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Biomedicine in museums

Seminar background text: "The impact of science on society since 1945: historiography and representation in a museum setting"

By January 23, 2006No Comments

Peter Morris har lige sendt følgende overblik over Louise Thorn’s PhD-project ved Science Museum/Imperial College — som forberedelse til Museion-seminaret tirsdag den 31. januar.

The impact of science on society since 1945: historiography and representation in a museum setting

Aims and objectives:
The aim of this project is to transfer the results of recent scholarship in the history of science and science studies to the general public by means of museum representation. This will be achieved by:

1. Undertaking a critical and comparative analysis of recent work on the impact of science on society within the fields of the history of science, history of applied science and technology, social studies of sciences and science policy studies.
2. Evaluating the effectiveness of various ways of presenting the history of modern science to general museum visitors using museum collections.
3. Developing new ways of presenting the impact of science on society through the medium of a museum display drawing on recent historiography and modern research on museum audiences and how they interact with museum displays.

Intellectual context of this research:
The problematic: attitudes to science amongst historians and the public. Although science has enjoyed an increasing influence on society since the late nineteenth century, its effect has been particularly marked since the Second World War, when scientists and engineers were mobilised on an unprecedented scale. Initially, in the 1930s, the impact of science on society was usually considered to be the intellectual impact of science on beliefs and in promoting more “rational” ways of doing things: industrial production, economic planning, social development and so forth. This trend was strongly present in literature and the media (including films), but was only reflected in museums in terms of the latest scientific developments.

Since the 1950s, the growing interest in the impact of modern technology on society – spurred by the Sputnik crisis, nuclear weapon tests and DDT – and the general acceptance of the “conveyor belt” model of the relationship between science and technology — led to a greater emphasis on the material impact of science in wartime developments, nuclear power, space flight, chemical production, and such like. These developments, as much technology as science, were popular with museums, who tended to portray them in a positive light.

By the 1990s, the conveyor belt model of science and technology had been largely abandoned by professional historians, who now thought of the relationship more in terms of the use of science by the state and the role of scientists as expert advisors. The end of unambiguous public approval of aspects of applied science in the post Second World War period can be seen as occurring around a series of emblematic events: the dropping of the atomic bomb; publication of A Silent Spring; resistance to Cold War technology, exemplified by the Vietnam war, the emergence of BSE, for example. Historians of science subjected the benefits of science, which had hitherto previously been taken largely for granted, to sharper examination, fuelled in part by growing concern about the implications of genetic engineering. At the same time, opinion polls indicated that, whatever their reaction to particular aspects of science, the vast majority of the general public continued to be still very positive about science in the abstract.

Museums have been slow to adapt to the changing historiography of the field, in part because staff have believed it to be difficult to illustrate these more complex treatments of the impact of science on society using objects, and in part because they did not recruit significant numbers of staff with historical training to work on exhibitions. A recent attempt by the National Museum of American History to present a more objective, even critical, treatment of the role of science in society was strongly censured by scientific societies, notably the American Institute of Physics, although it was well-received by many professional historians of science and scientists.

The Science Museum’s collections are dispersed between several sites, at stores in West London (Kensington Olympia) and in Wiltshire (Wroughton, near Swindon) as well as the main museum building in South Kensington. Since the late 1980s, the Science Museum has concentrated on collecting artefacts from the period after 1960. It has substantial collections, for example, in the areas of environmental monitoring, forensic science, meteorology, space science and nuclear physics (including nuclear power). Any (or indeed all) of these collections could be the focus of this research.

We propose that modern historiography of science has the potential to provide an informed and valuable interpretive resource for public exhibitions about science, especially post-2000 where there is a new premium on the employment of dialogue to enhance public engagement with science. The project methodology would have three major components:

1. The student would collate the literature on the impact of science on society, concentrating on the best post-1985 publications but also studying earlier work to form a picture of the development of current thinking in this field. This survey would require a good appreciation of the cross-disciplinary nature of this field, and an awareness of the different concerns and insights provided by the various approaches. This survey would be underpinned and extended by interviews with leading practitioners in the different disciplines.

2. This analysis, even as it is developed, would inform the student’s search in the Science Museum’s large collections for objects and related material (especially trade literature and other ephemera) that can illustrate – and contrast – the latest historiography. This search would be informed by the student’s interviews and discussions with the Science Museum’s curatorial staff to understand and explore how modern museum displays are developed within large museums.

3. It would then be the task of the student to use opinion polls and the Museum’s own audience research to develop ways of presenting the combined historiography and the related objects to an audience that is largely uninformed of this revisionist view of the role of science in society. As before, the student would have interviews and discussions with the staff of the Science Museum’s Learning Unit and other audience research specialists to gain a good understanding of the audience for this display and the best way of meeting its needs.

Thus, the student has to persuade historians of science of the validity of his/her analysis of the historiography of science, curators working on the Science Gallery of the appropriateness of the proposed display techniques for the objects selected and the Museum’s audience advocates that the subsequent presentation of these objects will meet the audience’s needs and win them over to a new, more sophisticated, view of the impact of science on society.

The concept of studying current scholarship in the history of science and applying it to a museum exhibition within a joint academic-museum collaborative framework is novel and will make a important contribution to our understanding of the social impact of modern science. As an major transfer of knowledge from academic scholarship to the museum sector, it will revolutionise the display of modern science in the Science Museum and demonstrate its impact on society to the public at large. It thus has the potential to transform how the public thinks about science and its impact on their own lives, often in unexpected and hitherto unexplored ways.

First Year: Literature survey of material on impact of science on society. Discussions and interviews with academic practitioners; initial discussions with staff of Collections Unit and Learning Unit at the Science Museum. Introduction to the Science Museum’s collections and induction into the Science Gallery content team. Study of similar galleries in other British and European museums. Audit of possible case studies on the basis of literature review.
Outcomes: a substantial report on the literature, of immediate benefit to the gallery team; summary of exploration of the Science Museum’s collections; report on visit to related galleries in other museums, again of benefit to the gallery team; summary of possible case-studies; initial findings presented to an informal seminar.

Second Year: Analysis of existing audience research carried out at Science Museum and elsewhere, and more generally, the literature of the Public Understanding of Science. Detailed study of Science Museum’s collections and interviews with staff of Collections Unit and Learning Unit at the Science Museum, supplemented by informal discussions within the gallery team. Development of more detailed proposals for the final display topic.
Outcomes: substantial report on the value of the Science Museum’s collections for presenting the impact of science on society to the public, of benefit to the science gallery and other future galleries; draft papers on possible case-studies; draft paper on the use of museum collections for the presentation of the historiography of history of science to lay audiences; these findings would be presented at a workshop or seminar.

Third Year: Development of the student’s display about the impact of science on society, by producing a series of story-boards, scripts, and informal prototype displays. Writing up of thesis. Final discussions with staff of Collections Unit and Learning Unit at the Science Museum. Creation of the final display.
Outcomes: a display which will be presented the public (the feedback from the public would be incorporated in the audience research for the science gallery), and to the examiners as part of the viva; the thesis which would include photographs of prototype displays and the final product; a workshop for academic historians, curators and audience research specialists on the findings of the project; academic papers based on this work; contribution to other publications (papers, book, web) associated with the gallery.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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