84502 - Science Museums and Exhibitions

Course Unit Page

  • Teacher Anna Guagnini

  • Credits 6

  • SSD L-ART/04

  • Teaching Mode Traditional lectures

  • Language English

  • Course Timetable from Jan 23, 2019 to Mar 08, 2019

Academic Year 2018/2019

Learning outcomes

The students are expected to understand the important cultural and social role played by museums and other forms of exhibits in the creation and codification of notions of invention and discovery, moulding scientific traditions and forging of disciplinary identities.The course will explore the different cultural, economic and social contexts in which museums and other forms of display were rooted, the factors affecting their evolution in the period considered and the legacy of such historical background.

Course contents

The early history science museums

The “cabinets of curiosities” and Kunst- und Wunderkammern in Early Modern Europe. Theory and practices of private collections of natural items and artefacts. Motivations, practices and objectives in creation and displays of private collections by members of European royal families, the aristocracy and the wealthy bourgeoisie.

The early history of science museums

The transition from wonder and rarity as the main criteria for the collection of specimens, to new “scientific” criteria in the organization of collections and their display. Collections as tools and museums as physical spaces for the study of nature. The gradual opening of museums to the public.

Museums in the nineteenth century.

The origins and early development of the modern science and technology museums, and the growing importance of their educational objectives. Evolution of the internal organization of these institutions, changes in their architectural structure and forms of display, and changes in the profile of their public.

Exhibitions and fairs as forms of presenting scientific and technological progress

The nineteenth century saw the extraordinary development of large-scale temporary exhibitions as a forum for displaying to a large public (millions of visitors in the case of the international exhibitions) the progress of science, technology and the arts. The aim of this class is to discuss the cultural, socio-economic and political aspects of these events, and the change of their format and objectives up to the present.

The beginning of science and technology museums

Based on instruments and machinery used for educational purposes, and often on items displayed during national and international exhibitions, science (and technology) museums began to be organized in the late nineteenth century, and further expanded in the twentieth century.

Museums after 1970

The object of this class is the re-formulation of the scope and organization of museums that took place from the 1970s onwards. Particular attention will be devoted to the rise of the science centres characterized by interactive and multimedia displays, and the participatory approach which is the distinctive feature of contemporary museums.

Debates surrounding public understanding/participation in science and their effects in the museum space

The participatory turn is a distinctive feature of the communicative approach of contemporary museums. Interactive games, co-creating laboratories, social media heavy websites are some of the tools. Furthermore, the new science and technology museum, like other museums, has to take into account the changing composition of the society and in turn the visitors. What do they do to address this issue of inclusiveness?

Controversies under the roof museum halls - and beyond

Exhibits are constructed on the basis of narratives, and they convey messages and the interpretations. Such messages and interpretations can be, and in fact often are, controversial. In the recent past some very important discussion have been generated by exhibitions dealing with historical events, important discoveries or inventions and their subsequent developments. The ensuing debate involved a variety of aspects and levels of the organization and management of such exhibits. We shall discuss some of the most interesting controversies, most notably the “Enola Gay” controversy, and their implications with regard to the organization and management of exhibitions, and the reaction of the public and the sponsors. We shall also examine the very nature of some controversial museums such as the Creation Museum (Petersburg, Kentucky, United States), and the debate on their status.

The rapidly expanding sector of corporate museums.

The questions we shall address are the nature of these exhibitions: the their status and function within firms and companies, the choice of the people in charge of the design and organization of these exhibitions; the peculiar characteristics and the problematic status of their collections


The early history science museums


 Statutes of the International Council of Museums (ICOM)

Definition of “Museum” according to the ICOM (1946-2007)


European Network of Science Centres and Museums (ECSITE)

Strategic Plan 2016-2020


Website: Wunderkammer, http://www.kunstkammer.at/

The early history of science museums


Giuseppe Olmi, “From the marvellous to the commonplace: Notes on natural history museums (16th-18th centuries)”, in Renato Mazzolini (ed.), Non verbal communication in science prior to 1900 (Firenze; Olschki, 1993), pp. 235-278

Elisabeth Scheicher, The collection of Archduke Ferdinand II at Schloss Ambras in Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor (eds.) The origins of museums : the cabinet of curiosities in sixteenth- and seventeenth century Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), pp. 29-38

Hans-Olof Boström, “Philipp Hainhofer and Gustavus Adolphus’s Kunstschrank in Uppsala”, ibid, pp. 90-101

Arthur MacGregor, “The Cabinets of curiosities in 17th-century Britain”, ibid, pp. 147-158

Museums in the nineteenth century.


Tony Bennett, The birth of the museum. History, theory, politics (London New York Routledge 1995), Chapter 1, “The formation of the museum”, pp. 17-58

Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, “Placing nature: natural history collections and their owners in nineteenth-century provincial England”, British Journal of the History of Science, 35 (2002), pp. 211-240

Sally Gregory Kohlstedt and Paul Brinkman, “Framing nature: The formative years of natural history museum development in the United States”, Proceedings of the California Academy of Science, 55 (2004), pp. 7-33

Camille Limoges, “The development of the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle of Paris, 1800-1914”, in R. Fox, G. Weisz (eds.), The organisation of science and technology in France, 1808-1914 (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 211-249

Exhibitions and fairs


Paul Greenhalgh, Ephemeral vistas: The “Expositions universelles, Great Exhibitions and world’s fairs 1851-1939 (Manchester University Press, 1988), Chapter 1, “Origins and conceptual development”, pp. 3-26, and Chapter 3, “Imperial display”, pp. 52-81

