Editor’s note: One of the highlights of our 2020 virtual forum—an event with many highs—was the Sarton Medal Plenary session honoring the 2020 recipient, Jim Bennett. This year’s plenary took the form of a fascinating and engaging conversation between the medalist and a distinguished panel of historians of science, assembled by the organizing committee—Karen Rader, Sarah Qidwai, and Jean-François Gauvin (with a little help from the Newsletter). Paola Bertucci anchored the session and introduced the interlocutors—Jahnavi Phalkey, Erich Weidenhammer, Anna Toledano, Tim Boon and Jean-François—and Robert Bud offered closing remarks. Both for those HSS members who missed the session or for those who wish to revisit it, here is an edited version of the session.
Introduction by Paola Bertucci, Yale University:
It is my great honor and pleasure to chair this plenary session, and introduce the 2020 Sarton Medalist, Jim Bennett. Jim is a pioneer of the so-called material turn in the history of science and technology. In his roles as a scholar, curator, and teacher, he has taught us to look beyond texts to recognize the often invisible labor, both intellectual and manual, that is constitutive of the human activities we call science and technology. His work has bridged the worlds of the museum and the academy, bringing the most current historiographical debates to general audiences.
I was lucky to be among the first cohort of graduate students, when Jim launched a Master of Science degree at the University of Oxford in history of science. The program was physically based in the History of Science Museum at Oxford, where he was the director. That one year of study, literally, changed my intellectual trajectory. And I know, I’m not speaking just for myself.
Jim used to come into the classroom, de facto the museum’s basement, a seventeenth-century alchemical laboratory, with instruments in his hands. The objects at first looked indecipherable. As he began disassembling them, explaining the various functions, emphasizing the high level of craftsmanship, the various hands from makers to owner and users, the instruments went through over time, it became clear that by studying the history of science, through artifacts, we were focusing on historical actors’ practices and ways of knowing that are often invisible in textual accounts. It is this approach, which centers on instruments and moves outward to address deep questions about the nature of scientific knowledge and practice, that distinguishes Jim’s contributions to our discipline.
I could list the many highlights from Jim’s distinguished career from his curatorships at Greenwich, Cambridge, Oxford, London; numerous collaborations with other museums of the history of science across Europe; his many publications. I could discuss how his instrument-focused scholarship reshaped conversations about the Scientific Revolution. But most of all, I wish to emphasize the fact that he has trained generations of students who have then moved on to become professors or curators around the world. And who keep practicing what he has taught us: thinking with scientific instruments.
Jim’s scholarship and museum work demonstrate that excellence in our discipline doesn’t manifest itself exclusively through publications. Historians of science are not necessarily desk-bound scholars. Excellence in the history of science can be and is found, in museum curatorships, collaborative exhibitions and catalogs, digital projects, and inspiring teaching. Museums have enormous potential for reaching broad audiences, and sparking and informing conversations about current issues surrounding science, medicine, and technology. As this virtual forum demonstrates, younger generations of historians of science are eager to participate in such debates. The recognition of Jim Bennett’s work through the Sarton Medal is an encouraging message to many graduate students who are considering jobs, beyond or along academia. It shows them that their expertise can be used in different contexts, and to much effect.
Jahnavi Phalkey (Founding Director, Science Gallery, Bengaluru, India):
Jim, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to participate in the celebration of your work. There are some of us trying to walk in your footsteps and trying to learn what it might be like in the twenty-first century to work across public spaces and see what we can actually make of it. My question for you is, what is the one most important thing, to your mind, that is lost to the history of science when scholars do not engage with objects/instruments and continue instead with textual sources and oral history?
JB: It is difficult to choose one thing. My first thought was that it’s difficult to imagine a scholar now who would determine not to engage with objects and instruments as a matter of principle. So I must be careful not to fight old battles or continue outdated debates.
An idealist position of that sort was still possible when I first became involved in the late 1960s, when there was a strand of opinion that science in its finest expression was essentially and admirably cerebral, an activity of the intellect. Once science reached that level, the idea was that whatever means had been used to get there, could be regarded as contingent and incidental, of interest to antiquarians but not intellectual historians. Odd as it may seem, this was quite a liberating impulse at the time, as it released historians of science from the confined narrative of empirical discovery and, being too narrow and unrealistic in itself, in time opened the door to consideration of other currents of thought and activity—social, political, technological, commercial, and so on.
