Read through the abstracts of our contributors below.
The Hybrid Exhibits of the Story Museum: The Child as Creative Artist and Scientist-in-training
Since the Brooklyn Children’s Museum opened in 1899, the children’s museum has evolved internationally as a non-profit public institution focused on informal family-oriented education, and interactive play environments (Allen 2004; Unrath and Luehrman 2009). The majority of these museums highlight science education; however, over the past decade, a new specialized institution has emerged in the form of the children’s story museum that concentrates on children’s literature, storytelling, and picture book illustration. These story museums often combine the curatorial and display conventions of museums and art galleries of childhood artifacts with the active play environments, and multimodal learning stations of science-oriented children’s museums. These exhibits also reflect the changing place of the museum as an institution in the age of the “participatory museum”; a movement away from collections towards interactive curatorial practices across physical and digital archives (Simon 2010; Janes 2011). Drawing upon theoretical and methodological frames from critical children’s museology (Patterson 2016) and the field of children’s media cultures (Buckingham 2000), case study analyses of recent exhibits (2014-2018) at Seven Stories: National Centre for Children’s Books (Newcastle, UK); The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (‘the Carle’ Amherst, MA, USA); and the Hans Christian Andersen Haus/Tinderbox (Odense, Denmark) exemplify how these interactive designed spaces elucidate a discursive tension between discourses of the creative child and the pedagogies of the science-oriented children’s museum (Ogata 2013). While these exhibits affirm idealized childhood representations to some extent, participatory engagements (across old and new media) within these spaces have significant potential for critical and subversive dialogue with ideological constructions and representations of childhoods. This paper particularly explores how curators draw upon the competing discourses of the child as creative artist and the child as scientist-in-training to negotiate representations of gender, race, socio-economic class, mobility and nationalism rooted in the children’s literature texts.
Science and the Language of Natural History Museum Architecture: Problems of Interpretation
In the 1850s, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History was built expressly to epitomise its conception of science in its architecture. According to Henry Acland, it was to be an ‘experiment’ in architectural practice. Its roof, built from ‘those railway materials, iron and glass’, would embody technological progress. Each of the columns surrounding the museum’s central court would be a distinct geological sample, each capital a meticulous and vivid carving of a botanical type, while a pantheon of statues of leading scientists would model the practice of science itself as an imaginative as well as an exploratory act. Built in Gothic, the whole building would affirm through its referential Christian architecture that the science taught at Oxford was to be understood as natural theology.
Oxford’s pioneering and remarkably thorough-going approach to creating an architectural language for science set a model for subsequent museums to follow or eschew. In this article I will examine the problems of interpretation that arise in seeking to trace whether, how and how far natural history museums built from the 1850s to the 1930s communicate distinctive scientific worldviews through their architecture. The first problem is that the same architectural features can signify different meanings in different buildings, even within the same genre of building (natural history museums). This applies to the overall choice of style, the choice of materials and decorative features such as relief sculpture. In individual cases, these may be as much determined by immediate priorities, local conditions or national requirements as by the impetus to communicate science through architecture. The second problem is in effect the reverse of the first: that while different architectural styles and decorative features may communicate different conceptions of science, it is also possible to use radically different styles to convey equivalent meanings. A third, pervasive problem is that, within different museums the relationship between the architects and the presiding scientists or curators can again be very different, making it hard to establish how far correlations between the architecture and the scientists’ worldviews amount to messaging and how far this may instead be an illusion created by the researcher’s own confirmation bias. Of course, the buildings do not remain in the hands of those who created them – the architect and the scientist, even more than the author, are dead – but robust interpretation needs nonetheless to be self-aware in recognising how far its meanings arise from recovery, imaginative reconstruction or merely the association of ideas.
After an introduction outlining the problems in principle, I will examine them in detail by considering key cruxes that arise when we set museum building from different countries and different moments alongside one another. The first section of the article will consider the interplay between local contexts, national ambitions, and scientific worldviews through examining the differing significance of medieval architectural styles, materials and decorative sculpture in natural history museums across England, Ireland and Canada. The second section will put the Redpath Museum in Montreal and the Royal Ontario Museum in dialogue with the Oxford museum and the Natural History Museum in London to see how they use divergent architectural styles and decorative schemas to communicate a shared commitment to natural theology. The third section will consider how the composite decorative schemas at the Oxford museum, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna and the anatomy and palaeontology galleries in Paris contribute to complex and ultimately irreducible impressions of the natural world which combine subtly or even widely divergent interpretations of science with artistic license and plurality.
