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The Objects of Science and Technology - Working with 'Things'

Martin Hallett
Since the opening of Scienceworks in March 1992, its staff and colleagues have been reviewing future directions for collecting activities there. Many of the ideas presented in this paper reflect the trends and directions which are emerging from these discussions.

'Things' (objects) are the major 'medium' which museums use to document and interpret our scientific, technological and cultural heritage. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines a museum as:

...a non-profit making permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public which acquires, conserves, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment.1

Although the definition places special significance on material evidence, subsidiary comments recognise the legitimacy of museums which do not have collecting focuses (eg natural and historical sites, herbaria and zoos, interactive science centres and conservation institutes).

The Value of Objects

Objects can serve at least two functions which make them a useful medium for museums: evidential and evocative functions:

The evidential function of objects

Objects can preserve information which can serve as a primary source for researchers. Sometimes, objects may be the major or only primary source available to researchers. This is often the case for studies in prehistory. Mostly, objects provide alternative perspectives to those available from documentary sources. Objects frequently preserve layers of evidence for those who are prepared to examine them from different viewpoints. Their design, function, materials, markings, decoration and finish, wear, failure, human associations and provenance (if known) can all contribute data to researchers' analyses.

Objects have often been used by science museums to record the 'evolution' of scientific and technological developments. More recently they have been used for a different (and perhaps more interesting) purpose - to expose the influences that led to their design, manufacture, decoration, adoption, modification, or rejection, throwing light on how society and culture affect and interact with science and technology. They pose questions about the values which shape science and technology.

Objects can often provide evidence on aspects unrelated to the reasons which led to their manufacture or collection by museum curators. Most natural history specimens, for instance, were collected by museums for taxonomic purposes, but are increasingly being used to reflect on other aspects of natural science - ecology, environmental changes, extinction, changing scientific theories and methodologies, etc. Family photographs were not taken to document science and technology, yet when collected and indexed by Scienceworks' Photographic Archive Project, they provide researchers with a unique resource for understanding scientific and technological developments.

The evocative function of objects

Science is not only concerned with the analysis of evidence and the elucidation of new knowledge from it; it is also concerned with the communication of that knowledge. Objects are a powerful communication medium for this purpose. They have a directness (missing in print and television) which can evoke a response in us. They can introduce the unfamiliar, cause us to take a second look at the commonplace, make complex assemblies comprehensible, and (when activated) demonstrate processes and functions. Their crudeness can cause amazement, their effectiveness or subtlety generate surprise and pleasure. Many can effectively reflect their rich array of human associations.

Communication is a two-way process involving an audience. Effective communication takes account of the audience's needs. It establishes precisely who make up the audience, finds out what their characteristics and needs are, and determines which issues are relevant to them. It also seeks to match the medium of communication to the audience and to the story being told. When addressing these issues while preparing the public programs for Scienceworks, we recognised that objects have limitations as a communication medium, as well as strengths. We therefore shifted our interpretive approach towards presentations which employ a variety of media in addition to objects. This trend is evident in other museums too.

What Objects Should We Collect and How Should We Collect Them?

I propose to address these challenging questions by presenting some of the suggestions and directions which are emerging from our discussions on collection policy at Scienceworks. These ideas may serve as a basis for wider reflection and discussion.

1. We must be selective - we cannot collect comprehensively across the whole of science and technology.

This should be self-evident with science and technology developing at such a dramatic pace, but the point is driven home by the disparity between the increasing amount of material museums could collect and the limited space they have to store new material. Scienceworks' collection stores currently occupy a footprint of approximately 4500 m2; less than 10% is free for future collecting. Other science museums face similar storage problems.

Pressure on storage space does suggest that science museums will find it difficult (even impossible with larger items), to continue building 'reference' collections comparable with those in natural history museums. To attempt to collect examples of every make and model motor vehicle, for instance, is clearly impractical. At Scienceworks, we expect to restrict our acquisition of such objects to very specific examples and will generate a reference function using other media, especially trade literature - brochures, catalogues, parts lists and manuals, etc.

Being selective will require us to choose between and within sectors of science and technology in a consistent and coherent way. At Scienceworks we are still resolving appropriate bases for these selection processes, but it is likely to include factors such as: significance in the development of science and technology, importance as innovation, association with social groups or individuals, impact on society, economic influence, relevance nationally and locally, representativeness, rarity, iconic value, and pedagogic value.

2. We should give greater emphasis to contemporary material.

Retrospective collecting seems to have much to recommend it. It allows us the luxury of hindsight when we choose what we collect. Yet the approach has weaknesses. Key items may have been destroyed by the time we recognise the value of collecting them. More importantly, the approach can engender an antiquarian perspective which ignores contemporary developments. Analysis of Scienceworks collections is showing up a bias towards old materials and large gaps in recent materials. We recognise the need to redress this situation.

Swedish museums have been attempting systematically to document contemporary society since the mid-1970s.2 Their approach utilises sector and milieu models together with defined values and criteria as guides for the selection of material. Some of their methods and insights may suggest ways of addressing contemporary Australian science and technology.