Paradoxically, becoming a museum curator meant that an idealist philosophy survived a bit longer in my world, gaining new vigor in aspects of the science-center movement. I recall the challenge that collections of objects were all very well for antiquarians but that “the science” was not to be found there. The science lay elsewhere, in a realm whose register was called, innocuously enough, “understanding,” a realm of concepts and of theories, and science museums should be reformed accordingly.
Where neglect of material and instrumental work occurs today among historians is not a matter of principle but of inclination, partiality, and even practicality and accessibility. I have usually had collections conveniently to hand, but not everyone has that kind of access. So I think that’s fair enough. You know, we all have our preferences and our partialities, and, of course, that’s what makes up the tapestry of our subject.
As historians today we take it as part of the historic practice of science to design and make devices and experiments, to learn manipulative techniques, to manufacture instruments, to sell, maintain, adapt and repair them, to measure with them, to teach through them, to train others in their use, and so on, and therefore all this falls to our concern. This recognition brings knowledge of different areas into our toolkit—of the manufacturing culture, of contemporary fabricating skills and specialisms, their gathering into clusters and traditions, the available material resources in the period, and so on.
Perhaps I have to admit that I cannot name “the one most important thing” we lose by not engaging with the material, because what we then miss is a general sensibility, an openness to a whole aspect of scientific practice. Also, I don’t want to say that this sensibility is enhanced only through objects and instruments in their original physical form. Historians of instruments obviously need texts, and photographs and drawings and prints and so on. The objects and instruments don’t exist in a separate evidential world but should be integrated into all the resources we have. Their inclusion can profoundly affect the integrated account, but I don’t really want to accept a demarcation here.
As an example, we can take an area where the idealist account seemed to have one of its strongest successes—astronomy in the 16th century. When instruments come into the story, and not only for measurement of planetary positions, it takes on a different aspect. Johann Schöner was an astronomer, teaching mathematics in Nuremberg in the early 16th century, best known in the traditional account as the person to whom Rheticus addressed the Narratio Prima, the first published account of the Copernican system, published before De Revolutionibus. Schöner had a printing press and was a maker of globes, including the first matching pairs of celestial and terrestrial globes, characteristic of the contemporary discipline of cosmography—a discipline largely astronomical that had a much more active hold on 16th-century practice than planetary theory. In the Oxford museum I had the care, remarkably, of a celestial globe from the Royal Astronomical Society’s collection, which was made in Schöner’s workshop. It was one of only two extant examples of the earliest surviving printed celestial globe, from a business that once spanned Europe.
It was because the Antwerp publisher Roeland Bollaert could not obtain enough Schöner globes for his customers that he persuaded Gemma Frisius in Louvain to take up their manufacture. Gemma was a university professor but you can see him here in a very hands-on engagement with the globe that he’s making.
Once you let instruments and the disciplines they represent into the story, it can be transformed, not by overthrowing what we know from our textual sources but by placing these in a different light and a more rounded narrative, not offering a retreat into antiquarianism but, on the contrary, offering a much richer history.
Perhaps I can offer singularity by taking an example of one instrument that was important to me. I was cataloguing the pre-1600 instrument collection in Oxford (we all as ordinary curators have to spend time cataloguing the collection in our care) when the next in line was a rectangular wooden portable sundial dated 1558.
There were instruments on both faces: a complex instrument of cosmography known as the Regiomontanus dial, and a much more straightforward horary quadrant for telling time in Italian hours. What was significant about this object is that I was able to decipher the abbreviated signature for the first time. The sundial was made by a man called Miniato Pitti, an Olivetan monk and sometime Abbot of the monastery of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. He was a noted cosmographer and was active with the cosmographer Egnatio Danti in the design and arrangement of the maps in the geographical room of the Palazzo Vecchio for Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. This was a significant identification because around the time of the cataloguing work it was doubted whether socially elevated people, and Miniato was a member of the prominent Pitti family in Florence, would really have indulged in mechanical practices, such as making instruments bearing their names. Soon after I finished my cataloguing, Mark Rosen found an archival source, which showed Danti after Pitti’s death, negotiating with the Olivetan monastery to buy Pitti’s tools. We realized that the prejudice against mechanical work had been ours, not that of the Florentine cosmographers. Their notion of what mathematical practice was included this kind of work and that was important in changing our attitude to the kind of mathematics that they did. That’s a nice example of the kind of complementarity of archival work and object work and so I don’t want to demarcate.
