Books | Art in Science Museums: Towards a Post-Disciplinary Approach

This book on the evolving relationship between the arts and the sciences should be a call to arms for greater collaboration
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Katy Barrett
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Detail of the front cover of Art in Science Museums: Towards a Post-Disciplinary Approach
Detail of the front cover of Art in Science Museums: Towards a Post-Disciplinary Approach

It seems we cannot escape CP Snow. Over 60 years after his (in)famous “two cultures” speech to the University of Cambridge in 1959, discussions of the relationship between the arts and the sciences still take his argument as a key opponent.

But Snow was speaking as a product of his time, and his argument – that the sciences and literary arts were fundamentally opposed cultures, with the world suffering from insufficient appreciation, indeed mistrust, of the former – was shaped by those very cultural forces he attacked.

Today, it seems, any social mistrust is in fact aimed more towards the arts than the sciences, as the UK curriculum is directed more and more towards Stem subjects.

Thus, the relationship between the arts and sciences is ever in flux, and those who argue for the ongoing importance of dialogue between the two stress the need to understand both art and science as cultural products, with each giving us a better appreciation of the other.

High time, therefore, for a new approach to this debate, and a much-needed study of how art has been considered in the context of science museums. Rossi-Linnemann and de Martini have brought together many of the doyennes of art-science collaboration worldwide to ask where science museums and practitioners stand in our changing world, and what role art can play.

Their approach is largely contemporary, looking at projects from the last 10 to 30 years, while two introductory essays consider a longer history touching on the Renaissance, the birth of museums, Picasso and Einstein, before moving on to particular developments in art-science dialogue from the 1950s.

Importantly, all types of science museum are included here, with natural history and medicine alongside the science and technology. The structure of the volume proposes three ways in which art is now brought into science museums.

Presented by the editors as “a collection of stimuli”, these combine reflective chapters by curators, directors, artists and educators in the field with case studies by practitioners from around the globe.

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Some open conclusions invite readers to join the debate and to think about the potentials of a museum that does not simply combine the disciplines but aims for a new post-disciplinarity.

Firstly, art provides science museums with a narrative tool. Artists can act as “data visualisers” in the broadest sense, arranging museum displays, producing public art commissions and programmes, providing metaphors as a way into complex scientific questions, or a means for visitors to see the unseeable parts of science.

Here, examples range from the Medical Museion in Copenhagen and the Hall of Biodiversity in Porto to the art programme at London’s Science Museum, and Miraikan in Tokyo.

Secondly, art is an ally for science education and enquiry. It can help science museums to break out of their traditional elite structures and spaces, and has much common ground with science communication.

Art brings important aesthetic elements to the learning process, contributing to designing interactive exhibits and the development of participatory practice. Art can enable visitors to feel themselves in the shoes of a scientist, more aware of the personality and social values in science.

The artistic process itself can help to open up the black box of “scientific research” for audiences. San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a pioneer in this field is discussed alongside projects at the AM Qattan Foundation Science Studio in Ramallah, Hiša eksperimentov in Ljubljana and the National Science Museum in Thailand, among others.

Thirdly, art acts as a disruptive element in a science museum. The arts provide fresh ways to frame and respond to scientific issues, stimulate discussion and present future imagined scenarios. Artists can provide fundamental insights into the epistemologies of science and allow curators to experiment with different approaches.

Long-term collaborations and community engagement at FACT in Liverpool show us how art can bring criticality and help to build science literacy, while the contemporary art programme at London’s Natural History Museum brought ethnographic approaches to begin decolonising the museum’s narratives.

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Many of the chosen case studies emphasise the now well-established roles that art can bring to the science context – curiosity and imagination, visualisation, interactivity, emotion and ethics, a different perspective – but some also offer important new insights.

Writing about the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ian Brunswick and Andrea Bandelli discuss the importance of “answering the unasked questions”, understanding your audiences within their own lives, and therefore allowing them to see how art and science are together in the world all of the time.

Writing about their work at the Medical Museion, Ken Arnold and colleagues usefully consider what art does not do: it does not explain science. Rather, when art and science collaborate, they raise a set of shared aesthetic, methodological, philosophical and ethical questions for audiences.

I’d have liked more of a sense of historical continuum here – that art and science have always been in dialogue and these are simply our latest ways to express that – but this volume creates an important and inspiring collection of museological examples.

It is also disappointing to find so few images in a book about the importance of art that is also eye-wateringly expensive, but luckily, as Mike Stubbs and Mark Wright remind us, forms and disciplines of knowledge are constantly evolving and increasingly available to us online.

Perhaps we still return to CP Snow because nobody has quite said it better since, but this book rallies an army of examples against him, and I hope will be a call to arms for ongoing collaboration and critical reflection.

Katy Barrett is Curator of Art Collections at the Science Museum, London.

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