Production of History in two Science/Natural History Museums

My archival research cannot be pursued on a Sunday, so I used this chance to see the Museum of the History of Science and the Natural History Museum in Oxford.

A striking feature in both museums is the absence of women. While there are 19 statues of “great men of science” such as Linneaus and Darwin in the hall of the Natural History Museum, there is only one bust of a female scientist, Dorothy Hodgkin, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 and carried out her crystallographic research in the museum for more than two decades (A Wonderland of Natural History: A Souvenir Guide (2011), p. 13).

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A boy sees that science is a “male sphere”

In the Museum of the History of Science, ‘the oldest surviving purpose-built museum building (completed in 1683)’ (Museum Guide & Plan), there is a collection of instruments. At times, it rather seems an exhibition of technology than science. Apart from the special exhibition Dear Harry… Henry Moseley – A Scientist Lost to War (14 May – 18 October) where his mother Amabel Moseley is mentioned several times, women are not an essential part of the exhibition either. I see that their exhibitions remain in a historic condition largely of the 19th century where objects were exhibited in glass cases, but the exhibition could remain in this fashion if only the problematic would be discussed. At a time when Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt’s sexist comments about women in the lab are widely discussed, we see that we are a long way from equality in science and these museums are striking examples.

The Museum of the History of Science is a cabinet of curiosities. It does not address the agency of the objects on display, nor their inventors’ biographies, let alone the politics of their making. The audioguide is currently under revision. In the meantime, visitors are provided with sheets of information, a transcript of the old audio guide. Science is presented as objective and unemotional, which is not the case as historians of science have been showing for decades. Let me provide one example:

John Russel’s Moon:

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The audio guide transcript says: “This ‘portrait’ of the moon is the outcome of some ten years of careful observation and measurement, but as the work of an artist it has an emotional impact that would not be found in a merely technical survey.” (Number 12)

Oxford University Museum of Natural History has certain displays that have not been written from a postcolonial perspective. The formerly colonised are presented as the destroyers of species and habitat, while the British scientists are said to have produced knowledge on species and protected them. This is one example:

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There are several glass cases with unnamed animals that show the museum’s abundance of specimens, but produces little other information for the visitors.

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In addition, the museum focuses on nature, and uses the staircase to tell the visitors – who largely ignore the display while walking – to inform the visitors on the museum’s origin.

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The politics of the collecting, the knowledge production are not addressed and the nature-culture divide retained. The collection is not historicised. Often we do not know who collected the species, when, where, why or how.

This visit raised my awareness for how important critical natural history studies and work in the field of (micro-)politics of science and nature is.

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