I’ll stop there. I’ve failed to answer your question about the one most important thing. Perhaps I’ve shown why it’s difficult to answer.
Erich Weidenhammer (Curator, University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection & Adjunct Curator, Ingenium, Canada Science and Technology Museum):
What type of scientific artifacts do you wish you were able to study that are not represented, or very poorly represented, in early modern instrument collections?
JB: We all know of famous things that are lost, for example the Dondi “astrarium” or Tycho Brahe’s celestial globe. These examples are documented, and we regret their loss. But we can be sure that there were lots of very ordinary things alongside the fine scientific artefacts. The latter are well represented, even over-represented in our collections, while the more everyday devices were used, worn out in use, discarded, replaced, and certainly not collected or preserved.
We might say that in our world at least, museum collections are highly misleading. They do not show us what was used in the past, they show what was not used in the past. I’m exaggerating a bit to try to keep your attention, but there is a reasonable amount of truth in that.
Think about astrolabes. There are basically two types: the astronomer’s astrolabe and the mariner’s astrolabe.
Now, there are a few thousand examples of the astronomer’s astrolabe in the world, perhaps 100 of the mariner’s astrolabe. Not so long ago there were only 20, but that was before we started doing serious underwater archaeology. Generally, when you excavate a Spanish shipwreck of the sixteenth century, you find two or three of these things. So they’re perfectly common; they’re so common that you don’t collect them. They get preserved by being lost at sea. Otherwise they just got melted down and the brass made into something else. No one in the past would have thought of keeping them. Whereas the astronomer’s astrolabe illustrated here actually belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. This is the kind of thing that was collected from the moment it was made. So we have a very skewed view of the past in instrumentation, when it comes to populations. And that’s where we need more representative kinds of instruments in practice.
We have some numbers for another navigational instrument from around the same period, the cross-staff, made of wood. So whereas a mariner’s astrolabe could at least be preserved, sort of, by being lost at sea, that could not happen to a cross-staff. We happen to know that one firm, van Keulen of Amsterdam, supplied one customer, the Dutch East India Company, with 1,148 cross-staves between 1731 and 1748: one maker, one corporate customer, 17 years. The total number of surviving historic cross-staves from all makers for all periods is now fewer than 100. So the attrition rate is just extraordinary. On the other hand, there is something like the great armillary sphere by Antonio Santucci in the Museo Galileo in Florence. Wonderful survival, recently restored, fantastic thing. And there is one other example, a bit smaller, made by Santucci for Philip II, in El Escorial, near Madrid. We think there were only 2, but that’s a 100 percent survival rate.
Think also of the variety of fine artillery instruments. These were supposed to be used in battle but they lived in the cabinet of the duke, or the prince. Think about how few of them look fit for use in battle.
So, the answer to the question of what type of scientific instrument is wanted but poorly represented would be the simple ones, the ordinary ones, the ones people actually used.
Archaeology can help. There was a large collection of instruments used for teaching experimental philosophy at Oxford in the eighteenth century, kept in what is now the entrance gallery of the museum. The University disposed of the instruments in the nineteenth century, while material deemed worthless, inconvenient or embarrassing (including an anatomical display of human skeletons) was dumped at the back and buried. This came to light in the redevelopment of the building around 2000, and we found lots of chemical crucibles from the 17th and 18th centuries. Extraordinary stuff that survived by being dumped.
I wanted to end with a couple of interesting instances of where things might have survived and might yet be found. Take for example this genre painting from 1855 by Eduard Ender, a Viennese artist.
