Curation and Research in Art and Science

Chicago's Field Museum is making drastic cuts to basic research in order to meet a constrained budget. Lukas has argued that this should be seen as a blow to scientists, historians of science, and members of the public, even while we acknowledge museums' complex roots in the cultural capital of the Gilded Age.

Both Lukas's analysis and poignancy feel spot on, and I take seriously the idea that we can't cleave them apart. Museums don't just conveniently blur analytical binaries (like public and private, internal and external, expert and lay) for historians of science; they're also sites with which people fall in love, and thus a hook for wider audiences.

People who study museums—like Lukas, Jenna Tonn, and others—know this well. But I think one thing the Field Museum episode reveals is that, even within the academy (indeed, even within history of science), there are some widespread misperceptions about today's museum curation—some will be surprised that curators are tenured, for example, and that "curation" is as much original research as preservation and display.

Sure, we "know" this. But I think if a scientific division at a major university—down the road, say, at the University of Chicago—were going through this (collapsing departments, breaking tenure), we'd hear more about it. Does that sound right? If so, why? And why do I get the impression that part of making the case for the Field is convincing people that its staff really does crucial research (rather than, say, simply enabling others to do it)?

Maybe a comparison with art museums will help bring what interests me into focus.

Last week, I was at the de Young Museum, which stares across a manicured lawn at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Recently rebuilt in striking style, their proximity reminded me of what "research" in either setting might mean, both in terms of the objects they contain and the expectations of the public who visit them.

California Academy of Sciences (
Like the Field in Chicago, the CAS in San Francisco combines original research, education, and public exhibits on topics across natural history. Both attract millions of visitors, many of them families and school groups, and both are increasingly hands-on, interactive spaces (the sort of curation mentioned by Dan in a comment on Lukas's post).

What do visitors expect? Of course, there are the specimens for which natural history is famous—like Sue, the Field Museum's Tyrannosaurus rex (the most complete specimen of its kind)—of which only a tiny fraction are ever seen in public. But science, too, is on display: not just its products, that is, but its process.

Sue at the Field Museum (
Sue floats in a sea of signage, detailing not just her anatomy and life history, but the provenance of her fossilized bones and the process that brought them to light. Science went into her discovery, recovery, and display, and those efforts are explained alongside her striking skeleton. Visitors are invited to "discover the science of Sue"; prominent placards proclaim both her place in natural history and the practices that made it so.

It's a different story at the de Young—or, for that matter, at the MET or the MoMA or any other flagship museum of the fine arts. It's not that art curators don't put in similar efforts—of course they do. And you do hear about feats associated with the recovery, restoration, and display of priceless paintings much as you do about famous fossils. In both, curators study, as well as care for, the objects in their charge.

M. H. de Young Memorial Museum (
And yet.

There seems to be a different relationship between what's on display and what's beneath the surface at the two institutions, something that goes beyond everyday distinctions between "art" and "science," that goes part of the way toward clarifying what's at stake in the Field Museum's recent troubles—and why we need reminding of the processes it brings to light.

It seems that art curators don't claim to "do" art in the same way as science curators claim to "do" science. There's a distinction between the process of producing and displaying the works in the de Young that's collapsed when you cross the courtyard to the Academy of Sciences, one that jives with what historians think goes into both fields.

Historians of science have convincingly shown that whatever "science" is, it's operating all the way from digging to displaying when it comes to dinosaur bones—a fact current curators have been happy to confirm. Art historians and curators, on the other hand, have been less likely to claim their crafts as "art" from top-to-bottom. If anything, they're more likely to see their work as scientific.

Curation? (
The distinction I've just introduced has been (I think) invoked as the Field had advocated for its preservation. Cut science museums and you cut science, which directly depends on such collections and institutions. Cut art museums and you cut art in a different sense: its public display more than its production—which major museums were less directly involved with (to my knowledge) than were their scientific counterparts.

What might such a case elide? Well, it seems like one way to bridge the study of art and science curation—as practical aesthetics, instantiations of judgment—gets lost. To the extent that historians of science have been paying more attention to matters of taste, the boundary I've traced above fails to see science as fundamentally art-like. Interestingly, seeing science curation that way might well hamper—rather than help—effort on the Field's behalf.

That brings me to my final point. We might watch more warily than Lukas would like as historical work comes this close to advocacy. Crises remind us what matters—but we might well strive to transcend our current commitments as we describe those who came before us. Seeing science curators as taste-makers, for example, might well undermine efforts to paint their work (sorry) as a public good. So what? If Lukas's Bourdieuian approach to their early history does more harm than good precisely when museums like the Field are under pressure to change, what do we do?

Should this change what Lukas says? No (nor has it). Does Lukas think it should? No (as he himself suggests). But I'm curious to hear how he might bring his analysis (of the capitalist roots of museum culture) and his passion (for the preservation of those institutions) together.

In some cases, the latter (passion) might drive the former (analysis)—but the present seems a complicated one for such a synthesis. Might the former—a story about where museums come from, undergirded by a vision of how they reflect the cultural capital that created them—instead impact the latter? We need both passion and critique, but what happens when they don't fit together easily?

