Museums are about collections. It is this that distinguishes them from all other places of learning and scholarship, research, education, enlightenment and entertainment. And it is collections that separate science museums from sciences centres and exploratoria.Sir Neil Cossons, former Director of the Science Museum
For well over a decade now, the Science Museum has signalled, to its own staff and the outside world, real ambivalence about its collections and scholarship that would seem truly bizarre to any art-historical based museum.Ian Blatchford, Director, Science Museum Group
The collection: either the jewel in our crown; or, the albatross around our neck? I passionately believe the former. Too often, however, and despite our misgivings, we science museum professionals convince ourselves of the latter. And, in order to support this conviction, we take refuge in a number of very plausible but too convenient fallacies. These fallacies can all too easily assume the guise of incontrovertible truths.
Science, unlike art, archaeology or social history, cannot speak for itself. Science is too conceptual, too difficult, too alien, to be accessible to the general visitor.
Scientific objects are too strange, too weird, too complicated or just too plain boring to be engaging for anyone other than the specialist or committed researcher.
The challenge of being all things to all people is just too great. Science communication and more formal histories of science and technology can never coalesce.
Once past the 19th Century, the tyranny of the grey box achieves ascendency and all those pieces of laboratory equipment become either mundane or completely incomprehensible.
And, to make matters worse, in this digital age and when dealing with a truly collaborative and international endeavour, no one knows anymore what to collect.
The solution: while collections of historic objects have been moth-balled in state-of-the-art closed or open access storage facilities, or, when making it onto the floor, assumed the role of bit-players in the larger drama, innovative (and sometimes not too innovative) interactive displays have taken over the galleries.
There is truth here; but it isn’t, of course, the whole truth.
There is another way. One in which many of us believe and practice. One in which objects and interactive displays, which encourage the visitor to go beyond merely physical activity, have real meaning and exist in a symbiotic relationship delivering a greater whole, communicating complex concepts and the outcomes of real object focussed scholarship.
Credit: Science Museum - Tim Hawkins
Who am I?One of the Science Museum’s most popular galleries where objects and interactive displays exist in almost perfect harmony
Audience research reveals that visitors, even those to science museums, love objects and the stories they can tell. The most commonplace of grey boxes becomes important by association. Once the visitor understands why an object is important enough to have made it into a gallery space, many of the barriers to meaningful engagement miraculously disappear. We need to rediscover our faith in our collections and their ability, with little more effort than that required of a painting by Titian or a Ming Dynasty ceramic, to speak eloquently to our visitors.
Credit: Science Museum – Tim Hawkins James Watt’s workshop, James Watt and our World, this historical gem has been brought to life through traditional display techniques and innovative digital media interpretation The choice should never be between the interactive display and the object. Both should feature prominently in our galleries, allowing our visitors to discover both the history and current state of human ingenuity and the science and the technology, just as much as the art, that has shaped us and the world in which we live. Let’s open up those store rooms and, working in real partnership with all of our audiences, both non-specialist and specialist, utilise all the tools at our disposal. Let’s get those objects back out on display. We do have the knowledge and the skills to do meaningfully
Science centre or science museum? Why should we have to choose? Any science museum, fortunate enough to possess a collection of significant and historic objects, quite simply has to be both.
Hadrian will be chairing the 'Innovative Services' seminar strand at OpenCulture 2012 on 26th June. OpenCulture takes place on the 26th and 27th June at the Kia Oval, London. For more information please visit www.collectionslink.org.uk/openculture2012, call 020 7942 6080 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hadrian is Head of Collections at the Science Museum. Find out more about Hadrian here.
written by Kate Phillips, May 29, 2012