Monday, March 14, 2011

Provenance and the Role of the Public Museum

Last week, Dr. David Pantalony (Curator of Physical Sciences and Medicine at the Canada Science and Technology Museum and Adjunct Professor in the Department of History at the University of Ottawa) came to town.  A group of university and museum people got together to discuss the current artifact holdings of the local universities and how these can be used by the students (especially those in U King's History of Science & Tech program) to enhance their learning experience.  We also discussed the holdings of museums and how there is partnership potential for students to study the mysterious, old scientific instruments that are sitting in so many of our museums.

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? - Theratron Junior
CSTM 1966.0043
Next up was the Theratron Junior, a Canadian invention from the 1950s that became instrumental in treating cancer.  It was not only an innovation of medical science, but a representation of the fact that Canada chose a peaceful use of nuclear energy.  Its colour is the iconic 1940-1960s sea-foam green, so recognizable in hospitals and medicine in general.  The manufacturer (Atomic Energy of Canada) recruited master machinists to ensure that the best possible product would be created, something that was functional as well as artistic.  By conducting interviews with former machinists and service technicians, the Museum discovered just how much work went into the aesthetics of the machine - it had to be sleek and streamlined, with so many coats of paint that it garnered an enameled look.  The Theratron Junior was prominently featured at the 1962 World Fair in Seattle, where Canada was presented as modern, scientific and fresh.  We were at the forefront of peaceful, scientific progress.  This was the presentation of the ideal.  Further research revealed that the nurses who used these machines were concerned about radiation exposure and were unable to verbally communicate with patients when they were undergoing the brief treatments.  One nurse even remembered bribing a 5 year old boy with match cars in order to get him to stay still.

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.

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