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Revolutionary Marvels or Cursed Machines? - Some Museological Approaches to Industrial Science and Technology

Maryanne McCubbin
It is important for me to define my approach to science and technology, so that my perceptions of science and technology and their places in the studies of humans are clear. However, as will become quite clear, mine are to a large degree lay opinions, and my knowledge is limited in particular matters of science and technology per se, and of the historical and philosophical bases of the disciplines.

First, over time, the term 'science' has come to have at least two significant implications - its claim to objectivity and its claim to rational, systematic inquiry. When the term 'science' is accepted by society as being an appropriate label to describe specific human endeavours, such activities tend to assume status as impartial and authoritative processes.1 The term 'technology', too, has come to assume an implicit moral notion of benevolent progress.2 Further, and most importantly, many writers argue that those with power in society define those activities which are to be regarded as 'scientific' and 'technological' at any given time, and that almost invariably those definitions benefit the powerful. The basic premise of these arguments are that the two terms tend to be value-laden and problematic, and in Western society specifically, definitions of science and technology tend to be eurocentric, patriarchal, and geared towards large capitalist endeavour.3

If we suspend for a moment pervasive operating definitions of 'science' and 'technology' as we tend to currently know them in the above contexts, and return to dictionary definitions, we find that the terms in their simplest and broadest senses cover a vast array of human activity. The first definition of 'science' offered by the Australian edition of the Collins English Dictionary is, 'the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms'.4 The same source gives as its first definition of 'technology', 'the application of practical or mechanical sciences to industry or commerce'.5 In these expansive senses, collections of material relating to social sciences, or humanities, or human studies document many scientific and technological processes in their human contexts.

I acknowledge that there is a huge and valid field of pure and applied scientific and technological study; but I would argue for two more corollaries - that some human endeavours which hitherto have not been considered to have scientific and technological credence be re-evaluated, and that a need exists for scientific and technological studies to embrace research material that has hitherto been regarded as irrelevant, precisely because it has been defined as 'soft' and unscientific.

I believe that such divergent and more fully-rounded approaches will benefit society in the following ways. First, a focus on the human negotiation of science and technology will necessarily bring into play the very problematic processes referred to above, and will allow researchers to address critically the human dynamics which shape science and technology. Second, parallelling newer inter-disciplinary approaches to the study of science and technology, a focus on science and technology as an ongoing human process tells a broad story, and is likely to tap into issues of relevance to large communities. In a sense, such study is a demotic process itself. Third, as a social historian of sorts, I am keen for social sciences, or humanities, to be seen both as a valid field of scientific and technological inquiry, and of scientific endeavour - that is, the subject matter is scientific and technological, and the methodology can be scientific.

Science and Technology - How Relevant are the Human Studies Collections?

If we adopt broad definitions of science and technology, not necessarily with imperatives that they represent new or profoundly complex tools or creations per se, and if we also accept that science and technology are humanly negotiated and experienced things, the Human Studies collections of the Museum of Victoria offer a great deal of relevant research material. The collections cover technological philosophy, innovation and adaptation in the course of day-to-day life, much of which is undertaken in 'workplaces', (although those places do not necessarily accord with mainstream definitions of the term), and to a lesser extent, scientific endeavour and mediation.

Aboriginal Studies Collections

The Aboriginal Studies collections consist of material from Aboriginal people in all parts of Australia, and particularly from Victoria and central Australia. Some of the collections were formed by anthropologists such as Donald Thomson, and others by collectors such as Alan Christensen. The collections tell the story of indigenous technological innovation and adaptation, and some of the holdings date back 5000 years.

Of interest is Aboriginal conceptions of technology, which make interesting comparisons with European conceptions of technology. I will quote directly from the Curator of the Donald Thomson collection, Lindy Allen:

All objects were created by Dreamtime or Creation spirits. Objects too could have been spirits in the Dreamtime. Knowledge of these objects and rights to use them is 'controlled' through ceremonies. However innovation is certainly tolerated and even encouraged, but more in an artistic sense. There are examples of this in contemporary art particularly, but the designs, colours and sometimes form are still controlled by traditional rules and knowledge.6

The quote is offered as food for thought, rather than as something out of which I wish to make mileage, as I am certainly not an expert on Aboriginal technology.

