Reporting from our workshop ‘The Evolution of the Museum’

Ten days ago, we held our first two-day ‘Universal Histories and Universal Museums’ (UHUM) project workshop, ‘The Evolution of the Museum’, at the Science Museum in London.

The first day we were at Blythe House, which hosts the archives and part of the conservation sections and stores of the Science Museum, the V&A, and the British Museum. Being there allowed us to look directly at a range of objects and reflect upon the different frameworks we can use to look at them and how their materiality affects museums.

Project PI, Sandra Kemp introduced the workshop in the context of the wider project, outlining how this is underpinned by transnational comparison of the histories of the development of museum collection and display practices, and their reception, focused on the evolution of museums in London and Paris in the period roughly between 1851, the Great Exhibition in London, and 1914, the beginning of the First World War. The workshop itself would focus on the role of temporary exhibitions in shaping museums and their collections, and is the definition and evaluation of the impact of these events on museum institutions through two case studies:

– The Loan Exhibition of Scientific Apparatus in 1876 marked the growth of interest for a science collection in London and highlighted the development of scientific disciplines in the UK. This collection contributed to the separation of the South Kensington Museum’s collections in two branches, science and art, and ultimately led to the emergence of two different institutions, the V&A and the Science Museum.

– The Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro opened its doors in 1882, although it could build on a series of older ethnographic collections, some of which date back to the pre-revolutionary period, and recent attempts, especially since 1878, of creating an ethnographic exhibition.

Following the introductory remarks, we spent the morning in the Science Museum stores, looking at a series of objects that were displayed in the 1876 Loan Collection of Scientific Apparatus and successively acquired by the museum. The session was led by Dr Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum, who showed us objects relating to the standardisation of weights and lengths, as well as pitch, tone, and meter. Indeed, Dr Boon specialises in the history of these sound objects and he had also brought out the pyrophone, an organ that functions thanks to gas flames that – when operated – can be seen in its cylindrical glass tubes (see here a previous blog post by the Science Museum on it).

After lunch, we moved to the V&A stores to examine the Indian writing box Sandra and Chiara have been researching for our first paper: having looked at the box, we divided into small groups to explore how we could use different theoretical frameworks and methodologies for researching the history of this object and its impact (e.g. object biographies, object agencies, boundary objects, actor-network-theory, social network analysis). From there, we continued our exploration – Christopher Marsden, Senior Archivist, showed us a range of documents from the V&A archives: we looked at annual reports and other administrative records, as well as some fantastic photographic albums documenting the construction of the South Kensington Museum and its early displays.

The first panel of our workshop then explored the history of the science museum and of the impact of Universal Exhibitions in the UK. Dr Rupert Cole, assistant curator at the Science Museum, began by tracing the history of the displays of the Nairne machines from the nineteenth century to date. Dr Alexander Scott, from the University of St Trinity Wales, and Dr Jonathan King, from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of Cambridge, discussed the impact of the 1851 Universal exhibition on Liverpool museums and of exhibitions temporary buildings on museum architecture.

On the second day, we moved from Blythe House to the Dana Research Centre, part of the Science Museum, and we metaphorically also moved to Paris. The day started with a paper by Sandra, comparing the press and public reception of British and French displays, and it continued with a panel chaired by André Delpuech on the history of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Pascal Rivial, Séverine Dessajan, and Magdalena Ruiz Marmolejo discussed the early collections of this museum focusing respectively on Peruvian collections, approaches to display of ethnography, and Amazonian collections.

In the afternoon, after a short tour of the ‘Making the Modern World’ Gallery of the Science Museum (led by Rupert Cole and Chiara), Déborah Dubald drew our attention to the multiple entanglements of collections, stakeholders, and buildings that shaped the museum of natural history of Lyon, while Roberto Limentani explored the theoretical background of Pitt Rivers’ approach to ethnology and museology.

After two days of rich discussions and debates, it was up to Hervé Inglebert, French principal investigator of the project, to summarise the main points emerged and to trace the way forward for our project. Finally, Chiara showed us a preview of the virtual exhibition we have been preparing and that will be officially launched later this autumn.

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