Paper presented at the ICOM International Conference in Barcelona on 2 July 2001.

Role of University Museums and Collections in Disseminating Scientific Culture

Pasquale Tucci


Philosophy which inspired the setting up of big institutions for conservation and arrangement of artistic and historical heritage (paintings, statues, bas-reliefs, frescoes, archaeological objects, scientific instruments, books, machines, manuscripts, botanical gardens, etc.) has changed very little since French Revolution. Historical heritage was disassembled: books in the libraries, manuscripts in the archives, objects, according to their characteristics, in the Museums. Very often these institutions were, and are again, hosted in buildings important from historical and architectonic point of view.

In art museums, in particular, communication between displayed material and public was very poor: little and unreadable captions were, often, the only bridge between museum and its public. Visitors have to feel the "beauty" of the object, nothing else being needed for its understanding. Of course the museum language is complex and written messages represent only one aspect of it: "evocation" and "emotion" play an important role in museum communication. But these feelings were stimulated in art museums by the single object: very rarely they were conveyed by the arrangement of the displayed material. As matter of fact, the most important innovations in our century dealing with museology and museography have taken place in scientific museums.

When I speak of scientific museums I refer to four kinds of institutions:

1) Collections at scientific research institutes assembled for conservation and displaying (Astronomical Observatories)
2) History of Science Museums (Oxford, Firenze, Harlem)
3) Science Museums (London, Munich, Milan)
4) Science Centres (San Francisco, Paris, Toronto).

Steven de Clercq has proposed a little different classification, but it is uninfluent in respect of the problems I want to deal with. We can speak about scientific museums of third generation starting from the beginning of twentieth century. In the XX century the main innovation was the possibility for visitors to interact with the displayed objects. In the Deutsches Museum the push-button technique was introduced: in a diorama the visitor, pushing a button, observes an automatic execution of an experiment or can follow the phases of manufacturing in an industrial plant. It was planned in reaction to the Renaissance Cabinet of curiosities and in reaction to Museums, heirs of the great International Exhibitions, which had the aim of demonstrating the beneficial influence of science and technology on the progress of society.

The designers of the Deutsches Museum wished to give to scientific artefacts the same cultural dignity of artistic artefacts. In order to achieve this goal people had to be educated to science and technology. A big didactic effort of communication of the meaning of the displayed objects was made and new techniques of displaying were planned.

The diorama was a very great invention for museums: it allows to stress the importance of the context against the "beauty" or the "rarity" of a single object. The fetishism of the object is replaced by its meaning inside a reconstructed environment.

Later on diorama techniques have been largely used in natural history museums and have replaced show-cases full of stuffed birds or of minerals. (This is not completely true for dinosaurs where the display of single animals is very common due, maybe, their unexpected "telegenic" success on the media.)

After the second world war new hands-on institutions have been established - Exploratorium, la Villette - where visitors can touch the objects and interact with them in order to carry out some easy scientific experiments or to perceive the main characteristics of some natural phenomena.

These institutions have not the aim of safeguarding historical objects but to teach science stimulating the visitor to do something.

The idea of learning-by-doing was inspired by a pedagocical attitude for making science more appealing, after the disasters of the war in which scientists had played an important role: in this way some science communicators hoped to overcome a diffuse distrust in science particularly alarming in young people.

Moreover, some intellectuals and scholars thought that history of science, and consequently, Museums of History of Science or the historical sections in Science Museums were useless for communicating science and scientific culture. According to their view science was progressive and cumulative: last scientific theories substitute those old ones whose valid parts are included in the new theories.

Why ought we keep in museums what has been superseded? Museums of History of Science were considered little more than warehouse of old and useless objects. But in this way, science is presented unrealistically, as a one-way success-story with little attention for the often interdisciplinary and open-ended scientific process of trial and error (Steven de Clercq (1998)). And loss of historical perspective in scientific communication could be the source of the gap between scientific and humanistic culture. Some years ago scientists, historians of science and intellectuals debated about domination of humanistic over scientific culture.

Now the situation is completely different. Science, and above all, technology are more and more pervasive in everyday life of billion of people. The problem is that rational awareness of their presence is very little diffused and humanistic culture is unable or, maybe, not interested, to face the new situation. In order to improve the communication with its public and to increase the amount of visitors Science Museums have introduced hands-on techniques. Beautiful collections of historical instruments have been sent to cellars where they are destined for destruction and dispersion: in my opinion the only tangible result has a loss of identity without a considerable improving of a museum communication. This was foreseeable: languages cannot be mixed artificially in order to compose a sort of a museum Esperanto.

Contextualisation versus muselisation

In this context University Museums can play an important role of experimenting new ways of conservation and exhibition of the historical heritage and dissemination of scientific culture.

Universities have created during centuries new scientific and technological knowledge and a great deal of material is stored in them: instruments and apparatuses, laboratory diaries, libraries of books and preprints and so on.

All this material, and know how incapsulated in it, becomes rapidly obsolete for scientific researches: when it is no longer usable scientists consider it a obstacle for new researches. Sometimes experimental apparatuses are dismantled and some pieces are inserted in other apparatuses. In some cases material no longer used in researches is sent to museums, national libraries and to state archives.