Social History Collections

Work in the Home: The Work in the Home collection, which my colleague Liza Dale curates, focuses specifically on technology used by workers in the home within the larger theoretical context of power relations in society. Interestingly, when Liza began the collection, she was keen not to call it a collection of Domestic Technology, as it had been traditionally conceptualised in larger museums for some time. Her reasoning was twofold:- that the term technology implied the absence of people, and that the very term "domestic" immediately relegated it to the bottom of the scrap heap in terms of valid historical inquiry in many people's eyes, mirroring a societal attitude that work undertaken in the home was of little value and certainly not the stuff of professional inquiry.

Specific instances of scientific endeavour, in its more narrowly-defined sense, appear in Liza's documentation of movements representing alleged discoveries of 'scientific' approaches to household work in the twentieth century, including mothercraft and hygiene.7 Ironically, however, claims to work in the home being a science failed to encourage a call for its practitioners in the home to be paid or in any way valued. Suffice to say, feminist historians could make much from these contradictions.

For many decades, companies producing domestic items have certainly seen workers in the home as a lucrative consumer market, and to this end inject funds into the scientific and technological development of products. As a rejoinder to that, though, company claims to technological and scientific innovations, when looked at carefully, can often instead represent design adaptations, rather than fundamental technological changes.

Liza focuses very specifically and critically on the marketing of domestic items, and this focus invariably tends to emphasise how technological and scientific innovation will eliminate drudgery and free up home-workers for more fulfilling pursuits, and compares this with empirical and theoretical research on the reception and effects of such items in carrying out work in the home. Apart from collecting the products, she undertakes oral histories with users of products, collects advertising and packaging paraphernalia, and documents, among other things, technological innovation by home-workers.

Psychiatric Services Collection: Although it is something of a digression, I have singled out the Psychiatric Services Collection for special mention because it so obviously relates to science as an applied discipline as well as to a process of social engineering. Curated by my colleague Elizabeth Willis, the Psychiatric Services collection, when placed in its cultural, ideological and scientific contexts, gives a very illuminating look at the history of psychiatric and medical science, especially between the 1930s and 1950s. As Chairman of the newly-created Mental Health Authority in 1952, Dr E. Cunningham-Dax and his Vice-Chairman Dr Charles Brothers collected a lot of historical artefacts and associated records used to that time in the care and treatment of psychiatric patients in Victoria. An instance of the profound impact of medical innovation is the introduction of tranquillising drugs in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which made a lot of physically-restraining items redundant. The collection consists of artefacts, records, photographs, and interviews with Dr Cunningham-Dax and others.

Working Lives Collection: My specific mandate is to develop the collection on the history of people in paid industry in Australia (and indeed, those who are unemployed), and to undertake associated research and develop exhibitions and other public programs. I collect within a theoretical framework of recent labour and social historiography, which covers such aspects as the division of labour, the process of work, the meanings of work, and workplace relations - the sorts of issues outlined in Jane Alvarez's paper. (As you would know, that discipline too is an ideological battleground, and is increasingly subjected to inter-disciplinary renderings.) As will be clear by now, my emphasis is on human processes and experiences, in and regarding the workplace. In this sense then, the artefacts I collect become social history artefacts rather than artefacts of science and technology, which is not to deny that they may also have validity in the latter context.

Assessment of scientific and technological mechanisms per se are not my primary goals, but, as the dictionary definitions of science and technology offered above imply, science and technology are integral aspects of the workplace and symbolise the social relations of work. Indeed, technology in its broadest sense enables work. My main aim is to document and assess the processes of negotiation of workplace technology within their guiding moral and motivational frameworks. Technology has implications for the relevance of workers' skills, workforce size and composition, and work experience, including occupational health and safety. Such an emphasis may or may not coincide with the documentation of industries in which scientific and/or technological production in their purest forms may be carried out.

Like Liza's collection, the production of technological artefacts is often the direct consequence of the guiding theories of those with the means to put them into effect. Again, an overt link between science and the Working Life collection is the concept of 'scientific management', articulated by the American industrialist, Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911. Under the rationale of a scientific approach to working method, Taylor argued that a detailed scientific study of work process (which consisted of a literal documentation of the minutiae of human movement in the performance of work) coupled with strict management control could be deployed to eliminate workers' control of the labour process, and thus ensure a maximum level of production at all times.8 As a further adjunct, Henry Ford broke craft systems into minute components in order to maximise productivity and cheapen the overall manufacturing process, and to this end, in 1914 he introduced the assembly line, which is now a pervasive motif in large-scale manufacturing concerns.9

As the above examples indicate, technology is often at the forefront of radical alteration of working ways of life and of work experiences. Indeed, the problematic nature of technology for different interest groups is often nowhere more evident than here, as workplaces or particular industries become implicit and explicit technological battlegrounds. Some more glaring instances of this in the Australian context have been the introduction of containerisation in the shipping industry, and technological innovation in the clerical industry.