Lukas suggests "other dimensions of the history" will make clear how his history of museums and his fondness for their present incarnation go together, and that it will take a post to flesh them out. I hope he'll write it.


Hank--I replied to Lukas's post from last week before I saw this one from you. It put me in mind of something I wrote for a talk a little over 2 years ago but subsequently cut out of a (much reworked) published version. It offers a (gloomy) perspective on "other dimensions of the history." Here was the end of my talk:

The kinds of life scientists I am most interested in—evolutionists, biogeographers, functional morphologists, and ecologists—shared one quality that held true across the different countries and institutional structures they inhabited: they were interested in knowledge for its own sake. What drove them was not instrumental. Yes, of course, there were eugenicists and imperialists among them. But you do not spend your whole career studying snails because you think it will change society. Scientists studied living things and their properties because they loved nature, they loved knowledge, and because they could forge a career doing what they loved. They wanted to contribute to the increase in knowledge about nature. The universities, museums, and research stations in which they worked were supported by patrons—governments, civic groups, private individuals--who shared these values, at least in part.

I’m not trying to idealize science or scientists here. In many ways these institutions have been elitist, and many people who loved nature could not spend their lives studying it, because they were limited in education, money, or social circumstance from doing so. My point is that making new knowledge, creating understanding, has been a value in itself, held by the cultures that produced science and the institutions that supported it. It may be that in the twenty-first century, between rampant global capitalism and fears of a coming environmental apocalypse that requires our all-out efforts to stop, instrumental goals are the only ones our society can support, and the production of knowledge for its own sake is a luxury fast disappearing. If that is the case, then it behooves us as historians even more to chart and understand this intellectual world, before it is completely lost to incomprehension.

Thanks, Lynn. This gets right at the tension Lukas and I are both thinking about.

I was put in mind of similar things when last week I read one of Hayden White's earliest essays, called "The Burden of History" (1966). One read reminds us how, fifty years ago, science, history, and everything else were charged differently than they are today (or so it seems), but I think parts of it are still prescient. Here's how it ends, more or less:

"The historian serves no one well by constructing a specious continuity between the present world and that which preceded it. On the contrary, we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot."

I'm not sure how it fits with today's problems, but it's striking how explicit White was about how one's philosophy of history is not only informed by the present but feeds back to shape it in turn. We don't have many people thinking in his register anymore – probably to our loss.

This discussion reminds me of Bruno Latour's essay, "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?", where he describes how academic criticism has come to undermine the very things he and, hopefully, we care about. He writes,

"What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable, version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete _illusio_ of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly."

Bourdieu's people are famously as flat as homo economicus. They simply collect a wider variety of "capitals." I find Bourdieu useful to some ends (though I prefer John Levi Martin's and Fligstein's and McAdam's more parsimonious field theories). But I have never enjoyed Bourdieu's meager vision of human existence (though his is much better than even paltrier pictures, like Goffman's world-as-stage). I'll take Shakespeare and Austen over both of these.

Critique-gone-mad fits with a cynical culture that writers, like Peter Sloterdijk and, later, Slavoj Zizek, have described: we cannot take people at their word. Somehow we know better than our actors do. Increasingly, I have come to side with Peter Winch, Luc Boltanski, and John Levi Martin against this image of social science in favor of examining actor's reasons (unless we have reason to doubt them, which sometimes we do).

The cynical interpretation of social science research leads us—along with some awfully silly readings of Foucault—to one version of the genetic fallacy: if we can locate the historical roots of something in unkind conditions—like gross capitalists giving birth to Lukas's museums—we have somehow undone something in the present, or at least darkened its light. I have never really bought into this idea, and I think it falls prey to what Habermas called "cryptonormativism," leveling criticism without saying what is wrong (or even better, though not necessary, proposing an alternative). If something is wrong, just say it is wrong, rather than trying to show how it came from poisoned roots. And if something is worth defending, say why it should be defended. (The criticism/defense of science, however, doesn't have to look as simple as Naomi Oreskes or, even simpler, Chris Mooney.) Furthermore, the cynical vision, in which, for example, we are all just trying to accrue capital, keeps us from pointing to certain values that now seem floridly moldy, like, for instance, nobility or, say, the value of knowledge. But I imagine that, if we attended to actors' words, we see such values a great deal. I agree with Lynn when she writes "making new knowledge, creating understanding, has been a value in itself." I hope we can live in a society where it still is.

Therefore, I agree with you, Hank, that "part of making the case for the Field is convincing people that its staff really does crucial research" but we part ways when you suggest that "seeing science curators as taste-makers, for example, might well undermine efforts to paint their work as a public good."

I am ashamed to admit that the only chapter in Lukas's dissertation I have so far read was his fascinating chapter on ontology, so I don't know how he uses Bourdieu. But I have a different question: has the Field Museum always primarily depended on funds from rich donors and we are seeing a decrease in these donations? Or did the museum have a different mid-20th century business model and THAT is collapsing? Are people envisioning new models? Kickstarter, sure as hell, isn't going to cut it.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

back to top