Some of you will know of his more famous painting of Alexander von Humboldt in South America, similarly festooned with instruments—that was what Ender did. He painted this one depicting Tycho Brahe demonstrating an instrument to Emperor Rudolph II in Prague. The instruments in the Tycho painting must have been modelled on objects surviving and available in 1855—they must have been, Ender couldn’t have made them up—and some are known even today. But we do not know anything about the main sphere that Tycho is demonstrating. Now, it is known that Rudolph had a particularly fabulous mechanical globe by Joost Bürgi, now lost, which displayed the motions of the planets as well as the celestial sphere. Could this be it? The sphere might well survive somewhere, and it would be lovely to find it.
Do I have time for one last story, just to keep your attention? This one is about a Borda circle, a totally French instrument made by Jecker in Paris. The mid 19th-century Victorian astronomer Sir James South wanted to have one of these and bought one while in Paris. But he did not want to pay the import duty on it, so he got Jecker’s workshop to engrave “Troughton London” on the scale, and brought it home with him without paying duty. Somehow word got out, not that South was one to mind—he had shown it to Troughton, who was impressed by the signature. There was a bit of a scandal at the Royal Society and it was all gleefully reported in the Mechanics’ Magazine. So, somewhere there may be a Jecker Borda circle signed “Troughton London.” Seeing it won’t tell us much, but it would be a thrill to find that relic of the old rascal.
Anna Toledano (PhD candidate, Stanford University & museum educator, Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA):
As a historian of science eager to also continue my work as a museum professional, I want to ask how you navigated keeping one foot in the academic world and the other in the museum world. What advice would you give to an early career scholar on how to maintain both of those parts of your career in a robust and fulfilling way?
JB: I’m delighted to hear that—brilliant! You are absolutely right and you are definitely needed. Don’t let on to everyone, or they’ll all be wanting to do it, but it’s a brilliant and fulfilling combination of work—and never dull.
I’d like to help, but I didn’t have a plan. Because it’s not very usual as a career, I don’t think there is a career path. So I’ll have to offer tips or hints, not a life plan, I’m afraid. I just kept finding ways to do what I wanted to do—along, of course, with all the boring, routine admin stuff, but still, you have to be prepared to do that. But things opened up and happened.
I spent nearly all my career working in museums, apart from a year at the start as a temporary university lecturer in the history of science and then two years as an archivist, setting up a working archive in London, to be managed thereafter by the resident librarian. That happened, and after that I went to the National Maritime Museum. I began to work in museums. And you might wonder how did that happen? This guy doesn’t sound like he’s got any museum qualifications and I’m afraid that was true. I had a PhD, the content of which had a fair amount of mechanical and material culture and instruments on account of its subject, Christopher Wren, for whom material culture was important on a large scale.
More particularly, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich was trying to take an academic turn by moving away from hiring seamen, particularly naval commanders for senior posts. They thought they would try young academics instead. So I happened to come along at the right time. These old naval commanders were very good by the way, but they weren’t qualified for museum work either, so it was fine. We were all learning on the job and my lack of qualification wasn’t particularly noticed.
So I was lucky, not just to have worked in two national museums—at the start at the National Maritime Museum and the Science Museum at the end—but in between and for the greater part of my career, in university museums of the history of science: in Cambridge at the Whipple and then in Oxford.
National and university museums are the places where it will be much easier to take up academic opportunities—publication in the first place, but later positions in scholarly organizations, and so on. Comparable curatorial posts exist in learned societies, but it would be difficult to follow such a pattern in municipal or other local authority museums.
I also think it’s easier to be based in a museum and to do academic things in addition—it’s easier than the other way round. If it’s a university museum, you can expect encouragement to publish and time and hopefully freedom for research. Of course you have to do collections and exhibition work but you can probably align that to some extent with research and publication. You will probably find opportunities for teaching within the museum, depending on the local departmental and course structures. Publication is still approved of in national museums. Opportunities for teaching may not come so easily but you can look out for them. You’ve got to go out and find them—forge relationships with local university departments, teach extramural classes (I’ve done that as well) and so on. There are things out there if you think about it.