But in this last decades some universities, continuing a long tradition lasting from four centuries, have decided the conservation of their of historical material, the selection of modern material no longer used and have used the museum environment for initiatives of dissemination of scientific culture.

University collections have an important characteristic from museological point of view. We know that the value of the historical heritage doesn't consist in the "beauty" or "rarity" of the single object but in the fact that it indicates a research track.

The instrument or the experimental apparatus was inserted by some scientist in a research path which allowed him to acquire knowledge about some natural phenomena. If we stress the importance of the single object we transform it in relics to be adored.

What's more if we use the criterion of beauty there is the risk of large part of the historical heritage of late 20th century science of being scrapped as Paolo Brenni has stressed in a article on the magazine of European Physics Society.

I have pointed out that after the second world war the scientific museology has been oriented towards the division between conservation from one hand and science education and teaching activities from the other hand, relegating the first ones in the Science and History of Science Museums and the second ones in the Science Centres. But I'm not sure that this division has improved dissemination of scientific culture.

Now we can ask if hands-on techniques, without an historical perspective induced from exhibition of historical apparatuses and instruments are able to disseminate scientific culture.

For scientific culture I mean a set of shared values about the nature of science and technology, about their methods for acquiring knowledge, about the differences between scientific truth and other kind of truths, if any.

Scientific culture is a result of a good training in science in schools or universities. But it is also the result of stimulations coming from the society around us: we acquire a spontaneous culture from relationships with other people, from the media, from the advertising and so on. Evocation, allusiveness, metaphor, imitation are the main features of the transmission of the diffused culture inside the society.

On the basis of these stimulations people build their ideas about science and form models for interpreting natural phenomena. Scientific culture depends not only, then, on the amount of specific technical and scientific knowledge acquired in the schools or in the universities, but depends also on values which have their roots in the diffused culture in the society and are assimilated unconsciously.

Science and History of Science Museums are important devices for transmission of the diffused culture and in their history they have performed this task. They have just the characteristics which define the way in which the culture is diffused in society: evocation, allusiveness, metaphor, emotion.

Now we have to understand if University museums can be useful in reinforcing the main features of Science and History of Science Museums. My answer is affirmative and I'll try to argument it. Very often university people who are interested in the preservation and conservation of historical heritage think that their activity is a spontaneous and not requested service that they offer to their university in order to improve the external image of the University. And they ask attention for their activity because it creates social consensus about the university institutional tasks.

But it's an illusion to think that this spontaneous activity is enough for pushing Universities to give space, money and human resources to these activities. It seems to me that we have to be aware that the mission of the Universities is to carry out innovative scientific researches and we have to be able to insert our museums activity in this context. On the ground of acquired experiences is possible to show that in the university museums can be carried out two kinds of researches: a) researches about the historical heritage b) researches about new ways of exhibition and communication of the historical heritage to public at large.

Historical Researches

Aim of historical researches is to reconstruct a past context on the ground of the preserved documentation (instruments included) selected and analysed according to criteria greatly influenced from the diffused culture in the society.

In the Universities this kind of researches takes advantage of the fact that the single object (letter, instrument, etc.) can be inserted in a context which gives meaning to it, because we can find easily tracks of it in the University museum, in the library, in the archives and so on.

In the usual Museums the link between the single object and the context in which it was used is complicated to be reconstructed or, even, impossible: a cultural disaster for historical memory which need of diffused roots to be fed. An important follow out of the historical researches is the publication of instruments, books, archives inventories and catalogues. These devices, and others as papers or books about some specific objects or collections, are important for the planner of museum arrangement because she/he knows what he needs a deep knowledge of what he has to communicate to visitors.

Communication Researches

Moreover it's possible to carry out scientific researches also on new ways of exhibition and communication of the historical heritage.

I have said at the beginning that interactive communication between exhibited objects and visitors has been the main feature of the 20th century museology and that scientific museums have been protagonists in this field. But interaction is a business between visitors and one object at once: arrangement of the objects is uninfluent on visitors experience. But in this way some important aspects of the museums communication are neglected.

When a visitor observes in a museums a big steam engine he associates very often to it the idea of industrial revolution. This happens because he has a scientific culture, even though spontaneous, he has a representation of the behaviour of the natural phenomena and he has expectations on what science and technique can give to him.

So communication of the historical heritage must be continuously reconsidered by the museums operators in relation with the changeable representations of science and technique. These representations are determined not only by specific knowledge acquired in the school and in the university but also through the diffused culture in the society: it's this last one that determines people beliefs, suggestions, ethical values about science and technique.

Understanding the way in which scientific spontaneous representations are formed can be realised only through a rigorous research programme. And University environment is particularly suitable for this task. The results of this kind of researches can be useful to museums operators, in the universities and outside, but also to all people involved in initiatives of diffusion of scientific culture: scientific journals, video-documentaries and so on.

In conclusion university museums are a cultural wealth that must be safeguarded, studied and exhibited. And university museums operators must do a big effort to open their museums to scholars and to public at large. If museums operators realise that public at large is not a obstacle to their activity but that he represents a opportunity for studying the way in which scientific and technological culture spreads through the society they can find a role that legitimates their activities inside the universities.

Copyright © 2001. Pasquale Tucci.
All rights reserved.

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