3. We should focus on issues rather than disciplines.

Scienceworks' collections were largely developed within a discipline framework: Agriculture, Arms, Engineering, Photography, Transport, etc, although the increasing overlap of disciplines and the development of new ones placed strains on this approach. This approach had benefits, but analysis is indicating that it did not always encourage a focus on key developments either within disciplines or outside them.

Our recent discussions are suggesting that focusing on 'issues' rather than disciplines may be a more effective way to capture key developments. Controversy surrounding issues may help to identify them as key developments. It may also disclose significant social and cultural factors which facilitated or suppressed developments. Controversy may also serve to 'concentrate' information about a development and make collecting easier.

4. We should give greater emphasis to material which reflects on the interaction between society and culture and science and technology.

Analysis of Scienceworks collections is revealing that while we have a lot of material which shows the products of scientific and technological changes, we have less which helps us understand the context of and reasons for the changes. We are likely to want future collecting to give a better picture of the interconnected processes of science and technology and to include material which reflects relevant social and cultural factors.

5. We need to collect more than objects.

If, as has been argued above, we should be collecting material which reflects the variety of interconnected processes linked to scientific and technological developments, then we shall sometimes have to collect a variety of sources in addition to objects to show the whole picture. This will include photographs, videos, laboratory and industrial records, trade literature, personal statements by participants, and more.

Analysis of the collections at Scienceworks discloses a trend in this direction. For instance, the collections now include:

  • The McKay Archive, largely acquired during the period 1960-70, consisting of personal and company records of H.V. McKay and the manufacturing industry he started;
  • Photographs and records from Melbourne's Observatory;
  • Engineering drawings from John Danks & Son Pty Ltd;
  • The Bionic Ear Collection, acquired as a long term loan during the 1990s, which includes a wide range of media documenting the development of the bionic ear by Prof. Graeme Clark and his team;
  • Recently acquired photographic and archival materials from the International Harvester works at Geelong; and
  • The Photographic Archive Project, initiated during the 1980s to collect family photographs as an image database documenting Australia's social, economic, and technological development.

This trend is evident in overseas museums of science and technology. The Science Museum in London, the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the Smithsonian's Museum of American History and many other museums hold significant special collections of photographic and archival materials along with their object-based collections. The Institute of Agricultural History in Reading (UK) is a particularly interesting case where a museum (Museum of English Rural Life) was developed in parallel and integrated with a specialised library, an archive, a photographic collection, a conservation unit and a research unit.

This trend does not indicate that Scienceworks is about to become a major collector of archives. We expect to limit acquisitions to specialised areas which directly relate to our object-based collections. We harbour no ambition to set up in competition with mainstream archives and believe that our activities can complement what they do.

Whether museums should hold archives at all was clearly a controversial issue at the 1985 conference on the Archives of Science and Technology in Australia.3 We believe that museums can responsibly do so, given that they provide appropriate access to their holdings. We suggest that in specific instances, there will be advantages to researchers where these archival materials are linked to related objects.

6. We should collect co-operatively.

With so great a rate and scale of change in science and technology, when developments often cross disciplines and national borders, preserving a record of the developments is a considerable challenge to museums and archives. Perhaps it is only by co-operative collecting that they can effectively address the problem. Co-operative collecting also offers the possibility of involving in the collecting process, the creators of science and technology and the historians who research objects and archives.

Scienceworks accepts the responsibility of formulating its collecting strategies and priorities so that they do not duplicate the work of other institutions. It recognises the need to develop complementary collecting programs. It would welcome the opportunity to work with other parties on specific joint projects to record Australian science and technology.

7. We should collect material which will evocatively tell stories.

There has been a tendency among museologists and researchers to view the evocative function of objects as less important than the evidential function. Most curators in the past would have given preserving evidence as their reason for collecting objects. Yet analysis of Scienceworks' collections is suggesting that the material we value most highly tends to be that which has been most often on public exhibition. It is also showing that a much higher percentage of material than we thought was the case, was originally acquired for exhibition purposes (the same may well apply in other science and technology collections). Perhaps we need to re-evaluate our assumptions about the relative importance of the evidential and evocative functions of objects.

At Scienceworks we are likely to be giving more emphasis to objects with rich potential for public programs: those with human and social dimensions; those with rich associations; those with links to a variety of contexts; those which have supporting documentation; those which are visually appealing or unusual; and those which can be safely activated.

Objects are a valuable means of preserving a record of the developments of science and technology in Australia. They can supply evidence of the evolution of ideas and applications. They can also provide information about the social factors which influenced those ideas and applications. Objects are a powerful medium for interpreting and communicating the issues relating to scientific and technological developments in Australia.

The value of objects can be enhanced by linking them to documentary and other forms of evidence. Sometimes this may result in museums collecting archival materials as well as objects. In other instances the links will better be forged through co-operative collecting by museums and archives.


1 International Council of Museums, Statutes - Code of Professional Ethics, Paris, 1990.

2 See for example, Goran Rosander (ed.), Today for tomorrow: museum documentation of contemporary society in Sweden by acquisition of objects, SAMDOK Council, Stockholm, 1980.

3 Kathleen Oakes, 'Sci-Tech Meeting Report', Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 14, no. 2, November 1986, pp. 199-172.

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