Having a museum experience to offer to the students is a great advantage, which must be cashed in, because departments should see the attraction of being able to offer students visits—not just gallery visits, but privileged, “behind the scenes” visits—which can lead to other things like work experience placements, volunteering time—which will be needed for admission to museum studies graduate courses—final-year projects… you’ve got a lot to offer a university.
If it were the other way round, that is, if you are a mainstream academic moonlighting in the museum world, there are possibilities, such as joint supervision of graduate students, or being a guest curator of an exhibition, but I don’t think it’s as easy. It’s not such a natural transition. Trying to be a guest curator, you are dependent on the collections staff in the Museum. Your ideas can’t grow so organically and freely from your own knowledge of the collection. And the staff control your access and they have their own work to do. It can work with the right person—we did it with some artists, for example, at Oxford—and oddly enough, it worked better, because of the significant disciplinary distance between the collaborators. If you are too close, you can clash with each other’s plans and ideas.
What other tips? I’d say it helps you to build your connections with mainstream academia if you choose a research topic or character straddling these worlds—the mechanical, material and instrumental world, and the conceptual. And who has, even better, interesting things to say about the relationships involved. That will make you relevant to both sides. In my case an abiding interest in Robert Hooke, did exactly that. It was very useful as was my interest in Christopher Wren. William Herschel was another nice example.
That kind of mediating agenda means that you become relevant to a symposium they are putting on, or as the “instrument person” in an essay collection or edited volume. I got into a few very nice volumes about Robert Hooke for instance, by writing the instrument chapter.
I’d also say don’t be shy about accepting a broader range of interests than a mainstream academic—your museum work will almost certainly require that, so let it inform your research and publication on the material culture aspects of topics. My experience is that we can get away with greater flexibility, can transgress more boundaries, because, I suppose, there are continuing strands running through them in the parallel tale of practical skill and manufacturing tradition.
Finally, going back to being welcomed in mainstream academia, I want to end with a recent example of a project on which I collaborated with the historian of science Michael Hunter. He was writing a book whose subject was a single well-known image—a single engraved print, used as the frontispiece in a number of copies of Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society of 1667.
There are lots of instruments in the background of the picture and he needed help with identifying them. I found that I could identify most of them and that there was actually quite a lot to say about them. My part of the book just grew and grew and in the end became a whole chapter which occupied one third of the entire text. Michael was very generous and put me on the title-page. And that was just because the opportunity came, and I grabbed it.
This print has been very well known and a thoroughly worked-on topic but nobody had actually bothered to look at all these instruments and identify them. Doing that, asking questions about when they could have been available to Wenceslas Hollar the engraver and so on, told us a lot about the print and its manufacturer and its purpose, and the self-presentation of the Royal Society. So that was a lovely example of Michael and I getting together and sharing our skills and producing something which neither of us could have done on our own.
Tim Boon (Head of research and public history, The Science Museum, London):
I wanted to ask about your exhibition practice because first at the Whipple and at the Oxford Museum, temporary exhibitions were a notable aspect of your curatorial practice. Very often these exhibits departed markedly from both the museums’ and your own recognized areas of expertise. Could you tell us a little about what you see as the role of temporary shows in the cultural economies of science museums, and perhaps speculate on some that you’d like to see created?
JB: Thank you, I’m glad you noticed that. I did give prominence to temporary exhibitions. It wasn’t something the Whipple had done before, so there was no tradition there to build on and my experience at the National Maritime Museum wasn’t very relevant. As you know very well, a temporary or special exhibition in a national museum is an expensive and prolonged undertaking, involving layers of management and specialist teams that are just not available in a small museum. One initiating influence of the program at the Whipple, which probably isn’t known, was the coming of Olivia Brown to the staff. Unusually for my museum colleagues, Olivia actually had a good museum qualification. She came from a background in more general museums, hired to provide regular displays in the new Clinical School in Cambridge, but with time to spare for the Whipple. She showed me the kind of thing that would be possible in the Whipple’s physical and financial setting, and we were able to separate off a gallery for temporary exhibitions.
