Book review: Curious devices and mighty machines by Samuel J.M.M. Alberti

albertiThis review is of Curious devices and might machines: Exploring Science Museums by Samuel J.M.M. Alberti. I picked this up because I follow a number of history of science and museum people on Twitter. One downside of this is that these are the sort of people that get sneak previews of such books, leaving us mortals a long wait before we get our hands on them!

There are a couple of thousand science museums around the world, out of a total of 30,000 museums globally. About a fifth of the population visits a science museum every year. In the UK the Science Museum Groups gets about 6 million visits a year. Around 100,000 visits a year are required for a museum to be economically viable. There is an overlap between science museums and the more recently instituted "exploratoriums". Science museums have always been technology and science museums, with artefacts actually biased towards the former. Science museum exhibits can be massive (whole aeroplanes and steam engines), they can be commonplace (for example one of billions of mobile phones) and unlike most museums it is not unusual for the public to be able to handle selected parts of the collection. 

The first science museums came into being out of the personal "cabinets of curiosities" found in the Renaissance, they became public institutions in the 18th and 19th century. They were often founded to demonstrate a country’s technological prowess, or provide training for a workforce as the Industrial Revolution occurred. Sometimes scientific workplaces became museums by the passage of time, this was certainly true of the (New) Cavendish Laboratory where I once worked – the spacious corridor outside the suite of labs I worked in contained a collection of objects including James Clarke Maxwell’s desk and some of his models of mathematical functions. It was striking how scientific apparatus transitioned from finely crafter objects in the 19th century to rather more utilitarian designs in the early 20th century. Frank Oppenheimer (brother of Robert Oppenheimer) founded the first Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1969.

Perhaps a little surprisingly, science museum collections have not historically been formed systematically. The London Science Museum started, alongside the Victoria and Albert Museum, with objects from the Great Exhibition, and was boosted by part of the (enormous) Henry Wellcome collection. More recently curators have been proactive – cultivating collectors and research and industry institutions. Acquisition by purchase at auction is less common than in the art museum world but not completely unknown. Sometimes museums will make public appeals for objects, for example during the recent COVID pandemic. It has always been the case that documents, and more recently software and other digital artefacts greatly outnumber "physical" objects. Digital artefacts represent a challenge since for most modern scientific equipment to be useable the software required to run the equipment is required, and speaking from experience it can be challenging to get the software running whilst the equipment is in working use. These documents are either artefacts in their own right (for example railway posters) or documentation relating to a particular object.

Like icebergs much of a science museum collection is away from public view in increasingly specialised storage facilities. Alberti is keen to highlight the vitality and dynamism of storage facilities, curators in general appear reluctant to refer to stores as "stores"! Stores are places where research and conservation happen, sometimes there are hazards to be managed – legacy radioactive materials are an issue both in museums and also in currently operational labs.

Museums present objects in long term exhibitions, and shorter, more focused exhibitions which may move from museum to museum. Exhibitions can be object-led or story-led, and the human stories are an important element. Science museums attract a wide age range. Pierre Boudieu makes an appearance here, as my wife completes her (Doctorate of Education) Bourdieu has been a constant occupant of the mental space of our home. His relevance here is the idea of "scientific capital" to parallel Bourdieu’s "cultural capital". "Scientific capital" refers to all the scientific touch points and knowledge you might have, I have demonstrated my "scientific capital" above, citing my experiences in word class research laboratories, and experience with scientific research. As a scientist from a very young age science museums have been my natural home but this is in large part due to my family rather than formal education.

The book finishes with a chapter on campaigning with collections, covering climate change, racism and colonialism, disability, and mis-information. Museums are held in high regard in terms of confidence in the information they provide, although they see their role more in teaching scientific literacy – supported by the objects they hold – rather than trying to megaphone facts. Many collections contain objects with morally dubious histories, as white Western countries we have typically ignored these issues – the Black Lives Matter movement means this is starting to change.

I think the best way of placing this is as a social history of the science museum – the author cites Richard Fortey’s Dry Store Room 1 as a model/inspiration and talks of the book as a "curator confessional", an entertaining enough read but rather specialist.