Sunday, December 01, 2019

A Vision for the History of Science Museum

Apart from two years in Doha, I’ve been working at the History of Science Museum in Oxford since 2009.  With the prospect of its centenary in 2024,  I have been nurturing some thoughts about what it might become.  They’re just my personal views, not necessarily those of the Museum or the University.  (To put this in perspective, my job title is Digital Projects Officer - I'm not a board member, senior manager, curator or collections specialist.)

One of the main challenges is to properly accommodate such a wide range of scientific instruments, whose breadth should be readily apparent in the collection areas.   I favour larger premises and a few years ago pondered the conversion of the Osney Power Station, whose generous space and impressive architecture seemed to offer stunning possibilities - of bringing together the history of science, the latest developments in science and innovation, and community engagement, apprenticeships and so on.  Furthermore, the building itself had played an important role as the Southwell Laboratory, used by the Department of Engineering Science.  It even had a wind tunnel.  However, with the future of that building now determined, how might we accommodate such elements in the existing Grade I listed building on Broad Street?


Currently, many museums are working on themes, inspired by the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, which was elected European Museum of the Year 2019.   Our collections are as broad, but our space is less, so we need fewer themes whose titles are more abstract, which we might call 'meta themes'.   Abstract terminology, if meaningful and used well, can be immediately intriguing and prompt interest and enquiry, as with notions of architecture at the University Museum, Tokyo.

Accordingly, I would like to propose three new themes, though most of my deliberations have been only on the first:

  1. 'History in the Making':  the main thrust of this is to keep in touch with current research and development, especially across the University's science departments.  Imagine a circulatory system continually supplying information on the latest research, coming together at the Museum, and being distilled for public consumption, assisted by AI, and then feeding responses back to the respective departments.   It was Rupesh Srivastava at NQIT whom I first heard use this phrase, when he suggested bringing into focus current research, whose discoveries are already entering history books - in his case relating to quantum computing.

    The title is open to many interpretations, allowing us to use any number of scholarly methods, such as Philosophy of Science, to analyse the conditions and processes that support ingenuity and innovation.  Also 'making' is a very relevant word because we are a museum of scientific instruments, all of which have makers and a process of production, along with various other provenance.  It should appeal especially to loyal members of the Rete mailing list.

    This theme will also be great for launch day as it will itself mark history in the making.  It should also be chosen on a date of astronomical significance.  How about Wednesday 20 March 2024, the spring equinox, an expression of being in balance?

    Location: the entrance to the Museum, currently the Entrance Gallery on the first floor, as it's the nearest contact to the outside world.  Many metaphors apply such as 'keeping in touch’, encountering the surface and then as you move into the building, you go back in time and deeper into the foundations of the subject matter.  It would sit well with the shop, which is usually near the entrance, offering a bright welcome and a fond farewell.   (In the process of thinking afresh, we can also become more mindful of why things are laid out the way they are.)
  2. 'Voyages of Discovery: Inner and Outer Worlds': Again, laden with multiple meanings, this covers scientific 'voyages' as in theories, methods, experiments, etc., and the physical voyages that used these instruments.  'Inner and outer' allows equipment to range from microscopes to telescopes.  Going beyond equipment, there are more symbolic meanings concerned with other kinds of investigations, such as what it means to be human and the nature of ‘science’ across history and cultures (the inner voyage into mind, soul, etc.).

    In this connection, we may explore the popular theme of science and religion.  Established religions are already being engaged in dialogue through the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, but many people regard themselves as spiritual and do not relate to organised religion.  They may be interested in psychic phenomena, angels, telepathy, near-death experiences, and so on.  The Museum does have some relevant objects, so I feel there is a need to learn from another organisation, whose roots lie in the work of Sir Alister Hardy, who had a distinguished career as a marine biologist.  However, he also had a deep interest in spiritual phenomena, establishing the Religious Experience Research Unit, which built up a database of reports from individuals who had these kinds of experiences.  It's now the Alister Hardy Trust and Religious Experience Research Centre, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

    In a short biography of Sir Alister for issue 67 of De Numine, its journal, Ben Korgen writes that after his retirement that:

    If Hardy had been less well known, his colleagues might have brushed this off as just another hobby or as a topic for casual conversation.  Hardy was different.  He was a world renowned scientist, he had been knighted, and as the Linacre Professor of Zoology at Oxford, had become an influential spokesman for the life sciences.”

    Coincidentally, the Director of the Museum is a Fellow of Linacre College.  Why not develop the Linacre connection further?

    Location: Basement Gallery, the bowels of the museum - plumbing the innermost depths!
  3. 'Knowledge as Art': Aesthetics, works of beauty using precise methods, fine materials, embellished, with reverence to the divine.  A bridge to science and art.  This theme may be developed with special attention to the physical-digital spaces.

    Location: Top Gallery, the lightest and airiest space, as befits celestial aspirations.
  4. Experimental zone’: a fundamentally immersive digital environment in which to explore our digital collections or recreate scientific experiments, incorporating enhanced 3D and kinaesthetic experiences.  Not a core theme, it serves to support the others individually and as a whole.

    Location: Beeson Room


For the themes to be well-grounded, an audit of the collections is needed to ascertain relative strengths and weaknesses – there may be some surprises!

Consistent with our primary responsibility of preservation, once we’ve come up with a set of themes, we may test their coverage by seeing if it accommodates each of our past exhibitions and displays.

Development of the Themes

Themes must also be sustainable - not only financially, but also in terms of being properly embedded in the University's wider functioning. So the science departments should be involved, especially in co-creating 'History in the Making'.  Taking the cue from the Boerhaave, Museum staff can visit each department and invite their views on what they'd like to see at the Museum, how they may be assisted in reaching various audiences, the kinds of programmes that might be done together.

Having conversed with the science departments, other subject disciplines can be brought in, shaped overall by the discipline of 'history of science' and the set of values (to be agreed) - I'm certainly not a specialist in this field!   To help with manageability, a special project could be set up to devise new kinds of processes, working towards a kind of evolutionary cycle such that any new initiative will be seamlessly incorporated with supporting materials, ready for further analysis so as to enhance our existing state of understanding.

Whatever the vision and themes to realize that vision, their fulfilment will need clarity and considerable synergy.  It is in many ways an architectural challenge of the mind, where the designs are to support an intellectual apparatus where the development of scientific knowledge is treated as a whole, operating in a continuum across the full spectrum of human history.