Who makes decisions about the heritage of science, technology, engineering and medicine?

…Or rather: who does, who might, and who should make such decisions?

Questions about decision making in heritage are questions of the exercise of cultural power, and power has tended to operate within hierarchies. Hierarchies of knowledge have conventionally been mapped onto social hierarchies; we are used to the conjunction ‘poor and ignorant’, though you never hear the corollary ‘comfortably off and expert’. But, importantly, ever since history from below set out to rescue the marginalised of the past from the condescension of posterity, academic élites too have wanted the knowledge of the poor. Hierarchies of knowledge have also been assumed to inhere in the relationships between museum curators and museum visitors. But, just as with history from below, so it behoves those of us in possession of professional expertise in heritage to take seriously the knowledge of visitors. After all, it is their capacity to enjoy the displays in our institutions that justifies and enables our continuance, and that capacity is rooted in their ability to make sense of what museums display in terms of what they already know.  

The particular status of the aspects of culture that we cram into the portmanteau term ‘science’ can help us with our broader questions about the ownership of ‘heritage’. Or at least I hope that will turn out to be the case by the time we conclude our project. One of the reasons for this is that questions of professional authority linked to expertise have been at the heart of discussions of science communication for the last 25 years. Intense attention to the question of how publics should come to an enhanced understanding of science has passed through two models in this period. In the first place, after the Bodmer Report of 1985, attempts at enhancing the public appreciation of science were centred around what was later labelled the ‘deficit model’. In this, it was expected that lay people would be more appreciative of science if they learned more factual information about it. From 2000, a more nuanced model, that of dialogue between science and the public, has been in vogue. This model recognises that people know about the territory of science in many ways – they know, for example, about illness, stars, motorbikes, plants and weather. They therefore deserve and need to be engaged where they are, in positions of knowledge.

Where does this get us with our question? If you look around you, the most apparent answer to questions about who makes decisions about the heritage of science is that it is mainly science and technology museums – or rather the people who work in them – that make the decisions. Museums of science and technology are very similar in this respect to those of social history or decorative art, for example. In this context, the heritage decisions are about what is added to an institution’s collections, what is displayed (in exhibitions and online) and what is researched. But, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that there’s a lot more than élite curatorial expertise determining these processes of selection, and the actions of curators. In the first place, we are creatures of our times in terms of the values we bring to, for example, collecting. Most curators of my generation were washed by the tide of social history that rose from the mid 1970s, as a hybrid of regional ethnography and history from below. That has certainly caused many of us charged with composing acquisition policies to favour the ordinary over the exceptional, even in museums that have consistently stressed the icons or masterpieces of science and technology. In science museums, this also betrays the influence of Thomas Kuhn’s idea of ‘normal science’ and the generation of sociologists of knowledge and science, including Bruno Latour, who have emphasised the social nature of scientific practice.

I am using a language of remote influence on curatorial practice through educational experience and susceptibility to professional fashions. But this is insufficient to convey the reality of what goes on in curatorial choices, in at least two ways. On the first level, the ethics of professional groups acting on behalf of their clienteles – here, respectively, curators and visitors – have, increasingly, been called into question by those who ask by what process of consent they have ceded power to professional groups. (This has, of course, happened most at the ‘sharp end’ of social exclusion, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen more widely.) But, on another level, we should acknowledge that the supposed autonomy of museum curators is already more apparent than real. There are other factors in the environment that favours selections of the kinds I have listed. For example, when curators acquire objects, donors are often the key players; an unexpected offer of donation opens up the possibility of new narratives for the museum, and those stories often depend on what the donor chooses to explain about the context from which the objects originate. Second, there are many well developed areas of lay expertise, and their existence has had the effect of dissolving hierarchy; no curator of a funded railway museum can ignore the existence of extended networks of lay enthusiasts, for example. In some co-creation experiments, including the ‘Oramics’ electronic music exhibition at the ScienceMuseum, such lay expertise is able to deliver powerful alternatives to what might have been the curatorial account.

In conclusion (for now), I’d like to suggest that, when hierarchical expectations between curators and the public are relaxed, the questions that result become less about knowledge versus ignorance, as about different styles and registers of knowledge and understanding. This is also, for my taste, one of the most interesting areas for science engagement too.



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