Chicago’s Field Museum is making drastic cuts to basic research in order to meet a constrained budget. Lukas has argued that this should be seen as a blow to scientists, historians of science, and members of the public, even while we acknowledge museums’ complex roots in the cultural capital of the Gilded Age.
Both Lukas’s analysis and poignancy feel spot on, and I take seriously the idea that we can’t cleave them apart. Museums don’t just conveniently blur analytical binaries (like public and private, internal and external, expert and lay) for historians of science; they’re also sites with which people fall in love, and thus a hook for wider audiences.
People who study museums—like Lukas, Jenna Tonn, and others—know this well. But I think one thing the Field Museum episode reveals is that, even within the academy (indeed, even within history of science), there are some widespread misperceptions about today’s museum curation—some will be surprised that curators are tenured, for example, and that “curation” is as much original research as preservation and display.
Sure, we “know” this. But I think if a scientific division at a major university—down the road, say, at the University of Chicago—were going through this (collapsing departments, breaking tenure), we’d hear more about it. Does that sound right? If so, why? And why do I get the impression that part of making the case for the Field is convincing people that its staff really does crucial research (rather than, say, simply enabling others to do it)?
Maybe a comparison with art museums will help bring what interests me into focus.
Last week, I was at the de Young Museum, which stares across a manicured lawn at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Recently rebuilt in striking style, their proximity reminded me of what “research” in either setting might mean, both in terms of the objects they contain and the expectations of the public who visit them.
|California Academy of Sciences (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/02/California_Academy_of_Sciences_pano.jpg)|
Like the Field in Chicago, the CAS in San Francisco combines original research, education, and public exhibits on topics across natural history. Both attract millions of visitors, many of them families and school groups, and both are increasingly hands-on, interactive spaces (the sort of curation mentioned by Dan in a comment on Lukas’s post).
What do visitors expect? Of course, there are the specimens for which natural history is famous—like Sue, the Field Museum’s Tyrannosaurus rex (the most complete specimen of its kind)—of which only a tiny fraction are ever seen in public. But science, too, is on display: not just its products, that is, but its process.
|Sue at the Field Museum (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fc/Sues_skeleton.jpg)|
Sue floats in a sea of signage, detailing not just her anatomy and life history, but the provenance of her fossilized bones and the process that brought them to light. Science went into her discovery, recovery, and display, and those efforts are explained alongside her striking skeleton. Visitors are invited to “discover the science of Sue”; prominent placards proclaim both her place in natural history and the practices that made it so.
It’s a different story at the de Young—or, for that matter, at the MET or the MoMA or any other flagship museum of the fine arts. It’s not that art curators don’t put in similar efforts—of course they do. And you do hear about feats associated with the recovery, restoration, and display of priceless paintings much as you do about famous fossils. In both, curators study, as well as care for, the objects in their charge.
|M. H. de Young Memorial Museum (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/De_Young_Museum_pano.jpg)|
There seems to be a different relationship between what’s on display and what’s beneath the surface at the two institutions, something that goes beyond everyday distinctions between “art” and “science,” that goes part of the way toward clarifying what’s at stake in the Field Museum’s recent troubles—and why we need reminding of the processes it brings to light.
It seems that art curators don’t claim to “do” art in the same way as science curators claim to “do” science. There’s a distinction between the process of producing and displaying the works in the de Young that’s collapsed when you cross the courtyard to the Academy of Sciences, one that jives with what historians think goes into both fields.
Historians of science have convincingly shown that whatever “science” is, it’s operating all the way from digging to displaying when it comes to dinosaur bones—a fact current curators have been happy to confirm. Art historians and curators, on the other hand, have been less likely to claim their crafts as “art” from top-to-bottom. If anything, they’re more likely to see their work as scientific.
The distinction I’ve just introduced has been (I think) invoked as the Field had advocated for its preservation. Cut science museums and you cut science, which directly depends on such collections and institutions. Cut art museums and you cut art in a different sense: its public display more than its production—which major museums were less directly involved with (to my knowledge) than were their scientific counterparts.
What might such a case elide? Well, it seems like one way to bridge the study of art and science curation—as practical aesthetics, instantiations of judgment—gets lost. To the extent that historians of science have been paying more attention to matters of taste, the boundary I’ve traced above fails to see science as fundamentally art-like. Interestingly, seeing science curation that way might well hamper—rather than help—effort on the Field’s behalf.
That brings me to my final point. We might watch more warily than Lukas would like as historical work comes this close to advocacy. Crises remind us what matters—but we might well strive to transcend our current commitments as we describe those who came before us. Seeing science curators as taste-makers, for example, might well undermine efforts to paint their work (sorry) as a public good. So what? If Lukas’s Bourdieuian approach to their early history does more harm than good precisely when museums like the Field are under pressure to change, what do we do?
Should this change what Lukas says? No (nor has it). Does Lukas think it should? No (as he himself suggests). But I’m curious to hear how he might bring his analysis (of the capitalist roots of museum culture) and his passion (for the preservation of those institutions) together.
In some cases, the latter (passion) might drive the former (analysis)—but the present seems a complicated one for such a synthesis. Might the former—a story about where museums come from, undergirded by a vision of how they reflect the cultural capital that created them—instead impact the latter? We need both passion and critique, but what happens when they don’t fit together easily?
Lukas suggests “other dimensions of the history” will make clear how his history of museums and his fondness for their present incarnation go together, and that it will take a post to flesh them out. I hope he’ll write it.