In the context of short planning times, no need to refer up to management, no parallel interests to square in other departments of a large museum (conservation, design, education, interpretation, press, fabrication services, and so on)—and given the setting of a university department, a special exhibition could be seen as the museum equivalent of a journal article, or sometimes even a small monograph. It could be that kind of creative product adapted to a gallery presentation. It could open up a topic in its material dimension, or could tackle a particular question across subjects.
At the Whipple, I’m thinking of exhibitions such as “Science at the Great Exhibition” in 1983, or “Science and Profit in 18th-Century London” in 1985. What was lacking in financial and material resources was more than compensated for, given the “cultural economy” you referred to, in intellectual resources that were generously shared. The publication for the 18th-century exhibition, for example, in spite of its modest production values, was partly written by Roy Porter and Simon Schaffer. The exhibition was about seeing the development of experimental philosophy in its commercial setting, particularly in London. A more focused exhibition in 1986, “Le Citoyen Lenoir,” presented the maker Etienne Lenoir, probably not very well known to historians of science outside France and a key player, with others, in the revival of French instrument production within the context of the Revolutionary reforms. As well as producing an exhibition catalogue, we were able to publish a monograph on Lenoir by Anthony Turner. Simon’s involvement—bringing with him a team of collaborators—was also central to two ambitious later exhibitions; both in two galleries, “Empires of Physics” in 1993 and “1900: The New Age” in 1994, and both with strong historiographical agendas. So, you get the general idea of the nature of the Whipple exhibitions, which were probably only possible in the context of a university department.
In Oxford there wasn’t a department. But the museum was larger and more public, and a redevelopment of the building included a dedicated special exhibition gallery, allowing two exhibitions per year. The setting was different, so the exhibition culture was different. We had more control over the space and over access to the building, so could be bolder and more ambitious in what we could put on—topics, mixing art and science, for example, with the Steampunk exhibition, and the Blackboards exhibition and one about micrographs, i.e. micrographic images rather than microbiological content. We could also have a much more ambitious program of associated events for the general public and for schools, and these were often shaped by the exhibitions.
Such exhibitions could be controversial in a way, because they weren’t sufficiently science-based or were focused on aspects of science that some people thought were superficial. Perhaps the scientists who came didn’t want to see this kind of aesthetic veneer of science that the steampunk enthusiasts were keen on. But of course we wanted to see what it was about that movement that created this sort of quasi-scientific enthusiasm. By the way, the steampunk exhibition turned out to be easily our most popular, by miles. We couldn’t keep people out—it was extraordinary. They would come dressed up in their steampunk gear and many people came just as much to see them as the content!
But to return to your question about the role of temporary shows. Yes, there had to be variety, so a willingness to go beyond the obvious subjects for the collection or for me. I know I’m stating the obvious but we needed to give different people reasons to come, and then for them to come back. Also the program of events was to a fair extent driven by the exhibitions and that had to have variety and regular renewal. One other benefit of temporary exhibitions to the cultural economy of the museum is to acquisitions. This mainly applies only where there is a decent acquisition budget, which there was at the Whipple, thanks to bequests from Robert Whipple. A succession of exhibitions, at the planning stages, was really valuable in shaping and informing acquisitions policy, and keeping it moving along, instead of getting trapped by the preferences and the developing connoisseurship of the curator. I think the Whipple’s collection really did benefit from this driver.
Finally, you invited me to speculate on exhibitions I would like to see. Unfortunately, perhaps instructively, I’m going to duck that part of the question. I have tried to think about it, but I haven’t come up with any ideas that I am convinced by or excited by myself. I was worried about this and went to my CV and counted 35 exhibition titles there, where I played a leading role. I’m sure they weren’t all brilliant but I wasn’t short of ideas. So why can’t I come up with a couple more? Two explanations come to mind. One is that I’m declining into old age. Er, what’s the other explanation? I’ve been retired for 6 years or so. Decent ideas for exhibitions emerge by working in a museum, in discussions with your colleagues there, and in particular from working with collections. So, I like to think that’s the problem. On the one hand, experience makes you critical, teaches you what will work as an exhibition, but on the other, without the creative environment of a museum, you can’t think of any that satisfy that developed critical judgment—well at least, I can’t.
