This conference builds on a series of events organized since 2012 within an international, collaborative project initially supported by the Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Etudes et de Recherches sur l’Allemagne (CIERA): Matières à penser. Les mises en scène des sciences et leurs enjeux, 19e-21e siècles.
The display of science through specially-designed artefacts and devices in spaces deliberately set up for public use is never a neutral enterprise. The universal exhibitions or Uranias of the 19th century, the Deutsches Museum in the 1900s, the Palais de la découverte in interwar Paris, the Atoms for Peace exhibitions of the 1950s or the San Francisco Exploratorium in the 1960s are each the expression of a particular way of conceiving and promoting science and its role in society. Driving each of these intiatives we find a range of actors moved by different convictions: prominent figures of science and industry in the newly-founded German Empire; scientists, administrators and politicians involved in the reorganisation of research in 1930s France; state officials; and a physicist threatened by maccarthyist campaigns. Whether it is build to last or temporary, each new structure dedicated to showing science materializes a specific configuration of science in society and usually involves scientists, administrations, popularizers, museum and exhibition professionals and the publics it addresses. Science displays thus both reflect and contribute to shape the relations between the groups of actors involved.
The project focusses on the articulation between science, science policy and science popularization. Beyond the assertion that these three domains are intimately connected (a fact that has perhaps not been sufficiently acknowledged) the originality of the project lies in its choice of sources. We study the objects, concrete displays, architectures for showing science, and consider these as materializations, at particular points in time, of specific conceptions of science and its social, cultural, economic or political place in society. We focus less on institutional history or the history of science policies than on the concrete products of the forces at play, and taking into account the difficulties, ambiguities, and uncertainties that each enterprise carries with it. Though exhibitions and museums are a primary locus of study, it is useful to remember that science displays also include textbooks, films and other kinds of narratives. Likewise, we consider not only the natural but also the social and human sciences, believing that a comparison of the specific styles of display and issues broached within each disciplinary field or medium of expression can sharpen the analysis of the broader trends. Because a number of evolutions or public decisions now take place at European or international levels, it is equally important to consider these questions in transnational perspective. How have the sciences been integrated in existing traditions of popularisation and heritage administration within national contexts that long conceived and handled “patrimoine”, “Kulturerbe”, “heritage”, or “patrimonio” in radically different ways?
By adopting a deliberately wide chronological focus, from the 1800s to now, the project and the conference furthermore seek to contribute to contemporary debates by helping put into historical perspective the rapid transformation that institutions devoted to research, higher education and science communication are all currently undergoing. For instance, we look into the recent and widespread surge in interest on the part of scientific communities for their historical remains, as testified by the establishment of a number of national and international organizations devoted to the preservation, promotion and exhibition of, e.g., university collections. Should the concomitant proliferation of exhibitions and museological work within universities and the upheavals in institutional landscape of science not be seen as a manifest expression of the very issues under study here?
For all these reasons, an interdiciplinary approach is adopted, bringing together exhibition makers and specialists from the history of collections and museums, historians of science and design, historians of culture, specialists of contemporary and past public research policy and science popularization. The different sessions will explore these issues either in the form of comparative panoramas stretching over a significant period of time; or by juxtaposing very concrete, localized case studies.