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"Culture, Society and Politics Are Consubstantial Parts Defining What and How Science and Technology Are in Each Historical Moment and Place in the World"

entrevista Jaume Sastre Juan
Jaume Sastre-Juan, post-doctoral researcher at the Centro Interuniversitário de História das Ciências e da Tecnologia - Universidade de Lisboagave a talk in Barcelona ​​entitled “The Innocence of Pushing a Button: Keys for a History of Interactivity” as part of the colloquia series of the Catalan Society for the History of Science and Technology (SCHCT) and in collaboration with the Centre for the History of Science (CEHIC-UAB). In this interview, Sastre-Juan speaks of cabinets of curiosities, science museums and science centres, as well as everything behind something as presumably innocent as an exhibition of objects.

Author: Kilian López Riesco.

Jaume Sastre-Juan is postdoctoral researcher at the Centro Interuniversitário de História das Ciências e da Tecnologia (CIUHCT), Universidade de Lisboa. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Barcelona (2005), a master’s degree in History of Science: Science, History and Society (UAB-UB) (2008) and later received his PhD in History of Science at the UAB (2013) with a thesis on the politics of technological display in the United States through the case study of the New York Museum of Science and Industry. Between 2012 and 2015 he was an adjunct lecturer at the UB and between 2014 and 2015, a temporary lecturer at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). Currently his research project revolves around the politics of technological display in southern Europe during the 20th century.
Sastre-Juan is the author of several book chapters, such as “Philanthropy, Mass Media and Cultural Hegemony: the Rockefeller Foundation and the Politics of Science Popularization in the 1930s” (in the forthcoming book Gramsci Today: Cultural Hegemony in a Scientific World) and “Technological Fun: the Politics of Amusement Parks and Geographies” [in the book Barcelona (1888-1929): An Urban History of Science and Modernity]. He has also written popular science articles such as “Diagramas en la arena: nuevas miradas a la historia de las matemáticas en la antigüedad” and “La inocencia de pulsar un botón: una mirada histórica y crítica a los orígenes de la interactividad en los museos de ciencia”, both in Investigación y ciencia, and he translated into Spanish the book Alambre de Púas. Una ecología de la modernidad, by Reviel Netz (original title, Barbed Wire: an Ecology of Modernity).
The temporary exhibition Salvadoriana, which has been on display for a few months at the Botanical Institute of Barcelona, ​​showcased the cabinet of curiosities of nature collected by the Salvador family in the back room of their pharmacy. What has been the change from those cabinets of curiosities to modern-day science museums?
Although in both cases these are areas of creation and reproduction of nature representations, there have been many changes, which have to do with the transformation of the dominant forms of production and circulation of knowledge in recent centuries. To highlight the gap between the cabinets of curiosities and science museums, we can say that in the 16th century there is neither science nor museums. Both are institutions articulated (as we know them today) during the 19th century.
The Salvadoriana exhibition explained it better, but briefly we can say that the cabinets of curiosities belong to a context of European colonial expansion, parallel to the construction of a new natural history and philosophy which had to serve not only to know but also to exploit nature, which in Western Europe was increasingly understood as an economic resource. In the space of cabinets of curiosities, the elite who had access to them admired, studied and discussed the wonders of nature which first had to be known in all their extent. In contrast, bourgeois science museums must be framed in a context of creation of nation-states and professionalization of science. They were, in theory, institutions open to the public that not only sought to show nature in its exuberance, but in its underlying order. The arrangement of the specimens, which were not chosen for their rarity, spectacularity or exoticism, but for their representation, had to reflect spatially what the order of nature was. For example, when time dimension was introduced into the life sciences, the sequential arrangement of specimens had to communicate to visitors, at a glance, the hierarchically ascending progress of life, culminating in the Western white man, considered the climax of evolution.
From science museums of the 19th century until today there have of course been many changes as well, also related to the changes in the production of knowledge, which in turn have reshaped science museums and have made new cultural forms appear, such as what is known as science centres.
What would be the main difference between these "science centres" and "science museums"?
Generally we usually distinguish one from the other depending on the collection. The first ones preserve, study and exhibit a collection of objects or specimens, while the latter consist of expository teaching modules, often “interactive”, without any socially attributed patrimonial value. Another difference is that science centres tend to focus on scientific principles without context, whereas science museums also include historical and social aspects (although, in practice, often this is not the case).
The usual story about the rise of science centres has a foundational myth: the Exploratorium in San Francisco was created in 1969. Often it is considered the pioneer of a new participatory and “hands-on” approach to the exhibition of science, linked to the rhetoric of empowerment which considers that a visitor’s freedom of choice and exploration democratizes the museum experience. In the space of the Exploratorium, which is located in a big hall like a hangar, there are no routes constricting the path of visitors, who are free to “interact” with the objects exhibited and the guides who help them use the exhibitions. It is usually considered the model for the proliferation of other similar science centres, which expanded to become standard cultural facilities of all fairly large cities, such as the Science Museum of Barcelona, today called the Cosmocaixa.
