Report on the Berlin Seminar
International Perspectives in the History of Science Museums and Exhibitions
2-3 May, 2013. Humboldt university, Berlin
Andrée Bergeron (researcher in the history of science, Centre Alexandre Koyré, Paris), Charlotte Bigg (researcher in the history of science, Centre Alexandre Koyré, Paris), Jennie Halperin (student in library studies, University of North Carolina and Intern at the Humboldt university’s collections), Ina Heumann (historian and head of “PAN. Perspectives on Nature: An Initiative for Nature, Knowledge and Culture in Context at Museum für Naturkunde”, Berlin), Delphine Issenmann (curator of collections, Jardin des Sciences, University of Strasbourg), Herbert Justnik (artist and curator of photography at the Museum für Volkskunde, Vienna), José Lanzarote (Postdoctoral researcher in the history of science and museums, Centre Alexandre Koyré, Paris, member of project EUNAMUS, European National Museum: Identity politics the uses of the past and the european citizen), Nadejda Mas (master’s student in the history of science, Centre Alexandre Koyré, Paris), Sébastien Soubiran (historian of science, executive secretary of UNIVERSUM and vice-director of the Jardin des Sciences, University of Strasbourg), Jochen Hennig (historian of science and collections coordinator, Humboldt university, Berlin)
General presentation and objectives
The seminar initially planned for winter semester 2013 was moved forward a few months to acknowledge the widely shared feeling amongst the network members that it was necessary prior to the workshops to establish a common set of references regarding the history of staging science in exhibitions and museums since the nineteenth century. Against the initial assumptions that the historiography of museology and exhibitions has an internationally shared historiographical basis, the prevalence of national traditions turned out to be strong, reflected by the production of separate literatures that are rarely available to other languages. Similarly, we found that there was not always as much exchange between disciplines as one might have expected, e.g. history of science, history of industry, museology, heritage studies, etc.
The seminar that took place on May 2nd and 3rd 2013 at the Humboldt university (a “Blockseminar” format chosen to enable participants from further afield to attend) was by general agreement particularly successful in helping foster a common culture.
Each participant was responsible for the selection and presentation of significant literature (recent and/or classic) in their particular specialty and geographical area. With participants originating from 6 different countries (France, Germany, United Kingdom, Austria, Spain and USA) and at least as many specialties (history of science, history, library studies, visual studies, art, collections management, museum and exhibition curatorship), the geographical and thematic coverage was particularly rich.
It enabled the more junior members of the group to become familiar with a broad range of approaches and authors (both theoretical and case studies) but it also provided a rare opportunity for more experienced members to become acquainted with literature from other countries and in other languages. It was particularly interesting for instance to compare the specific historical and cultural embedding of terms such as Kulturelles Erbe, Patrimoine, Patrimonio and Heritage and their powerful role in shaping contemporary history writing, exhibition making and cultural policy in different countries and, more recently, at the EU level, for instance.
The involvement in this seminar of students, researchers and practitioners working in and with museums and university collections was especially fruitful in pursuing one of the projects’ central aims: to consistently juxtapose and relate, where appropriate, contemporary issues in science museum policy and practices and historical work. Recurrent discussions revolved around, e.g.
- how historical leitmotivs, such as for France the connection between the birth of the museum and revolutionary iconoclasm are not only a staple of historical inquiry but also museological practices, such as the invention of the écomuseum as a monument to desindustrializationin the 1970s
- the means of practically translating new historical insights into exhibitions, e.g. reflexive, multiperspectival or postcolonial frameworks of interpretation, but also object biographies, the history of collections ..
- conversely, how innovative exhibition concepts or contemporary cultural policy begs for a revision of established historical analyses of the museum.
The participants all remarked on the particularly thought-provoking and stimulating nature of the exchanges. Unlike some of the more unwieldly, cost-intensive and larger projects some of the group members had experienced, the informal nature of the gathering allowed for flexibility in running the seminar, allowing for the developing dynamics of discussion to be taken into account, and thus for productive, truly interdisciplinary and transnational exchanges to take place around focussed questions. Especially in reflecting on the difficult issue of the articulation between historical investigation and museological practices, this kind of forum (and more generally this project) was thought to be a particularly useful place and much encouragement was given for the development of an international network of scholars and practitioners as a space for exchanging and develop reflexive, theoretical thinking on the history and practice of science exhibitions and museums.