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Science Museum Group

History of use and tacit skills

The Science Museum Group’s History of Use and Tacit Skills project is exploring how instruments, machines and equipment were used in the past, in terms of the specific ways in people handled their tools to achieve particular results.

Aim

We aim to build an archive of the histories of how objects were built into the lives of people in the past, at work, home and play, so that these can be grasped by museum visitors and researchers into the very long term future.

Context

Rationales for collecting and displaying objects differ between museums. Museums of science and technology collect objects mainly because of how they were used during their working ‘lives’. These may be instruments that particular scientists used for specific experiments, machines that embody particular innovations in their mode of operation, or typical tools used in the daily lives of people in the past.

But most museums display their objects in glass cases with short labels, inviting visitors to make sense of them using their eyes alone. In our research, we are exploring how the full sensory experience of our objects’ past can be captured and revealed in future displays.

This initiative is exploring how instruments, machines and equipment were used in the past, not just in terms of a general contextual social history, but in terms of the specific ways in which people handled their tools—from surgical scalpels to tape recorders, from lathes to synthesizers—to achieve particular results. Most often, the ways in which such objects were used has never been verbally expressed; these activities were tacitly pursued, sometimes at variance with manufacturers’ intentions.

In our investigations we use a battery of techniques—including object-guided oral history, simulation-based re-enactment, reconstruction and replication—to reveal how our objects were used in the past.

Outcomes

In 2014 the Science Museum exhibited a giant loudspeaker, The Denman Horn, as a kind of re-enactment of the museum’s own practice in the 1920s. The programme included re-staged or original programming with contemporary re-uses, both of which helped visitors to grasp this long- forgotten mode of museum display.

In October 2016, the Science Museum hosted Artefacts, an international curators’ conference dedicated to the theme of ‘Understanding Use’, during which 20+ papers explored the issues involved for museums and social studies of technology.

Professor Roger Kneebone of Imperial College has frequently used the Science Museum’s collections and display spaces for simulation-based surgical re-enactments—for example, in his Time-travelling operating theatre event.

Project partners

The Centre for Performance Science

The Centre for Performance Science is an ambitious collaboration between Imperial College and the Royal College of Music that aims to tackle major challenges of performance across a wide array of domains. It envisions that, through understanding how skilled performers meet the distinctive challenges of their work—often under intense stress and public scrutiny—performance will serve both as a source of inspiration and a rich resource for research.

The Imperial College Centre of Engagement and Simulation Science (ICCESS) focuses on advancing human health through simulation. ICESS researches innovative approaches to physical simulation, haptic technology, simulation-based pathway modelling, education and engagement. Collaborations with the Science Museum have explored the histories of 20C surgery though simulation-based re-enactment.

National Museums Scotland

Research is core to the activities of National Museums Scotland, where it is a crucial tool for the stewardship of collections and for the development of subject knowledge of national and international relevance. Research is fostered through curatorial work, projects and grants undertaken with other institutions and universities worldwide. It is communicated to the wider public through temporary and permanent exhibitions, lectures and conferences, as well as workshops, activities, events and social media.

National Museums Scotland has a strong track of record researching historic practices and skills, as well as working with historic reconstructions. It is also one of the leaders in the sector, employing historic working objects and models in its displays, engagement and outreach.

Musée des Arts et Metiers, Paris

Founded in 1794 by Henri Grégoire, the Musée National des Arts et Métiers, is ‘a store of new and useful inventions’—a museum of technological innovation, with one of the finest collections of scientific and technological items anywhere in the world. As a key part of the educational institution Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers it has active research interests in the histories of use of the objects in its collections, especially as they were used for the manufacture of goods.

The ADAPT Project

ADAPT is a five-year (2013-2018) research project, funded by the European Research Council and based at Royal Holloway, University of London. The aim of the project is to research and document the history of British broadcast television technology between 1960 and the near-present.

Working with these partners and others, we are currently looking to start new strands of work.