Jean-François Gauvin (Associate Professor, History of Science, Laval University, Quebec City):
My question has to do with some of my own struggles. What social, ethical, and cultural role do science museums have in today’s world? Should they limit themselves to providing a general scientific education or should they actively engage in current critical and controversial issues, such as diversity, race, and gender in the sciences? How can science museums embrace a broader—I would like to say a more generous—notion of what is science?
JB: That nexus of social, ethical and cultural that you have brought together in the question is a complex entity in any museum activity. The museum will have its own relevant ethic—commitments to truthfulness, openness, fairness, diversity and so on, but also its cultural mission—in the case of the exhibition work that we have just been considering, a commitment to give the visitor the best cultural and educational experience it can muster, from a professional dedication to creativity, as well as expertise. The material being exhibited and the stories it tells will entail different, perhaps alien, social, ethical and cultural issues, which need to be acknowledged and explained—in accordance with the museum’s ethic of truthfulness and openness. The visitors bring their own sets of expectations and values, which the museum’s ethic will expect the curator to respect. On top of all this, you may well be obliged to follow the policies of university vice-chancellors or pro-vice-chancellors, or ministers of culture, ministers of science, or whoever is ultimately in charge of policy-making for your institution. They may have no interest in whether you follow your instincts as a creative curator, so long as you present their current concerns. Don’t worry, in spite of all this, curators make great exhibitions and visitors enjoy them, but it is complicated from an ethical point of view.
I like your suggestion that we embrace a broader, more generous notion of what is science. When you suggest that museums should not be limited to providing a general scientific education, I’m inclined to go further and say that they should avoid providing that. That should be already provided in traditional and formal educational settings—schools and colleges. When you go to a museum, you should be offered a different appreciation of science, based on some encounter between science and the general culture.
It’s true that some understanding of technical aspects of the relevant science can be necessary for an appreciation of other cultural dimensions and so will probably be gained through the museum experience. But it still seems to me that having “general scientific education” as the primary aim is a waste of the potential for the, as you say, broader view of science that a museum can offer, while other institutions will make a better job of regular science education.
You suggest that, instead of providing a general scientific education, science museums might actively engage in current critical and controversial issues. I think that will work best if it is achieved through the broader cultural scope, which is the museum’s natural province.
If you adopt your more generous notion of what is science, forms of controversy will follow. For example, I’m thinking of the blackboards exhibition in Oxford, marking Einstein 1905 and referencing in particular the famous Einstein blackboard, there was political content from Tony Benn on challenging the powerful, Glenda Jackson on feminism and suffrage, and John Snow on climate change 15 years ago. These exhibits sat alongside science from Martin Rees and Bob May, radical experimental art from Cornelia Parker and Richard Wentworth, music from Brian Eno and Joanna MacGregor. And how could England’s corner kick strategy in the 1990 World Cup, explained by their manager Bobbie Robson, be anything but deeply controversial?
So I think it is more effective when controversy arises from within a good exhibition, rather than molding the exhibition round a university or government policy. The public surely engage more warmly with discovering issues for themselves in an exhibition. “Science in American Life” in the Museum of American History was the classic example we always took as a case-study in the museum-based course in Oxford. Adopting your “more generous notion of science” will generate some, much less spectacular, controversy, because visitors may want to have their expectations fulfilled: the Steampunk exhibition was not “real science,” micrographs should not be presented merely as images and transferred to wallpaper and curtains, and so on.
I can’t claim to have engaged very directly with the issues you mention in my exhibitions, though some of them have been treated in the accompanying programs. One relatively small instance was “Astrolabes of Africa” in 2005, built around ten astrolabes—which is quite a strong showing for these very special objects—from Egypt and the Maghreb, dating from the 13th to the 19th century. These would normally be referred to as “Islamic.” It was an easy but somehow telling shift for once, not to classify them by religion but by geography and ethnicity and people were struck by that.