Natural History Museums of the 19th Century & Images of Science
The scientific museums of the 19th century can be understood as a new built form of mass media. Here, scientific visualization became the core task.Originally designed as “walk-in text books” of nature they were educational and scientific institutes at the same time and had to reach diverse and heterogeneous audiences. This is the reason why they are also underestimated patrons for many different kinds of visualization of scientific content. Museums like the NHM Vienna hold large collections of scientific illustrations and models used for scientific purposes and also for museums didactics. Although these objects are not only of historic but sometimes also of very high artistic value, they are still “hidden treasures”. Seen solely as research tools they remain consigned to the shadows. Already in the 18th century, scientific illustrations and models were created by the means of the fine arts. Before the invention of photography this was the only way of visually documenting scientific discoveries. But even beside photography the fine arts kept their function in science communication.
Each artistic representation is the result of a knowledge process, thus adding to the textual interpretation a new meaning. By this, these art works not only document scientific discoveries, but also provide the basis for further creative scientific thinking. This paper wants to shed some light on this still understudied field of artwork. Selected historical examples will show how and where scientific visualizations were used to communicate scientific content to the public. How did these images influence the general perception? Did they spark artistic or even scientific progress? This paper intends to investigate the style development and also the multilayered levels of meaning of scientific images during the 19th century from an art historical perspective.
What’s your dinosaur? Or, imaginative reconstruction and absolute truth in the museum space
For the first half of the nineteenth century, objects in the British Museum were largely unlabeled, uncatalogued, and unexplained. Nevertheless, the idea that the object could evoke a ‘larger world’ was current in discussions of the pedagogical use of the museum. The popular understanding of the museum as a place of education foregrounded the idea that engagement with the thing itself, rather than any wider context or paratext, was enough to allow access to an object’s ‘realm of significance’ (Pomian, 1990), which was figured as Absolute Truth in Kantian terms embedded within each museum object. The fantasy of knowledge that could be gained from a mere glimpse reached its heights in the feats of identification and reconstruction performed by naturalists of the period like Georges Cuvier or Richard Owen. It encouraged the conception of the museum encounter as an act of instantaneous imaginative reconstruction, in which the fragmentary or uncontextualized part could be reassembled into an ideal, accurate whole. This attitude can still be seen in today’s responses to palaeoart, a discipline heavily associated with the experience of natural history museums which proposes to evoke a world to which its practitioners have only very partial access. With dinosaur palaeoart as its chief case study, thinking both about Owen’s early restorations and the theories of current practitioners (Witton, 2018), this paper stresses the tenuous relationship between interpretation and reality. It argues that the universal truth implicitly promised by the museum encounter is deceptive, but also that there is a virtue in acknowledging the creativity which underpins these impressions of a world beyond the self.
The Thingly Presence of a Pair of Beaded Gauntlet Gloves
Thing theory recognizes that some things exert a sensory force that may captivate us with vibrant energy, exerting a thingly presence that acts as a gravitational pull (Brown 2001; Bennett 2010). An object has to catch my attention and assert its presence in a way that reminds me of my contingent status as a human to be described as a thing. In my work as a fashion curator, I sometimes see the vestiges of the person that wore a garment as I handle it and I am reminded of their lingering presence in alterations, in small patches of wear or in the traces of their body, even though they may be long absent. In old shoes, the toe box will take the shape of the toes, the heel will be worn by the pattern of the gait, and the insole will carry the imprints of the body. In a pair of gloves, the marks and stains of wear and the imprints of the fingers become embedded in the leather. Such objects assert a thingly character that reminds me of the people that made, wore, used and altered these items. In this paper, I will harness thing theory to consider the thingly quality of a pair of beaded gauntlet gloves made by an unknown Dene First Nations artist and now housed in the Ryerson University Fashion Research Collection (FRC2019.01.003). This pair of deer hide gloves is heavily worn such that the fingers are misshapen and worn through at the pads. Nonetheless, the intricate beadwork is intact, indicating the care with which these gloves were made. These traces, marks and smells act like Barthes’ punctum which “pricks me” and “also bruises me, is poignant to me” (Barthes 1980: 27), such that these traces become material evidence of the past and potent totems of memory and mortality.
