In 2016 the BSHS successfully launched an innovative scheme to promote the history of science and technology in the heritage sector: the BSHS Engagement Fellowships. The scheme was designed with two key goals. The first was to support archives and museums (a sector that is receiving dwindling state subsidy) to be able to tell new and innovative narratives about the history of science and technology from their collections. The second was to provide postgraduate students with the opportunity to learn from those organisations about communicating history in diverse ways to non-academic audiences. To this end the BSHS committed to funding the placement of two Fellows for the equivalent of a month’s full-time work, and also offered up to £1000 towards the cost of public engagement outputs.
The scheme raised great interest in the sector and the BSHS received 27 expressions of interest from a wide range of heritage organisations. Based on the expressions of interest the BSHS selected two host organisations: the Linnaean Society, London, and the Royal Pump Room Museum, Harrogate. The Linnaean Society, who have a very successful science outreach programme, were interested in expanding that programme to include history of science. They challenged their candidate to produce a public engagement exhibit that would be a part of the Society’s offering at Open House and Educational events, and made use of the Society’s archival and rare book collections. The Pump Room were looking to examine the social history of sulphur, and to use that historical research to generate new interpretations of the original bar and seating areas where people have been ‘taking’ the spa waters since 1843. The BSHS advertised and assisted the host organisations in recruiting PhD students as the Engagement Fellows. Verity Darke, PhD student at the University of Reading was awarded the Linnaean Fellowship working with Rhys Grant. Matthew Holmes, PhD student at the University of Leeds, became “Pump Room Fellow”, working with May Catt.
Verity (@Verity Darke) was based in Linnaean Learning (@LinnaeanLearning), and in collaboration with Rhys produced a display that offers audie nces of all ages the opportunity to understand the impact the Linnaean model had on natural history knowledge and practice. They chose to use to use the historical category of ‘monsters’ as a way into that question and developed a set of activities and material resources, that could easily be employed by the Linnaean Society at a wide range of future events. These activities engage the audience with both historical and philosophical aspects of classification, particularly the ‘armchair’ taxonomy, that relied on third-party reports. The display materials include bowls of monster munch, reproductions of historical prints, and 3D models. An overview of that project is available in the video here.
Matthew (@HolmesMatthew99) worked with May (@Harrogate Museum) to examine ways in which the history, not only of sulphur, but of the health industry could be told in the Pump Rooms. During his Fellowship Matthew carried out new primary research on the history of the Pump Rooms, but also recontextualised existing knowledge within recent secondary literature. When the Pump Room celebrated the 175th anniversary of its opening this year, Matthew produced a talk explaining the history of scientific attempts to understand sulphur wells. Most interesting and most challenging was his work to situate Harrogate’s historical spa culture in the town’s contemporary landscape. Eventually he and May produced a booklet that – through images and short texts – picks up change and continuities in popular ideas about ‘well being’ and its commercialisation, thereby connecting the Pump Room with the sites that offer health and beauty treatment in the town today. Hard copies of the booklet will be placed in the Museum and a digital copy made available on the Pump Room website.
Both Fellows took to the principles of outreach with great aplomb, and over the last few months have shared moments of discovery and excitement via social media. Both projects were also presented at the BSHS Annual Conference 2017, in York. However, at the end of the scheme, their most important legacies have been achieved: the materials and narratives that the Fellows have provided their host institution, and the Fellows’ increased skills and confidence in mediating history of science scholarship to the general public. Congratulations are due to both teams for the fantastic work they have delivered.
Following the resounding success of the scheme, the BSHS will be sponsoring a further two Engagement Fellows in 2017-18. The dates and details of this will be announced shortly. We very much look forward to receiving expressions of interest from museums, archives and heritage groups of all kinds. Any queries can be addressed by email to [email protected].