Museums, Material Culture and the History of Science - HI881

Location Term Level Credits (ECTS) Current Convenor 2019-20
(version 2)
View Timetable
7 30 (15) DR R Higgitt







This module will explore the physical things, from pencils and air pumps to buildings and particle accelerators, that are essential to making scientific knowledge and, therefore, to understanding and communicating its history and practice. It will explore the literature on using objects, images and buildings as historical sources and museological approaches to the collection and interpretation of scientific instruments and related objects. Students will visit museums and have the opportunity to talk to curators about their work, as well as reflecting on existing displays. The module will be assessed through a mixture of practical tasks, based on real objects and displays, and an essay, encouraging critical reflection on the scholarship and museum practice encountered over the term.


This module appears in:

Method of assessment

The module will be assessed by 100% coursework.

• Object analysis (15%). Will encourage new approaches to research, applying curatorial skills and theory of material culture. Students will practice a different form of writing to essay writing, selecting and presenting information in a concise format (no more than 500 words each on two objects), providing basic but essential details such as description, date, materials, maker, provenance and object history."
• One 10-15 minute presentation on an existing display (15%). Giving a presentation will allow students to practice skills in oral communication and in the effective use of accompanying images/text/handouts or other aids. It will encourage students to identify key points from large amounts of information.
• Project (working in pairs or threes) creating a virtual exhibition through images and accompany label and panel text (30%). This will allow students to practice working with peers, improving writing skills, making effective use of material and visual culture and presenting complex ideas to a general audience. The mark for this assignment will be given to the group as a whole based on the work produced (unless specific problems are raised before the deadline, in which case the convenor would request reports regarding who has contributed what to the project and assign individual marks).
• Essay (3500 words – 40%). Through the essay, students learn to research a subject and to formulate and present their own opinions.

Indicative reading

• S.J. Alberti. (2005) 'Objects and the Museum', Isis, 96
• R. Bud. (1995) 'Science, meaning and myth in the museum', Public Understanding of Science
• K. Hill (ed.) (2012) Museums and Biographies: Stories, Objects, Identities. Woodbridge: Boydell Press
• S. Lubar & W.D. Kingery (eds.) (1993) History from Things. Essays on Material Culture. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press
• P. Morris (ed.), (2010) Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
• D. Pantalony. (2008) ‘What is it? Twentieth-Century Artifacts out of Context’, HSS Newsletter
• D.J. Warner (1990) ‘What is a scientific instrument, when did it become one, and why?’, British Journal for the History of Science

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

As a consequence of taking this module students will have:

11.1 Gained knowledge of key themes in the history of science, technology and medicine.
11.2 Gained knowledge and a critical understanding of a representative sample of science historiography, particularly in relation to: the analysis of material culture, using objects and buildings as historical sources, and geographies of scientific knowledge.
11.3 Gained a critical understanding of themes and trends in the display of objects related to science and technology in museums and an appreciation of the different spaces and locations in which such objects are displayed.
11.4 Gained an understanding of how the historical methodologies used by historians of science translate into displays and the brief label and panel texts that accompany them.
11.5 Learnt to think critically about popular myths about science and its history, and how object displays and museums can bolster or critique them.
11.6 Learnt to evaluate a range of sources for understanding the impact of science on wider culture.

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