To illustrate the human process of technological experience and negotiation, I collect the machinery in question itself, and the artefacts that represent its negotiation and implementation. These might include workplace clothing and safety gear, advertisements representing the marketing pushes made to managers, posters, pamphlets, and badges (more often than not generated by trade unions), photographs, workplace signs, placards (representing overt dispute), art works, cartoons and fiction (representing a self-consciously cultural interpretation of technology), oral histories (representing specific personal renderings of workplace technology), instruction booklets, and so on.

As logic would tell you, however, in my collecting activities I am obliged to focus on a few specific workplaces (if and when opportunities arise), and on some specific ongoing technological issues (such as computer technology), and on important disputes and/or agreements over technology, which to my mind are good representations of major labour history themes. For instance, I have not collected one of the containers in question in the shipping dispute!

More obvious collections of significance under my care include a large set of posters and similar paraphernalia, mainly union-generated, about implications of technological change in terms of work process, health and safety, and implications for the relevance of current skills. We also have the Bruhn woodturners collection, which represents 100 years of fairly static pulley-driven technology in a small South Melbourne artisan's workshop, the Simpson's Glove-making factory, representing a 70-year period of apparel manufacturing technology in an inner Melbourne suburb, and some tools and other gear from Pigment Manufacturers of Australia, a pigment-making firm which recently closed down after thirty years of operation in Laverton, not the least reason being because of its technological backwardness. We also have the Newmarket saleyards collection, the artefacts of which suggest the technological simplicity of labour processes employed there. However, as the thrust of my talk would indicate, these are obvious examples, and a broad body of material exists which almost represents an archaeology of the Museum, and which is open to reinterpretation by researchers.

Artefacts - What Do They Tell Us?

Finally, I would like to offer a word on the interpretive standing on artefacts, using that term in its narrowest sense - that is, meaning three-dimensional objects. It is my belief that artefacts can offer a unique spatial and experiential comment on work processes, which may not be gleaned from other sources. Others would argue that artefacts carry a politics in and of themselves.10 I cannot quite come to grips with this argument, as I believe that artefacts can only be interpreted within the knowledge framework, no matter how common, of the interpreter. The size, weight, configuration, and appearance of objects can evoke workers' experiences, and can suggest pervasive ideological renderings, but that is only because we have a knowledge of these frameworks in the first place. Understanding of artefacts can be vastly enriched by reference to a multitude of sources, such as archival, pictorial and fictional material. Together these sources enable us to understand the larger contexts in which these artefacts are produced. Certainly, collecting institutions of all sorts are making considerable collaborative efforts to preserve all relevant material from selected facets of our culture.

It has been my intention in this paper to suggest that if we look beyond power-laden definitions and focuses of science and technology, and instead, as a first step, accept broader and simpler definitions, then collections relating to the study of humans become a valuable resource for researchers of science and technology. I have tried to outline, in fairly general terms, the sorts of approaches being adopted by curators of social history, and to elucidate on the sorts of material currently residing in the Human Studies Division of the Museum of Victoria.


1 Andrew Ross, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits, London, 1991, p.8.

2 See Malcolm Rimmer, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in the Age of High Technology, Chicago, 1986, p.5.

3 See, for instance, ibid., p.27; Belinda Probert, Working Life, Second Edition, Ringwood, 1990, p.135; and Judy Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology, Sydney, 1991, Chapter 1, passim.

4 Collins Dictionary of the English Language, ed. Patrick Hanks, Second Edition, Sydney, 1986, p.1368.

5 ibid., p.1564.

6 Notes by Lindy Allen, Curator of the Donald Thomson Collection, Museum of Victoria, October 1992.

7 Liza Dale, Jill Barnard, Nick Murphy, David Tyler, Work in the Home Education Kit, Melbourne, 1991.

8 Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, New York, 1974, pp.86-91.

9 ibid. p.147.

10 Malcolm Rimmer, op. cit., especially pp.29-39.

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