Functionless: science museums and the display of ‘pure objects’

Jean-François Gauvin «Functionless: science museums and the display of ‘pure objects’», Science Museum Group Journal, n°5 (2016).

I argue in this article that the tangible proximity, the sensual evocative power of things is lost in a visit to the museum. Too often the aesthetic form of the exhibition utterly destroys the objects’ core material function. One of my contentions is that we cannot think with objects we are unfamiliar with, or cannot fully grasp and manipulate. In a museum we are compelled to admire the objects’ formal and abstract ‘beauty’. They have been robbed of their function: they are functionless. I address this long-standing dichotomy between form and function. I argue that Art has undesirably become one of the chief criteria of museum exhibition design. Though artistic attributes can at times acquire epistemic value, as I will illustrate with an example taken from the French Enlightenment, modern science exhibition design tends to utterly obscure the latter in favour of the former. Science museums, I propose, need to better adapt their discourse and presentation to the research programme developed over the last thirty years in the field of science studies: the history, philosophy, and sociology of experimentation, in which instrumentation and laboratory performance play a crucial analytical role in our understanding of scientific practices.

Mis à jour le 17 octobre 2016 à 16 h 01 min.