Thinking back to the Whipple, one gallery in “The New Age” exhibition was an active anthropometrical laboratory, an imaginative recreation of the “Salle Bertillon” contained within the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900. I should mention the great team we had of Bob Brain, Richard Staley, Otto Sibum and Simon Schaffer. Visitors participated by taking a personal record card to different stations where records were added of the results of a range of tests and measurements—height, weight, strength, head shape and measurements, photograph, eye color, reaction times, and so on. Their record was added to a census and posted on to them with an overall report. This activity was meant to be experienced as a sinister exercise in classifying people. In practice visitors seemed to be enjoying themselves far too much doing all the tests. One rather chilling revelation to the in-character attendants, in their white coats, was how compliant visitors could be. There was an X-ray booth, which of course was always out of order on the day and record cards were stamped accordingly. Some visitors asked whether it might be working if they called in tomorrow!
The most profound and moving occasions in the museum life, for visitors and staff, are surely moments of personal engagement, nothing to do with policy. I want to end with two of mine, one where I think the exhibition gave something special to a visitor, the other where a visitor’s reaction was powerful for me. In Oxford we had special themed Saturdays of events—10/10 days they were called from their 12-hour duration—often programmed around special exhibitions, with talks, music, activities, films, theatre, and so on. The theme on this occasion was “work” and one feature was a digital jukebox, in the entrance gallery, where visitors could select from a list of tunes that were all about work. I noticed a white male, late middle age, who turned out to be a visiting American. He had selected Paul Robeson singing “Joe Hill,” a song I don’t need to tell you about workers’ rights, brutality, and racism—at least it was about racism when Robeson sang it. The visitor had moved a bit away from the jukebox and was looking into a showcase, but I could see that he was only pretending to look—he was really listening intently to the song. He listened to the end and I said something like, “Wasn’t that terrific?” And he was obviously moved and he said “Yes, you know, I’ve never heard that before.” I thought that was a simple but special thing, that he had come to the museum and found this moving experience from his own world at home.
And finally, I offer one other example from the Whipple in Cambridge, in the “New Age” exhibition. We took the print of each visitor’s thumb and index finger. The Cambridge police had kindly trained the attendants and lent us the kit—copper plate, ink roller, and so on. I was helping an elderly Dutch man, showing him how to roll his finger over the card. As he did so, he said, “You know the last time I had to do this was during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.” My turn to be affected by a personal encounter in the museum.
Concluding Remarks by Robert Bud (Emeritus Keeper, Science Museum, London):
Jim and I have been colleagues for more decades than either of us wants to remember, and I wanted to use the short time I have to put his career in context. We have structured this conversation in terms of objects, profession and exhibits. To make sense of what he has been talking about and to highlight his achievement in integrating these themes, I want to refer to what he called an “old battle.”
In an article written a quarter of a century ago published in 1995 while still at Cambridge, Jim posed the question: “Can science museums take history seriously?” There he reflected not only on the hugely widening scope of the historiography of science, but also on the contemporary reduction at that time, by museums in their displays of instruments. The article was written at a time when there was on one hand the new museology and on the other, the great attack and challenge to the role of objects in museums entirely. In Britain in 1990 a major conference at the Royal Society of Arts was described by the Science Museum director Neil Cossons as a “show-trial.” The leading museology professor in Britain, Eileen Hooper-Greenhill argued that museums were being transformed from static storehouses to learning environments. And the case had to be made that historical object-based museums could do that.
Well, at Oxford Jim demonstrated success. He urged us to be creative in the stories we tell about instruments as they applied to those attacks. In his article he referred to two of his exhibits at Cambridge’s Whipple Museum, which he also mentioned today. The first was “Empires of Physics,” where he dealt with science as it was practiced in private and as it was presented in public during the late nineteenth century. This Rashomon-like approach—two very different views on the same era—was both intriguing and radical, and showed the power of narrative combined with objects. It was a demonstration of artistry, where the curator was in a proper sense an artist. The other great exhibit was “1900: The New Age,” which dealt with scientism in the 1900s, exemplified in the Great Exhibition in Paris, and the “Salle Bertillon” with the visitors themselves being measured.
Many of Jim’s articles reflected the challenge of the time in the world to present objects as educational. And this Sarton Award seems to me to celebrate the success of his response to the debates of the 1990s. In sum, through his career Jim has shown how we can transcend the dichotomies that once seemed so daunting. And we have to thank him for that.