Iwan Rhys Morus, “More than the aspect of magic than anything natural. The philosophy of demonstration”, in Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman, Science in the marketplace. Nineteenth century sites and experiences (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 336-370

John Betts, “P. T. Barnum, and the popularization of natural history”, Journal of the history of ideas, 20 (1959), pp. 353-368

Bruce Sinclair, “Technology on its toes: Late Victorian ballets, pageants, and industrial exhibitions”, in Cutcliffe, Stephen H., and Post, Robert C. (eds.), In context: History and the history of technology. Essays in honor of Melvin Kranzberg (Lehigh Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 71-87

The beginning of science and technology museums


Stella Butler, Science and Technology Museums (Leicester University Press, 1992), Chapter 1 “Science and technology in display”, pp. 1-14; Chapter 2, “Monuments to manufacture”, pp. 15-42

Eugene Ferguson, “Technical Museums and international exhibitions”, Technology & Culture 6 (1963), pp. 30-46

Wolfhard Weber, “The political history of museums of technology in Germany since the nineteenth

Century”, History and Technology, 10 (1993), pp.13-25

Ferriot, Dominique, “Arts et métiers, la création d'une collection nationale”, La revue du Musée des arts et métiers, 34 (2001), pp. 53-57

Jacqueline Eidelman, “The cathedral of French science. The early years of the ‘Palais de la Découverte’”, in Terry Shinn and Richard Whitley (eds.) Expository science: Forms and functions of popularisation (D. Reidel; Dordrecht, Boston, Lancaster, 1985), pp. 195-207

Museums after 1970


Frank Oppenheimer, “Rationale for a science museum”, Curator: The Museum Journal, 1 (1968), pp. 206-209

Alan J. Friedman, “The extraordinary growth of the science-technology museum”, Curator, 50 (2007), pp. 63-75

Sue Allen, “Designs for learning: Studying science museums exhibits that do more than entertain”, Science Education 88 (2004), pp. 17-33

Debates surrounding public understanding/participation in science and their effects in the museum space


Sharon Macdonald, “Exhibitions and the public understanding of science paradox”, Workshop on “Exhibitions as tools for transmitting knowledge”, Humboldt Universität, 2002

Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum (Santa Cruz: Museum, 2010), Chapter 1, “Principles of participation”; Chapter 3, “From me to we”, http://www.participatorymuseum.org/read/

James M. Bradbourne

“Dinosaurs and white elephants: the science center in the twenty-first century” Public understanding of science , 7 (1998), pp. 237-253

Martin W. Bauer, “What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research? Liberating and expanding the agenda”, Public Understanding of Science 16 (2007) pp. 79-95

The new language and communication tools of museums


Paul F. Marty, “Museum websites and museum visitors: Before and after the museum visit”, Museum Management and Curatorship 22 (2007), pp. 337-360

Anwesha Chakraborty and Federico Nanni, (forthcoming) ‘The Changing Digital Faces of Science Museums: a diachronic analysis of museum websites’, in Niels Bruegger, ed., Web 25: Histories from first 25 years of the World Wide Web. (Peter Lang, in press)

Christian Heath and Dirk von Lehn, “Interactivity and collaboration; new forms of participation in museums, galleries and science centres”, in Ross Parry (ed.), Museums in a digital age (Routledge, 2009), pp. 266-280

Controversies under the roof museum halls - and beyond


Richard H. Kohn, “History and the culture wars: The case of the Smithsonian Institution's Enola Gay Exhibition”, Journal of American History, 82 (1995), pp. 1036-63

Sharon Macdonald, “Supermarket science? Consumers and 'the public understanding of science'”, in Sharon Macdonald (ed.), The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture (Routledge 2008), pp. 118-138

Martin Weiss, “Beyond the evolution battle: Addressing public misunderstanding”, Dimensions, on-line journal of ASTC, March/April 2006


ECSITE, “Position statement on science and evolution”


The rapidly expanding sector of corporate museums.


The International Committee for the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage (TICCIH)

“The Nizhny Tagil Charter For The Industrial Heritage”

at: http://ticcih.org/about/charter/

Joelle Seligson, “Corporate, culture? One part education, one part sales: this is the corporate museum”, Museum, (2010), pp. 35-41

Nick Nissey and Andrea Casey, “The politics of the exhibition: Viewing corporate museums through the paradigmatic lens of organizational memory”, British Journal of Management, 13 (2002), pp. 35-45

Mariacristina Bonti, “The corporate museums and their social function: Some evidence from Italy”, European Scientific Journal, 1 (2014), pp. 141-150

Isabelle Cousserand, “Musées d’entreprise: un genre composite”, Communication et organisation, 35 (2009), pp. 192-213

Assessment methods


In order to be admitted to the examination students are expected to attend no less than 12 out of the total 15 classes

All students are expected to read carefully the articles set each week and to play an active role in all class discussions.

The final assessment will be based on three parts:

1. Oral examination of a selection of 5 groups of essays (see list) 40%

2. A report (c. 2.000 words) in which each student will examine a museum of her/his choice, within the typological range of museums/exhibitions examined in the course, using in her/his analysis the interpretive/methodological tools offered by the essays chosen for the Part 1 of her/his examination. They can be prepared either individually or jointly by two students (in which case they are expected to be longer).

The subject must be chosen in consultation with the teacher. The report must include the title, the name of the author(s), footnotes, and a bibliography indicating essays, books and other sources consulted. 40%

3. Contributions to the discussion during classes, and presentation of one essay in Forums. The presentations can be prepared by two or more students jointly, depending on the total number of students attending the course. 20%

Office hours

See the website of Anna Guagnini