters, NASA space vehicles, collections of living creatures, digital planetarium projectors, fossilized bones. Into this mix are thrust tens of thousands of living human beings: children on holiday, weary or eager parents, devoted teachers, passionate aficionados and casual passers-by. And the experimenters watch, test, change, hoping. ...

Hoping for what? What are the goals of these experiments, and when do they succeed? Whenever I’m near one of these museological laboratories, I eagerly submit to their probes, trying to find out. The results can be discouraging since some experiments seem so purposeless; their only goal might be to see if subjects can be persuaded to return for future amusement..... The experimentation may be a sign of the science museum’s struggle to define itself.

A century ago, such a notion would have been ridiculous. Museums were simply collections of objects. And science museums were collections of objects related to scientific inquiry and natural exploration. Their collections grew out of the “wonder cabinets” of gentlemen explorers, conglomerations of the marvelous.

Museums ordered their objects to reflect a larger natural order. In 1853, when a new natural history museum at Oxford University was being proposed, one advocate suggested that each specimen should have “precisely the same relative place that it did in God’s own Museum, the Physical Universe in which it lived and moved and had its being.” The science museum was meant to impress the visitor with the intricate order of the universe, the abilities of science to discern that order, and the powers of a culture able to present it all in so imposing a secular temple.

Not all of this was disinterested. Natural history museums typically treated non-Western cultures as if they were subsidiary branches in an evolutionary narrative; deemed closer to nature, these cultures were treated as part of natural history rather than as part of history. Self-aggrandizing posing was generally mixed in with the museum project.

But you can still feel its energy. Go to any science museum with an extensive collection and walk among its oldest display cases. The London Science Museum, for example, which had its origins in the Crystal Palace of the Great Exposition of 1851, has collections that still invoke the churning energies of the Industrial Revolution and its transformations.

One of the most astonishing collections I have seen is the Wellcome Collection, also in London. It includes moccasins owned by Florence Nightingale, Napoleon’s toothbrush, amputation saws, an array of prosthetic limbs, a Portuguese executioner’s mask, Etruscan votive offerings and obstetrical forceps. Henry Wellcome, who had made his fortune with the invention of the medicinal pill, owned over a million objects by the mid-1930s and imagined them fitting into a great “Museum of Man” that would encyclopedically trace humanity’s concerns with the body. After his death, the collection was partly dispersed, but even what is left is as exhilarating as it is bewildering. You look at such collections and sense an enormous exploratory enterprise. You end up with an enlarged understanding of the world’s variety and an equally enlarged sense of the human capacity to make sense of it.

But that ambition is gone and so is the trust in ourselves. This may be the crux of the uncertainty in contemporary science museums. Where does the museum place us, its human creators? ...
You can read the full article--which I really recommend!--by clicking here. I love that the reviewer was as happily intrigued by the Wellcome Collection as I; more on that wonderful institution (perhaps my favorite medical museum--if you can call it that--in the world!) here, here, here, here and here. Click on image to see much larger version.

Image: "Scarabattolo" (1675) by Domenico Remps (c. 1621-1699). Found at

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