This story is questionable for two reasons. First, because it ignores that science centres in the United States arose in the Cold War context. On the one hand, governmental authorities sought to increase scientific vocations in order to have qualified personnel for the country’s military-industrial-scientific complex. On the other hand, we must consider the commitment to offer a decontextualized presentation of science, far from any social contamination, in the context of the effects of the McCartheryism ideological purge. If not, it would not be understood that the creator of the Exploratorium, Frank Oppenheimer, a physicist accused of being a communist and whose brother (Robert Oppenheimer) was one of the leading scientific minds behind the development of the atomic bomb, presented science as something fun and removed from society. Second, the story that locates the origin of science centres in the 1960s forgets the interwar period precedents, where a new exhibition culture marked by advertising logic developed many of the exhibition techniques that today we identify with science centres and science museums and which transformed science and industry in the United States.
In your PhD thesis, you analysed the changes in the policy of technological display in the United States during the interwar period through the case study of the New York Museum of Science and Industry. What steps were detected and which were their main features?
The New York Museum of Science and Industry had an erratic life. When it was born in 1927, it was placed provisionally on two floors of the Scientific American Building in Bryant Park. In 1930 it was moved to the Daily News Building (the building where the Superman character Clark Kent worked). And it ended up settling permanently on the ground floor of the Rockefeller Center. Its changes in headquarters coincided with changes in the governing board and expository style. In my PhD thesis, I use this spatial journey through Manhattan’s heart to characterize three museum display regimes that reflect the transformation of technological display during the 1930s in the United States. I argue that this transformation is a fundamental link in the historical chain that allows understanding how we go from nineteenth-century science museums to science centres.
Initially, technological display had to do with professional legitimacy policies, nation-building and social mediation of the elite among American engineers. The historical collection the museum began to gather (especially notable in relation to machine tools, since they were considered an icon of American technology, as steam engines were in England) had to serve because engineering “masterpieces” went into the temple of muses and provided a respectable past to a profession with an increasing political influence. Moreover, the museum also had to act as a social balm. Engineers linked to the movement of promoting vocational education considered from a paternalistic position that technical education in museums would serve to morally elevate the industrial working class and imbue it with the view they considered “rational” and “scientific” of society and labour relations, thereby reducing social conflict. All this resulted in the exhibition of machines taken out of context and sectioned models which could be manipulated in order to improve people’s educational potential.
Subsequently, the outbreak of the Depression forced a rethinking of the emphasis on technical education, and museums were built with permanent sections in order to show the social consequences of technology, understood as a historical force that would lead to progress. For example, it has no sense to lament the loss of jobs resulting from automation (so-called technological unemployment, which generated much debate at the time) because it was equivalent to going against the unstoppable course of history. This technological determinism was translated at the exhibition level in chronological arrangement of the objects exhibited and the abundant use of panels and pictographic statistics which explicit the social consequences of technology as museum curators understood them.
Finally, since the transfer to the Rockefeller Center, rather than commemorating major national inventors, promoting technical education or encouraging an abstract idea of ​​progress, the museum became a speaker of the largest techno-scientific-based companies, such as AT&T, Westinghouse or DuPont. The historical collection was relegated to the background and the museum opted for temporary exhibitions drawn up by public relations departments of these companies. In terms of exhibition, this resulted in the import of commercial exhibition techniques (e.g. in terms of graphic design and interior design), as well as in the massive use of “participatory” switches and devices, considered by psychologists and publicists of the time as the best way to attract the public’s attention, understood from a new behavioural paradigm typical of the cultural industry.
Therefore, a shift towards a more interactive model occurs. What has to be considered when you make a story of interactivity?
I think a story of interactivity should have at least two sides. The first is a genealogical analysis of the discursive constellations surrounding the formation of the concept of “interactivity” associated with science museums. In the 1930s, for example, there were not “interactive” exhibitions, but ones which were “dynamic” or “activated by visitors”. To prevent presentism and projecting recent categories in the past, with the corresponding discursive resonances and crystallization of meanings, is important to understand the term “interactive” in a historical way. To my knowledge, apart from Andrew Barry’s work, which associated the term to the socio-cybernetics development, this first aspect is yet to be explored.
The second aspect would be a historical analysis of the practices that have come under the term “interactivity”. That is, see what discourses, intentions, visitor practices, public conceptions, etc., surrounding each particular case in which they opted to move from an exhibition system focused on the visit to another tactile or “participatory” one. There are already several studies beginning to ask themselves about the various contexts of interactivity, such as the book Life on Display, by Karen Rader and Victoria Cain, or Gustavo Corral’s PhD thesis on the transformation of the exhibition practice in London Natural History Museum during the 1970s. These contexts include, among other things, pedagogical discourses prevailing at a particular time and place, museum sponsors discourses on science and technology, advertising and psychological discourses on button effectiveness, the culture of interactivity material, and changing cultural conditions embodied in the experience of visiting an “interactive” museum.
Which are the main speeches associated with interactivity in museums?
