0 comments 12 December 2007

On 5 December 2007, the class of Science and the Public went to pay the Utrecht University Museum a visit. We entered the museum through a modern glass structure, which welcomed us in by its transparency and openness. The first room displays the collection of the Utrecht anatomist Jan Bleuland (1756-1838), which provides a comprehensive overview of anatomical practice in Utrecht at the time. We then entered the Knowledge Lab (KennisLab), which is an exhibition dedicated to scientific progress and the history of Utrecht University. After we enjoyed a tour by the curator, we were invited to manoeuvre through the room following a 5-step sequence. Going up the stairs led to the Youth Lab (JeugdLab) on the third floor, where children can explore science by means of doing fun and interactive experiments. A recreated, 18th century Natural History Cabinet (Rariteitenkabinet) and the Open Depot display specialised collections of animal specimens and physiological instruments.

In the early-19th century, a royal decree advised all universities of the Netherlands to acquire collections for teaching and study. Steven Shapin legitimised the idea that means should be introduced which show and explain the public how science progresses, because the support and credibility of scientists relies on public understanding. This, however, does not solve the problem how this is to be accomplished in a science museum. In this essay, I will attempt to give a critical analysis of the permanent exhibition of the Utrecht University Museum, which aims at communicating knowledge and progress in science to its visitors.

The Utrecht University Museum has a number of intentions and objectives it tries to adhere to. First, the museum wants to be a representative of Utrecht University itself: it serves as a symbol of the university by portraying its history, student life, and today’s science with temporary exhibitions. Second, the museum aims at fulfilling an educational role for schoolchildren and students alike. Especially for students of history of arts and sciences can the museum provide an informative and illuminating experience. Lastly, the museum’s objective towards the general public is to show the fascinating world of science. The general aim from these objectives can be summarised as offering its visitors with an understanding of science and the history of science at Utrecht University. By what means, then, does the University Museum try to accomplish this? And to what extent is it successful?

The museum experience at the Utrecht University Museum is an interesting one, because the museum seems to make use of two contrasting techniques in order accomplish its goals.7 On the one hand, the Bleuland Hall and the Natural History Cabinet stimulate a historical view on the way scientists saw their profession, but also show how late 19th century science museums looked like. Their technologies of enchantment are strong since the room is effective in creating this atmosphere. On the other hand, the Knowledge Lab and Youth Lab are two rooms in which an active role of the visitor is expected. Through interactivity and the availability of extensive information, the visitor can be educated in today’s science through an often entertaining manner. Semiophores not only display their place in history or to which discipline they refer to, but also function as a means to characterise a specific step in the process of science-making.

In the end, I argue that that the two techniques applied in the Utrecht University Museum can work to the advantage of the museum’s objectives as stated at the beginning of this essay. Although the visitor’s role in constructing meaning from displays is a necessity and that therefore much action of the visitor conditions the museum experience; nevertheless I argue that this is compensated by the fact that the museum offers a variety of a more traditional science exhibition and a modern type of conveying science-in-the-making, therefore shifting its emphasis from collections towards public.

0 comments 16 October 2007

On 2 October 2007, the class of History, Role, and Impact of the Natural Sciences was invited to spend a day in the biomedical laboratory of the Veterinary Medicine Faculty. Lecturers Peter Koolmees and Monique Tersteeg had prepared a programme to familiarise the students with the various methods and approaches applied by biomedical scientists. In order to accomplish this, the central question was raised: How do muscles work? For students coming from a whole different background (history and/or physics), this question was not so easily answered. This concise report will describe what I have observed, done, and learned that day in the laboratory.

As in any biomedical research, we started off by posing hypotheses in an attempt to explain the mechanism behind muscles. Naturally we could tell that muscles are attached to bones, describe the various body movements a muscle performs, and identify different kinds of muscles in the body (biceps, heart). However, these descriptions do not explain how muscles really work, and therefore an experiment needed to be formulated: we take three pieces of meat (chicken, beef, and pork), and we attempt to isolate fibres from the various muscle tissues. We use the magnifying glass and the microscope to look closer at each of the the muscle tissue, recognising differences and similarities.

During this research, we learned the technique of microscopy, the various sorts of microscopes (stereo, light), and about the actual substance of muscles. The study of histology taught us that muscles are formed of columns of elongated cells called fibres containing interlocking parallel arrays of the proteins actin and myosin.

The aim of the day in the laboratory, however, was not to come to an explanation of how muscles exactly work, rather to use the question as an illustration to show the development of biomedical methodologies and the acquisition of scientific knowledge. The study of histology has developed since 1840, and ever since biomedical scientists have been describing the structure of cells in all kinds of tissues. This kind of study is, technically speaking, much different from the kind of study a historian or theoretical physicist would do. But in essence, we can recognise that all devote time and attention to acquire knowledge by means of a detailed investigation and analysis. Whether this investigation is focussed on academic books, heavenly bodies, or organic tissues, it should not make a difference.

Then why this day in the laboratory? In my opinion, it was of great usefulness. As future historians of science, it is imperative to not only took at the produced works by scientists, but also to look at their socio-economic context, their cultural conceptions of the world, and the technical possibilities and inventions. When a historian can place himself/herself into the shoes of scientists, the historian gains new insights into the development of science, which, in turn, is an other acquisition of knowledge.