Panel 29

Materiality and research in museums of science, technology and medicine

Organizers: Simona Casonato

Museo Nazionale Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milano, Italy

Topics: Heritage industry and the production of collective memory

Keywords: Science Museums, Research, Artefacts, Materiality, Heritage

How are “interests” conceptualised in the science and technology museums (STMs)? What interests animate the ideal scopes and practical actions of the many actors moving in the field of STMs and in their practices of research, communication, and artefacts collection? How do these interests shape ideas of long-term perspectives and put contemporary challenges in a historical frame?

The International Council of Museums recently stated that museums must be “in service of society” and that their first task is “research” (ICOM, 2022). In museums, research is often related to collecting artefacts, which is substantial to knowledge production in disciplines such as art history, archaeology, and natural history. But the science and technology cultural heritage reveals a different status that has not been approached in the same way. STMs have often been conceptualized as a monolithic yet ambiguous category that includes institutions as different as national museums and science centres, overlooking the field complexity (Bud, 2017). Social sciences (and namely STS) have mainly looked at STMs in terms of exhibitions and public engagement, missing a deeper view of their social and technoscientific practices, especially in deeply characterizing activities related to the past of science and technology, like collecting and heritage building (Spada, 2022).

In general, in the last decades, the museum as an institution has been increasingly defined by its social role, almost questioning the role of collections in the very concept of “museum” (Brown and Mairesse, 2018). The concept of heritage has been enlarged by dematerialized bottom-up perspectives, like the Convention of Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO, 2003) and the Faro Convention (Council of Europe, 2005), focusing on education and social activism.

In this scenario, what does it mean for museums to be socially oriented, to produce autonomous research, and to be concerned – at large – with science, technology, and medicine in terms of material culture, heritage, and history? STMs need fresh perspectives on the social and cultural agency of technoscientific artefacts that they collect, which can be interpreted in their more-than-human facet, as actants of the heritage industry.

The panel addresses scholars in STS, social sciences, and humanities, as well as curators and practitioners, inviting to look “behind the exhibit”, focusing on the interests at stake in STMs and the role of museum research and artefacts in the construction of collective memories and technoscientific imaginaries (Canadelli et al., 2019). We encourage to consider the long historical tension between two (supposed) opposite views of museums, conceptualized as the “forum-versus-temple”, that has become a standard starting point of the museological reflection since the 1960s (Cameron, 1971; Poulot, 2020). Following the path traced by the Anglo-American museology, we would like to include both the perspectives of curators and scholars, addressing topics such as heritage co-production, public history, material culture of science and technology, power imbalances between museums stakeholders and museum audiences, and the role of history in the contemporary science and technology debate (Artefacts Consortium, 1993; Boon, 2011; Graham, 2016; Alberti, 2022).