What’s your CHOICE?

By Jon Agar, on 26 November 2013

Material culture is crucial to understanding the history of science and technology, right?

It’s a lesson I’ve taught in many places over the years. One class project that I’ve enjoyed running with students from Manchester, Oxford, Harvard and here at UCL has been to ask them to come up with designs for an exhibition on modern science and technology.

I give them the dimensions of space and an unlimited budget (it is a fantasy, I know). They propose 10 objects, a design and rationale for both. They have always responded with imagination and flair. We discuss the assumptions made, the stories that are possible (and impossible) to tell, how visitors might respond, and what messages about science and technology’s past are most important. It’s a great class.

However, I’ve begun to notice a recurrent feature. Most of the stories that we want to tell are those that are sourced, first and foremost, from written history – history that is built from engagement with primary documents and secondary literature. This, I feel, shouldn’t be the case if material culture is a key to interpreting the major themes of past science and technology. There’s a danger of paying pious lip-service to the notion of the importance of material culture unless we can point to examples of where it matters.

So let me ask a question: what’s your CHOICE?

CHOICE stands for Crucial Historiographical Object in Collections or Exhibitions. I propose that a CHOICE has two ideal features:

1) a CHOICE object reveals significant, otherwise inaccessible, knowledge about a significant historical narrative.

2) materially, either in total or in part, a CHOICE represents a ‘fork in the road’, a moment of significant historical contingency, revealing how history could have been different.

Let me pick out a few words from these features and explain my thinking. Let’s start with ‘inaccessible’. I tend to come to interpreting objects *after* having read about their history. What I rarely – ever? – see is an object that reveals otherwise inaccessible knowledge. Believe me, I’m aware of the tacit knowledge debate, and that is, of course, a kind of relevant, otherwise inaccessible knowledge. But where are the examples of how otherwise inaccessible knowledge contributes to the large-scale historiographical narratives? When have they done so in the absence of written interpretations of the objects?

The key word – I’ve used it three times – is ‘significant’. I would very much like to show an object to students and be able to say: ‘See that? Because we can see that thing we must think of history differently’.

As a naive historian of science, CHOICEs are what I would want to find in a science museum or object collection. Not the only things for sure, but there – and emphasised – nonetheless.

It might be a question that is most relevant to thinking about modern collections. Modern science and technology has generated an immense documentary (as in textual) record that is, in practice if not in preaching, historians’ first and sometimes only port of call. For earlier history fewer documents survive and objects necessarily become our traces of evidence of the past. For most of human existence – prehistory – objects are the only sources we have. If you are studying Magdalenian culture, everything is a CHOICE.

One candidate might be the Science Museum’s rebuilt Difference Engine, of Charles Babbage fame. Only by rebuilding the object with tools and practices matching Victorian ones could it be shown that the scheme was feasible. Of course, we are only prompted to ask the question of feasibility because we know from written documents about the struggle to engineer such a device. Nevertheless, it might pass the tests of historiographical significance, inaccessibility of knowledge and contingency. On the other hand, it is not (if we are worried about authenticity, which we might not be) an ‘original’ object, and I’d like other examples.

So, curators! historians of science and technology! Tell me your CHOICE!

Either CHOICEs exist, in which case we have examples. Or CHOICES do not, in which case what is wrong with my historiographical expectations of scientific or technological objects? Either way, it should be interesting…