Today, science museum interactivity appears surrounded by a discourse that often has participation and democracy as its cornerstone concepts. As suggested earlier, from the creation of the Exploratorium in San Francisco under Frank Oppenheimer’s direction, the story about “interactive” science museum visitors empowering themselves through direct participation has spread. This direct participation allows them not to see science as something distant and increases their interest and knowledge. These are both crucial to fully exercising a democratic citizenship in a world where scientific literacy is essential in order to make informed decisions on the problems existing in an increasingly technified industrial society.
This discourse can be criticised from at least three points of view. First, the ludic approach of science centres in increasing the knowledge of visitors has been pedagogically questioned. In this sense, many science centres have accepted the criticism and defended themselves trying to develop techniques which go from “hands-on” to “minds-on”. Second, these museums only show a part of science, without their social, cultural and political aspects, which is a mystification which prevents a real empowerment of visitors. Finally, the history of switches adoption in science museums in the United States shows that there was no democratic rhetoric, but a corporate culture exhibition, at the origin of the proliferation of this exhibition technique.
As a final thought about this, I want to throw out some questions about the concept of “participation”, which in the political culture of the so-called capitalist “democracies” has characteristics that I think also permeate the world of museums. In general, do we understand participation as a final validation of results precooked in other non-participatory instances and with very clear boundaries, or as a radically open and collective discussion of the rules of life in common? What participation are we talking about in “interactive” museums? Do they promote democratic empowerment in relation to science, or do they hide technocratic and sociophobic assumptions, as the group Ippolita and sociologist César Rendueles suspect in relation to the so-calle “Democracy 2.0”?
Your current research focuses on the politics of technological display in southern Europe during the 20th century. Which are its characteristics?
It is still early to be able to answer satisfactorily, because the research is at a very early stage, but I made a brief sketch of some of the questions I raise, with the Catalan case as an example. In the interwar period, when industrial museums spread and proliferated in Europe, projects to create a technical museum in Barcelona failed. The proposal to create a “Tecnoteca” in Montjuïc, made after the 1929 exhibition by the engineer Marià Rubió i Bellver, was unsuccessful, and the creation by decree of the Technical Museum of Catalonia in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, remained a dead letter given the circumstances. Not until the 1970s, coinciding with the political change from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary system, did MNACTEC appears, promoted by a group of young engineers and adopted by a young government in the making.
Why was technological display not institutionalized during the interwar period? Which role did technology play in the construction of a national identity at a time of redefining politics? What political role did technological display have and, by extension, discourse on science and technology during the so-called Transition? These are some of the questions which will guide my research in the coming months.
The context in which exhibitions are organized and displayed is essential for their analysis.
Certainly. Exhibitions are just another way of communicating, so, they are situated and crossed by power relations. Museums, however, are particularly inclined to hiding authorial voice, both for the immediate three-dimensional objects, imposing their authority by being there, and for the fact that the texts and exhibition organization were not signed as we are used to recognizing and decoding in other media channels such as press, television, radio and film. Often, the authorial voice of the museum is presented as more “neutral” and “official”. Obviously, I'm generalizing, and there are cases of self-reflexive exhibitions that allow visitors to take into account this authorial voice, such as Salvadoriana exhibition, which is an excellent example of how you can achieve this without losing exhibition attraction.
The field of study known as museum studies in the English-speaking world, which includes sociological, anthropological and historical perspectives, assumes that the context in which exhibitions are organized and displayed is essential for a critical reading. Many people are involved in the preparation of an exhibition, and they have certain interests and views of the world, speeches with specific objectives are mobilized, information is selected, discarding some aspects and including others, choosing points of view and interpretations, which objects illustrate what they mean are decided, etc. All these determinations create a speech which, like any other, is positioned. There is no only way of displaying science and technology, and the choice is inevitably based on ethics and politics.
It is the recurrent controversy over whether science and technology are neutral.
Indeed. The historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg raised his point of view in a way that I find very interesting when he said that technology is not good, nor bad, nor neutral. With this statement, which we could also apply to science, Kranzberg fled from the simplistic interpretations and avoided the dichotomized debate between technophilia and technophobia, and set on the table a fundamental question which has been strongly renewed by sociology, philosophy and history of technology: technology embodies values ​​and crystallizes social relationships of all kinds.
This thesis, which is probably less shocking in other areas of social reality, has been the subject of intense debate, since science and technology are often considered separate spheres of human society, only related to Truth, Reality and Efficiency. The historical look, however, reveals a much more complex scene, in which culture, society and politics are not just contextual scenarios in which science and technology deployed their evolutionary internal logic, but a substantial part which defines what and how the latter are in each historical moment and in every place in the world. In my opinion, this is precisely one of the most interesting uses of history, which can be used to train the awareness human institutions and cultural forms have created and transformed in the past and, therefore, can also do it in the present and the future.

Judit Gil Farrero
Centre d'Història de la Ciència (CEHIC)
Area of Communication and Marketing of the UAB
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