|Paving the way for integrated archival and collection-based research in the history of science: Preservation, access and case-studies of the collections of the Museum of Science (University of Lisbon) (closed)|
|Tuesday, 01 April 2008 13:24|
Abrir caminho à integração da investigação de base documental e material em história da ciência: Preservação, acessibilidade e estudos de caso no Museu de Ciência da Universidade de Lisboa
Paving the way for integrated archival and collection-based research in the history of science: Preservation, access and case-studies of the collections of the Museum of Science (University of Lisbon)
FCT Project PTDC/HCT/64181/2006
Coordinating researcher: Marta Lourenço
Host Institution: Museu de Ciência da Universidade de Lisboa
Starting Date: 1 April 2008
Duration in months: 36 months
The prime aim of this project is to make scientific collections more relevant to the history of science. Since history of science in Portugal has established itself as an independent field of study, regulated by international standards, it is now possible to initiate reflection on the role, scope and historiography of scientific material culture.
This project is a collaborative initiative of the Centre for the History of Science and the Museum of Science, both University of Lisbon, bringing together researchers from different backgrounds with the following objectives:
Museums have only played a minimal role in mainstream history of science. Only a small percentage of historical research has been collection-based or has made significant use of three-dimensional sources. Scientific instruments in museums, when not ignored altogether, are relegated a decorative role in papers and theses. Despite recent signs of change at an international level, scientific material culture is still terra incognita in Portugal.
Increasing the relevance of collections for research is a complex task and poses many challenges - first and foremost to museums themselves. Museums often complain about their collections not being used as a source for history of science. However, are museums prepared to 'deliver' history? Do they consider documenting the history of science as part of their mission? Are collections intellectually and physically accessible? When they are, do inventories and documentation systems meet the needs and expectations of historians?
One way of diminishing these problems and gradually enhance the relevance of museums is by establishing partnerships. For two reasons university museums are especially well-positioned to initiate partnerships with research groups in the history of science: i) because of their strategic position between the world of academia and the world of museums; ii) their collections and archives - laboratory notes, class plans, didactic panels, instrument apparatuses - are typologically distinct from the typical museum of science: they document the history of scientific research and teaching.
The Museum of Science of the University of Lisbon is particularly resourceful. Apart from an important collection of historical scientific equipment, it also holds significant historical archives and a library. The Museum is heir to books and instruments, as well as institutional documents and memorabilia, from the Noviciate of Cotovia (1619-1759), the Colégio dos Nobres (1761-1837), the Polytechnic School (1837-1911) and the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon (1911 onwards) - one of the oldest institutional lineages of scientific teaching and study in Portugal. The largest part of this heritage - covering Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Mathematics - is from the 19th and 20th centuries, but the Museum collection, archive and library have great consistency as a whole and together encompass c. 230,000 items which have barely been used in history of science.
The Museum has occasionally benefited from the collaboration of historians and wants to be more proactive in stimulating collection-based research in the history of science. This, however, poses major challenges. Although the Museum's heritage has been kept under generally good conditions, only the library is catalogued and accessible. Only one third of the collection is inventoried and a much smaller portion is photographed. The collection database is obsolete and not accessible online. There are no conditions to host visiting researchers. The archive is not catalogued, let alone microfilmed or digitalised.
This Project brings together a group of historians of science to assess the Museum's preparedness to deliver history of science, advise on how to improve it, and develop actual research. It will raise preservation standards for the archive, catalogue it and make it accessible for research. Collection preservation standards will also be improved and the database upgraded. About 50% of the instruments will be studied, inventoried, photographed and made accessible online. At the end of the project, an integrated system that cross-indexes information from the collection, the archive and the library will be developed.
The Project has two PhDs, one master's and two post-doctoral projects. These researchers will develop five case-studies, using both archival sources and collections, with subject matter covering different aspects of the history of science (the Physics Laboratory at the Faculty of Science in the 1930s, the 19th century Laboratorio Chimico, outsourcing chemistry services in 19th century Polytechnic School and the collection of early scientific instruments), and paper conservation studies (collection of technical drawings). Case-studies will enable close monitoring of preservation and accessibility measures as they are implemented throughout the Project and facilitate the discussion on the role of material culture in the history of science.
Bridging the gap between history of science and museums will benefit historians, museums and society at large. Historians gain from broadening their sources and 'ways of looking', enriching narratives and confronting alternative material evidence. Museums benefit from academically validated research, which not only enhances the use and significance of their collections, but also provides additional opportunities for public interpretation and exhibition. Society as a whole benefits as scientific heritage may gradually receive the same social and political recognition granted to artistic, architectonic and natural heritage.
Alberti, S.J.M.M. 2005. Objects and the Museum. Isis 96: 559-571.