Putting science on display by means of artifacts or specially designed devices in spaces deliberately set up for public use is never a neutral enterprise.
The universal exhibitions or the Uranias of the 19th century, science museums such as the Deutsches Museum in the 1900s, the Palais de la Découverte in the interwar, the Atoms for Peace exhibitions of the 1950s or the Exploratorium in the 1960s are each the expression of a particular way of conceiving and promoting science and its role in society.
At the origin of 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 at the end of the nineteenth century; scientists, administrators and politicians involved in the reorganisation of research in 1930s France; state officials; a physicist threatened by maccarthyist campaigns.
Each new structure, whether temporary or permanent, for putting science on display is both a reflection of and a comment on the contemporary institutional, cultural, political configuration of science in society.
What we do
We are an international research network of academics, museum practitioners and exhibition curators interested in the historical and transnational study of the relationship between science, science policy and science popularisation.
We investigate the intersection of these three fields of activity through a close study of the artifacts exhibited and the spatial arrangements that characterize exhibitions and museums of science, from the early nineteenth century to now.
For this we use approaches recently developed in the history of science, the history of scientific museology and of popular science, in particular the body of work concerned with the visual and material cultures characteristic of scientific work and communication, as well as the studies on scientific spaces, including the history of the techniques of organising and publicly showcasing scientific objects.
The projet also aims to contribute to widen the historiographical focus beyond established national traditions of interpretation. Mobile devices such as the planetarium devised by Carl Zeiss, Jena in 1924 for the Deutsches Museum and exported to France for the first time in 1937 and set up in the Palais de la Découverte, enable for instance a comparative analysis of the content, contexts and issues at stake in each case.
The period under consideration deliberately stretches into the present to take into account the contemporary interest of scientific communities in their own material heritage and its exploitation. We believe that the growing interest in historical scientific collections, as witness by the recent creation of organisations such as UMAC or UNIVERSEUM can be related to the profound transformations affecting university and research communities at present. In other words, the simultaneous trend towards museum operations and the restructing of research might be understood as a contemporary manifestation of the issue under study in this project.
We are therefore especially keen to foster a dialogue between historical perspectives and contemporary concerns and configurations, including the current reorganisation of the university landscape with its attendent reconsideration of the value and purpose of the material heritage of science and its public display. How can historical approaches and contemporary studies put each other into perspective?