The Public History of Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine: Prospects and Issues

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


This proposal responds to the cross-Research Council Programme 'Connected Communities' and to AHRC emerging themes: 'Science in Culture' and 'Care for the Future'.

The popularity of historical leisure pursuits today is significant. Surveys show that more than 50% British adults express interest in learning more about family history. Television history programmes often have two million viewers, and historical magazines have monthly circulations of 80,000. This research network will explore the potential of this phenomenon for museums of science and technology to produce new kinds of historical exhibitions and events that display and interpret their historical collections more effectively. Simultaneously, it will look at the potential of these museums for successful history of science knowledge exchange from universities.

The reasons why this is timely relate to both museums and universities.

At a time when digital media have increasing cultural presence, questions are begged about the comprehensibility and therefore value of museums' collections of physical objects. For science museums in particular, collections may be becoming more remote from audience experience as visitors lack the familiarity with machines that was commonplace in the 19thc world that produced the great museums, or even 30 years ago when more people worked in manufacturing. Museums are also modifying how they operate because of changes in today's society and culture, including reduced deference to authority, increased informality of - especially online - communication, and greater expectation of participation in cultural production. A core concern of this network will be how science museums can draw on the opportunities provided by the popularity of history in general to respond to the palpable crisis in curatorial practice threatened by this changing status of material and mechanical culture and broader changes in society. (Workshop 1)

Two different currents within the universities are pertinent to these issues: Cultural consumption has been a favoured area of activity for many humanities disciplines over the last generation, for example in the reader-response criticism in literature, audience studies of moving image media, and the historical study of the public culture of science. Here, the types of issues exemplified in the visitor experience of museums today have already been explored using theoretical and historical approaches in the universities, where relevant perspectives and analytical practice have been developed. These are complementary to the empirical audience research of museums. On the other hand, the humanities, including the history of science, share an impetus to ensure that the new understandings they develop - conventionally distributed through academic channels - are made available through public media, including museums. The network will explore the potential of material culture - not often a prominent aspect of academic history of science - to produce heightened levels of engagement between academics, museum staff and members of the public with active historical enthusiasms. (Workshop 2)

Finally, the network will discuss whether its issues and concerns are peculiar to science and technology museums as compared with museums of art or archaeology, for example. In general culture, identification of the history of science with today's science - rather than with broader history - is widespread, but worthy of critical scrutiny. It is arguable that the negative associations that science has acquired for many lay people may serve to reduce their engagement with its history. Contrariwise, the emphasis of academic history on the social nature of science can assist public engagement with science in the present. The existence of enthusiast groups in many areas of historical technology suggests that it is eminently possible for lay people to find ways to enjoy the history of science and technology. (Workshop 3)

Planned Impact

Cultural impact is pivotal to the proposed project: it takes as its subject the ways in which the wider public consume and interpret the histories they encounter in museums of science and technology. Yet, as will be illustrated, the project's outcomes will also encompass areas of social and economic impact as well. In addition to the academic beneficiaries discussed separately, this research project has been designed to be of benefit to museums of science, technology, and medicine (as well as other, more general, museums that have significant collections in these areas) by increasing their effectiveness (as measured by social, cultural, and economic factors). Such institutions variously operate under the auspices and funding of national and regional government, or as independent businesses; they frequently have charitable status and are embedded participants within the Third Sector.
The project's cultural impacts are the most striking. It has become a commonplace that science and technology pervade the contemporary quotidian, affecting how we all structure and experience our lives. Yet their articulation in public discourse is frequently dogged by confusion; the spectre of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" refuses to be laid to rest. No research project can hope to fully resolve so complex a set of issues, but disciplined discussions, leading to the implementation of specific focussed solutions, can have an impact on the problem of limited public interaction with the history of science. The project thus has the capacity to significantly enhance lay engagement at the nexus of science, technology, and heritage. Through involving both academics and museum practitioners these solutions can be executed in concrete and specific ways: by ensuring institutional partners are involved from the project's inception, practical and implemental ways of public engagement will be addressed from the start.
The project's economic benefits centre on the institutions themselves. If the partner museums become more publicly engaging not only will dwell time increase but new audiences will be attracted to visit. This will increase revenue generated by ticket sales, museum cafés, and shops. The recommendations made by the workshops implemented by the partner institutions will be disseminated through practitioner networks, in order that museums across the UK that have science collections can benefit from the project's learning.
Social benefits also derive from an increased public engagement with the history of science that is the project's central goal. There is a significant underused cache of science- and technology-related materials in museum collections, which represents valuable yet underused intellectual capital. More engaging exhibitions, better at informing and including the wider public, will help citizens feel more at home in our scientific and technological culture. Increased patterns of volunteering will also be a collateral impact, beneficial to all.
Technological impacts in the heritage sector will also be forthcoming: new utilisations of interactive and digital means of engagement will help to understand visitors and better refine the technology used to interact with them. Much of this work was previously trialled in the joint AHRC-BT Locating Communications Heritage project led by Jon Agar of UCL.
The network's three workshops will be augmented by a public event, held at The Science Museum. We expect to be able to generate press interest which will act as an impetus for public interest and a prompt for further engagement with the project, its goals, and its distinctive focus on the public. Through its reporting outputs the project is designed to broaden the field of view of staff in both museums and universities and to enable new collaborations to develop; it will be greatly visible to lay audiences through the high profile of the Science Museum, which will devote space, time, and attention to it, in order to propagate its findings.


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Description There are opportunities for museums to act as public spaces for the development of more sophisticated accounts of impact and engagement.
Exploitation Route By showing the potential for collaboration between historically-minded laypeople and professionals in museums and the universities.We successfully applied for several projects linked to the same set of concerns after this project.
Sectors Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The findings from this research network have influenced how the Science Museum Group approaches public history and in our 'connected communities' approach to participation with lay expertise.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Development Grants
Amount £43,329 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/M006123/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 09/2015
Description Three PHoSTEM workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Type Of Presentation workshop facilitator
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Discussion stimulated, leading to a further submitted funding bid.

Universities have sought to partner with us.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013