How science museums can use their power


Curious Devices and Mighty Machines: Explore Science Museums Samuel JMM Alberti. Reaction (2022)

Yes, the Apple iPhone changed the world. Yes, it belongs to a museum. So, of the 38 models produced to date, and billions of handsets sold, which one should you keep? How do curators choose? And what does the choice of them, their museums, their nations and science say?

Samuel Alberti, director of collections at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, says that while most science museums today strive to be neutral, their decisions about collections are still political, reflecting worldviews, priorities social and funding sources.

In Curious devices and powerful machines, he digs into this paradox and other paradoxes of Western collecting. Museums should remain fun and accessible, while representing complex concepts. To engage the audience, they need to tell the story while being contemporary and relevant. They can only store, maintain and display a limited number of objects, but must use them to represent a large-scale scientific achievement.

Alberti travels across Europe and North America, visiting institutions positioned as science museums (rather than natural history museums) and talking with curators. Through the lens of a few dozen artifacts taken from collections of tens or hundreds of thousands, he explores the history of museums, the process of collecting, storing and preserving, planning and setting up exhibition scene, and how museums interact with users and the general public. Public. Freeze-Dried Transgenic Mice Lead to Ethics and Intellectual Property Discussion; the control panel of a particle accelerator, still covered with post-its and the remains of pens, opens a window on the very human nature of scientific activities. It evokes the number of institutions today struggling with their difficult past.

Engage the audience

Western science museums got off to a slow start in the cabinets of curiosities of 16th-century Europe, accessible only to the wealthy and well-connected: Cosimo I de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, kept a collection of mathematical instruments in his palace. A more democratic approach dates back to the French Revolution. In 1794, the Catholic bishop and defender of equality Henri Grégoire founded the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Paris. Open to all, it was supposed to show the revolutionary progress to the workers with its “models, tools, drawings, descriptions and books”. But it was another upheaval that triggered the greatest boom in science museums: the industrial revolution.

A visitor interacts with the "Windows" exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratorium, in its new location at The Piers.

Interactive exhibits, like this one on sediment movement at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, California, let visitors play with ideas.Credit: Matthew Millman/New York Times/Redux/eyevine

As 19th century governments and philanthropists relied on the vast financial rewards that could be gleaned from science and engineering revenues, institutions dedicated to science education sprang up across the wealthy world. Most were (and are) more concerned with the tangible machinery of industry – think steam engines and model ships – than with the intricacies of basic research. In the middle of the 20th century (with breaks during a few world wars), they strove to present the future and boast of national achievements.

But progress is moving fast. Without constant acquisition, shiny machines quickly slip from tip to curiosity. Science museums have become museums of the history of science renowned for their heaviness – showcases for sextants and astrolabes. In the 1960s, fashion shifted to “science centers”, where visitors could learn through hands-on experiences rather than case-bound artifacts, notably at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, in California. Today, science museums strive to integrate history into public learning and engagement.

Over the past few decades, curators have had to grapple with how to collect and display digital media. The video game Grand Theft Auto has cultural significance, but the disc it appears on doesn’t do much like an exposition — it sounds “taxidermized,” writes Alberti. And logistical problems can thwart attempts to revive such software. Museums need the hardware to play the disc and the means to convert its contents to other formats when the original becomes obsolete. They might need a manual; some even print the underlying code.

build bridges

Alberti’s thoughts on the delicate calculus of conservation are down-to-earth and fascinating. “The savvy scientific curator,” he admits, mindful of storage, cost and longevity, focuses on collecting “material old enough to be obsolete but not old enough to be collectable.” However, some vignettes are too niche: it’s exciting to learn that objects can contain explosive gases, but what brand of glue do restorers prefer?

It evokes the way in which certain museums accept and try to repair the evil that they have done in the past. Coming of age in the “payday of empire”, many served the colonial mindset, uncritically advocating for the technological and moral superiority of the West. They appropriated objects from colonized regions and, through their displays, “were complicit in the construction of the physical and cultural hierarchies that underpinned racist thought” until at least the beginning of the 20th century.

The typewriter Mignon 3 indexes with type on a white sheet of paper in the platen inserted in the carriage of the typewriter.

An early typewriter in the collections of the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh.Credit: National Museums of Scotland

Some are now seeking to shed light on this past. The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, UK, for example, explored the links between slavery and the city’s historic cotton trade in its 2018 Textiles Respun project. The Science Museum of Minnesota’s ongoing exhibit at St Paul’s RACE: Are We So Different? invites conversations about the biological and social realities – and unrealities – of human variation. But Alberti’s discussion of attempts to improve diversity and inclusion in exhibitions, collections and staff is frustrating.

He notes that museums “are more trustworthy than most other media” – their expertise is generally respected and seen as credible. This allows them to campaign for specific causes, from anti-colonialism to mitigating climate change and dispelling misinformation. In Alberti’s eyes, outspoken activism risks threatening or alienating those in rival camps. Rather, he pleads for advocacy: strengthening scientific culture and inviting debate.

Museums, he writes, can help people make better decisions by “igniting curiosity and offering tools for discernment.” Never neutral, they must not pretend to be. Instead, they should use their power to build bridges.


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