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Are science museums and science centers taming the thrill of science by imposing their museological agendas?

Posted Mar 19 2010 6:53am

Measured by the number of incoming emails and RSS-feeds, the big news in the science museum world today is a critical article by Edward Rothstein (”The Thrill of Science, Tamed by Agendas”) in the Arts Special section of yesterday’s New York Times.

A century ago, Rothstein points out, 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.”

Rothstein loves the old collection-oriented museums (so do I, and so do my emailing and RSS-feeding friends and colleagues). One of his favourites is the partly dispersed collection of Henry Wellcome, which 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”.

“You look at such collections”, writes Rothstein, ”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But over the last two generations, the scientific objects have largely been replaced by politics, educational aims and curatorial experimental ambitions: “the science museum has become a place where politics, history and sociology often crowd out physics and the hard sciences. There are museums that believe their mission is to inspire political action, and others that seek to inspire nascent scientists”. Museums have become agenda-driven.

Although I disagree with Rothstein’s lumping together of science museums and science centers (in my view these have very little in common), I believe he has a point. All of this museological experimentation may, says Rothstein, “be a sign of the science museum’s struggle to define itself”.

But defining itself to what identity? Rothstein is looking forward to some unforseeable “brilliant transformations of the science museum model” — hoping that “today’s rampant experimentation with exhibition styles might eventually yield a new model as yet unimagined”.

Not entirely unforeseeable though. Rothstein places some hope with exhibitions like those in Boston’s Museum of Science , for example a “remarkable 19th-century collection of finely wrought glass models of sea creatures” which becomes part of an exhibition about modeling “and its importance to the pursuit of play, fashion and science”.

In another BMoS-exhibition, “the museum’s animal specimens are joined with a mineral collection, vintage dioramas and other artifacts to explore the nature of collecting and categorizing”; a third example is the revamped 1961 exhibit “Mathematica” (created by Charles and Ray Eames); its ”exploration of abstraction was inspiring to a young boy who saw it long ago; it remains a touchstone”.

All three exhibitions “explain important concepts about how science is done while displaying extraordinary objects and spurring new ways of seeing — all without pressing viewers into a particular program”.

I fully understand Rothstein’s wish to get the thrill of science back in the museum (whether museum or science centre). He is waiting for Jesus the Curator to come to the Museum Temple Place and throw all the paraphernalia and extravaganzas out, and restore the simple virtues of a science museum: science, objects and principles.

Well, to me that sounds like an agenda — another one than the prevailing populist agenda indeed, but it is still an agenda. I don’t think you can avoid agendas by letting the science and the objects somehow speak for themselves. The question is rather what kind of agenda you want.

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