On Tuesday evening, Dr. Pantalony gave a talk at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on "Provenance and the Role of the Public Museum: How the Life Stories of Artifacts Challenge the Traditional Accounts of Science and History."
Traditionally, science museums have focused their interpretive efforts on how an object worked and where it fit into the evolution of science and technology. Provenance research has been left to art galleries and social history museums - those institutions interested in sharing the personal history of an object as well as how it fits into the greater scheme of things.
Dr. Pantalony shared some prime examples from the Science & Tech collection that demonstrate how rich a story can become once the history is pieced together. First was the Herzberg spectrograph, which for years had been sitting in a basement at the University of Saskatchewan. While it was previously viewed as a prime example of a 1930s scientific instrument, by researching its individual history it has become a symbol of scientists' exodus from Nazi Germany. Is that story not as important to tell?
|flickr.com - Theratron Junior|
The question was asked why science museums have ignored this aspect of research when it is obviously so important. It was suggested that the scientific community may have a fear of mundane or uncomfortable results. By sticking to the broader picture of how something worked and during what time period it was used, there are no risks of discovering that the minerals used in constructing the machine were mined in Brazil under terrible conditions, or that something touted as the first of its kind was actually 12 years too old to be the first. Thankfully, we are now seeing a shift from this traditional approach to one that is taking each artifact's individual history more seriously. What we want the object to be and what it actually is will not match, but we must follow the object where it leads.
Rebuttals were given by Robert Bean of NSCAD and Ted Cavanagh of Dalhousie University. One of my favourite observations was that conducting such research gives a voice to the artifact; it is essentially coaching speech and making technology articulate. This fits so well with our collections enrichment and QR code projects - we are making artifacts come to life.
Last year we developed a donor questionnaire to help museum staff and volunteers get the necessary background information about an artifact from the donor. If you aren't already using such a document, I encourage you to check it out.