Delight or Disgust? An Afterlife of Anatomical Waxworks
The Anatomical Venus, writes Joanna Ebenstein, “could only be truly understood for a brief period” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “a time when it was still possible for religion, art, philosophy, and science to coexist peacefully;” “she is a relic” of that epoch. In this article, we examine the afterlife of the anatomical waxwork, and put a museum collection of teaching wax moulages at the centre of our investigation.
Writing in 2007, Andrea Terry identified the main property of anatomical waxworks as “malleability.” Terry examined the waxworks in the Museum of Healthcare at Kingston’s collection, their creation in the 1950s and their history: how wax lends itself to reshaping and to modelling into anatomical moulages, and how conceptually malleable those anatomical waxworks are, existing as part of traditions of medical instruction and of artwork.
In our co-authored paper, Curator Marla Dobson and I will link the history of the Kingston, Ontario wax moulage collection with the pioneering waxworks of eighteenth-century Italy and Britain. Where Ebenstein notes the facial similarities of waxworks to ecstatic religious sculptures, like Bernini’s St Teresa, we will focus on the disembodied nature of the Kingston moulages, which feature no heads, torsos, or legs.
As well as examining the physical and intellectual malleability of the waxworks, we will explore their aesthetics. They were created by a practicing artist, and yet they cause intense disgust. Indeed, disgust has shaped their history as museum artefacts. Even in storage, these moulages remain behind a curtain; their display history has been limited and complicated by fears of provoking revulsion. As curators, how can we handle an artwork that cannot be displayed? Finally, what role do aesthetics play in a museum of medical history, particularly with such sensitive, uncanny, disruptive material?
Re-invoking Curiosity in the Museum: Between Multidisciplinarity and Holism
Museums are curious institutions in two senses, one arising from the eccentricities and peculiarities of their histories, and the other from their ongoing desire to display, provoke, and satisfy their visitors’ curiosity about the world in which they live. In neither sense can curiosity be understood as a neutral quality, for, as the deconstructive critiques of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars have shown, Western museum collections are material deposits of the different forms curiosity has taken in the course of four centuries of European imperial expansion and colonial domination. Although this consciousness has shaken the foundations of museums and dislodged the collections they hold, their value as places where colonial legacies can be negotiated and shared concerns addressed remains compelling. Responding to Nicholas Thomas’s recent book, The Return of Curiosity, to Actor-Network Theory’s insistence on connecting disciplinary knowledges, and to Indigenous reaffirmations of holistic knowledge formation, this article explores a range of recent museum projects that invoke curiosity to transgress the museum’s modern disciplinary boundaries.
The Archaeology of Geophysics: Collecting the Material Culture of Science at a University
Radioisotope dating measures the decay of radioactive isotopes in order to determine the age of materials. The spread of these techniques over the second half of the 20th century illuminated the chronology of the natural world, from the formation of the solar system, to the emergence of humans.
Over the past several years, the science collection at the University of Toronto has gathered artifacts from three radioisotope laboratories that operated within close proximity to each other at the downtown campus of the University of Toronto over several decades. Each made critical contributions to their respective fields that are recorded in the materials gathered. Two have recently closed, one is still running. The different ways in which these acquisitions took place, and the variety of artifacts acquired, reveal the ways in which the material evidence of scientific labour may be preserved.
In 2015, the science collection acquired material from the decommissioned potassium-argon (K-Ar) dating laboratory formerly run by Professor Derek York (1936-2007) of the Department of Physics. Where the K-Ar lab was essentially intact during the acquisitions process, the IsoTrace Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) facility, dedicated mainly to radiocarbon (C14) dating, had been decommissioned for several years when, in 2017, the collection relocated to the subbasement space that the lab had recently vacated. Material from decades of work in high energy physics were still strewn about the area, creating a quasi-archaeological surrounding for the collection’s storage and cataloguing rooms.
The Jack Satterley Geochronology Laboratory, formerly located at the Royal Ontario Museum, now at the Department of Earth Sciences remains a world-class facility for uranium-lead (U-PB) dating. Researchers and Technicians at the lab were asked to choose significant material representing the laboratory’s earlier contributions to the U-PB sample preparation process under Professor Tom Krogh (1936 –2008). In this case, the scientists selected and prepared the artifacts that would represent their work.