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
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
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
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
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
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.
Council of Museums, Statutes - Code of Professional Ethics,
2 See for example, Goran Rosander
(ed.), Today for tomorrow: museum documentation of contemporary
society in Sweden by acquisition of objects, SAMDOK Council,
3 Kathleen Oakes, 'Sci-Tech
Meeting Report', Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 14, no.
2, November 1986, pp. 199-172.