An initial intermedia study of science on television and in museums

Lead Research Organisation: Science Museum Group
Department Name: Science Museum Research


In our scientific and technological society, many from within science argue for the importance of public engagement in science. The arguments are well established, and can be traced in various forms to the 18th century. Humanities perspectives, in this case historical research, can enrich this debate by providing understanding of how the public culture of science has operated in the past; here is the evidence base for the different modes in which science may be presented and consumed. This is a growing field of study within the discipline of the history of science. Much of the work published so far has concentrated on the written word, on books, newspapers and magazines; this is as true of the postwar period as it is of the longer history. The scoping project here, by contrast, looks at the visual media of television and museum display. Arguably this is a very necessary corrective to the existing textual emphasis, especially for the period since 1945 when visual media have gained enormous significance in science communication, as in every department of culture.

The proposal argues that it is necessary to move away from studies focussing on single media; to understand how science communication operated within society, we must look at the nature of communication itself and, within the formulation of this project, we propose to achieve that by drawing comparisons between science communication in the time-based medium of television and the spatial medium of museum display. Past TV producers and museum curators existed within the same general culture; they were subject to similar - sometimes effectively identical - pressures from interest groups; and they often produced public representations of the same subjects. By studying both media together it should be possible to 'subtract out' the specifics of each medium and understand significantly more about the activity of science communication itself. We hope to untangle what is intrinsic to each medium; how historical contingency - eg recruiting practices for professional staff - affects mediation; what may be common between media (eg pressure from elites and organisations); and attitudes held in common, for example deference to expertise or authority.

The period chosen - 1945-1970 - is particularly interesting and appropriate for this study. I have argued elsewhere that this era, and specifically 1957 to 1964, should be considered the point at which science on television became established. The BBC's Horizon began transmission in 1964 and, by the end of 1969 had broadcasted 135 issues. Neither was The Science Museum a backwater in this period: 85 special exhibitions were held between 1946 and 1970, at the same time as the Museum's staff also installed a suite of new galleries into a major new building. Furthermore, this was the era in which activities supplementary to the object displays - lectures, film shows, schools' provision - increased markedly.

The comparative approach arises from a highly suggestive 1990 paper by Ghislaine Lawrence, which compared 1950s medical TV and exhibitions. To explore the benefits of the approach when applied to a wider range of programmes and displays requires this scoping study, which we hope will deliver 'proof of concept'. For reasons of achievability, this project focuses on British television and the Science Museum South Kensington; a much more comprehensive picture is a good ambition, but one that will require much more extended study.

Planned Impact

This project looks beyond the discipline of the history of science to embrace also scholars in media studies and museum studies. In addition to scholars, practitioners - both in television and in museums - will be asked to participate. The project will be conducted 'in camera' in the sense that we will use the Museum's blogs and a public event to bring the research and findings to the attention of the Science Museum's broad clientele of independent adults.

Television programme makers can be expected to take an active interest in this project; the history of science on television was recently the topic of the BBC4 programme, Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV (15/12/2010), and the potential was revealed for further programmes along these lines. Equally, fly on the wall documentaries about museums have been a part of television output for several years now, including Museum of Life, a six part series on the Natural History Museum (2010).

Museum curators from science and technology museums in this country and abroad, whether working in state-financed or private museums, can be expected to gain insights into their medium and to apply that in enhanced practice.

The general public should be helped by this project towards a deepened critical understanding of museum and television representations of science, technology and medicine; and appreciation of the value of historical research in guiding participation in today's culture. This is intended to deliver benefits in terms of citizenship values.

Economic benefit may follow where museum displays are enhanced and public enjoyment of those displays is improved: more public engagement means expanded consumer bases which leads to enlarged revenues. In this instance, there is clear cross-over between economic and social impact, for the institutions themselves as well as for their roles in wider society.

For the active participants, especially the researcher, there are new skills to develop, both in extending his experience from the history of television to the study of museum displays, and in public engagement activities.


10 25 50
Description We learned the historical insights subsequently published in several papers. We were able to contact original participants in science television. We learned that the archives, both in the Museum, and at the BBC, are easily strong enough to support comparative analysis of media. These findings continue to influence the research trajectories of the PI and named researcher.
Exploitation Route As an intermedial study, this project demonstrates the power of comparison. It helps demonstrate the comparabilities of museum and TV media of representation.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description BBC History Horizon Oral Histories
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2014 
End 04/2014
Description Public workshop with Horizon producers 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Members of the public (in the event mainly students) joined earlier workshop participants to witness research findings and original media and to engage with historical participants in the programme "Horizon".

Planning for more detailed and extensive research bid.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012