Viewpoint Editor Hazel Blair speaks to Martha Fleming about her work in the history of science. Martha is a historian of science, curator, and artist with an interdisciplinary career spanning several decades. She is currently a Senior Researcher at the British Museum.
Who or what first turned you towards the history of science?
I have always been interested in methodologies above all – how they emerge and evolve and how they are valued; their assumptions and blind spots. Knowledge producing processes of all kinds, regardless of discipline or practice, interest me, and in that regard I think my form of history of science is more in line with its continental incarnation, Wissenschaftsgeschichte, which incorporates humanities, collecting practices, and cultural productions such as visual and other arts into its remit.
My first contact with history of science came when producing a large-scale collaborative art installation, ‘Le Musée des Sciences’ (Montreal, 1984) with my then partner, Lyne Lapointe. The project integrated epistemologies of science – mainly medical science – with institutional and representational critique and urban activism. That is when I first read Foucault, Feyerabend, Sander Gilman’s Seeing the Insane, and Donna Haraway’s Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields among others. It was like a cloak of unknowing lifted – I found it existentially as well as intellectually profoundly nourishing.
What’s your best dinner-table history of science story?
My best ‘dinnertables in science’ is perhaps more apt – when I was Development Manager at the Royal Society, I was able to attend the evening dinners that last the entire week of the RS Summer Exhibition. These assemble the most astonishing crosscut of actors and agents in British scientific research, industry, politics, journalism, communication and philanthropy. Among the guests are some of the most amazing minds, and the conversations overheard are fascinating for understanding late 20th and early 21st Century science.
My favourite quote from an historian of science is from Lorraine Daston, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, whose thinking I have always admired and who generously welcomed me several times to the MPIWG. Speaking about her interest in involving creative practitioners in history and philosophy of science thinking, she said: ‘You know, Martha, in the humanities we are really really good at taking things apart. But we are not so good at putting things together.’
What has been your best career moment?
The best career moments are always those where the collaboration is productive, exciting and life-changing, with a high degree of knowledge exchange and interdisciplinarity. They are also often the most demanding and exhausting! In the late 1990s I was lucky enough to be completing my MA in History of the Book at the University of London as a Commonwealth Scholar, and concurrently creating a collection interpretation project with the Science Museum entitled ‘Atomism & Animism’ (1999). Colleagues and curators at the Science Museum – some now retired, but others such as Tim Boon now President-elect of the BSHS – shared so much of their skills and knowledge with me. It fully prepared me for an integrated practice with the material culture of history of science, and for working as a researcher in purposeful and practical ways with the material culture of science. I am forever endebted to museum colleagues for that. The History of the Book is also really crucial to understanding the circulation of knowledge, and ideas of paper tools such as information architectures in the history of science. There have been other, later ‘best career moments’ and I hope there will be many more; but in terms of acquiring critical skills that I have used again and again, those three years were special. I suppose that is why I would recommend a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership award now – if you can get one, and work through the burn, you will be set up for life.
There are always difficult moments in every career, but I suppose that the worst moments are ones which affect numerous people at the same time, because entire communities are challenged and both plans and practices evaporate. The spasm of contraction that was the 2008 financial crisis, and the wastefulness of a decade of ‘austerity Britain’ in reaming out universities, museums, archives and libraries was particularly devastating to interdisciplinary and interinstitutional research that was just getting going. The impact of the aftereffects are yet to be fully felt, especially when muliplied by the losses we can expect with Brexit. It is critically important to keep the handfast with European colleagues and I am delighted that the BSHS will be holding the European Society for the History of Science Biennial Conference 2018.
Which historical person would you most like to meet?
Baruch Spinoza and Sojourner Truth. I wouldn’t mind meeting Sir Hans Sloane, as well – but I feel that I have already come quite close to him while reading the recent biography by James Delbourgo (Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane, 2017), and Arthur MacGregor’s compendium volume (Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum, 1994).
If you did not work in the history of science, what other career might you choose?
Since my career is highly interdisciplinary already, I don’t really miss other career choices. I suppose that I would turn the question on its head and state why I think researchers and practitioners from other disciplines would really benefit from becoming involved in history of science. It is the open-ness of the field of history of science, and the huge range of methods and research areas its community encompasses, that enabled me to feel comfortable and inspired in its fold. C’mon in!
What are your favourite history of science books?
I’d prefer to give you my favourite history of science exhibitions, because they are just as demanding and rewarding in terms of research activity and research outcomes as are publications.
‘WELTWISSEN. 300 Jahre Wissenschaften in Berlin’ took place in 2010 at the Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin. It was one of the most astonishing exhibitions I have ever seen, addressing in both content and structure not only the history but also the epistemology of knowledge production in Germany over the 300 years since the beginning of the Enlightenment. You can get a sense of it here.
I also think that the Science Museum’s ‘Making the Modern World’ still holds up: it uses a robust design strategy to give both a synchronic and diachronic overview of technological modernity and its discontents. It is like walking inside a 3D diagram of how we got to where we are today, especially if you take the stairs up to the higher galleries as well.
And it’s not a vanity to list ‘Split + Splice: Fragments from the Age of Biomedicine’ (Medicinsk Museion, Copenhagen, 2009) among my favourite exhibitions, even though I worked on it. It was a highly collaborative project about contemporary biomedical fields, and my co-curators were Dr Susanne Bauer, Dr Søren Bak-Jensen, Dr Sniff Andersen Nexø and Dr Jan Eric Olsén. I learned so much from them about regimens of data, standardisation and legislation in 21st Century medicine. We won the coveted Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits of the Society for the History of Technology in 2010, something I am very proud of.
In Germany there is a growing interest in exhibitions as ‘knowledge practice’, and the University of Gottingen currently has a four-year PhD programme of seven doctoral projects in the history of late 20th Century exhibitions: this is a very rich field that they are leading on.
What would you do to strengthen the history of science as a discipline?
I think that historians of science need more training in working with and thinking about the material culture of our field. While I was Programme Director at the Centre for Collections Based Research at the University of Reading, I co-organised (with Dr Rohan Deb Roy) an exciting BSHS-supported conference about history of science and university museums. It happened concurrently with the University Museums Group annual meeting and brought together colleagues from across the UK and Europe, with the participants all as knowledgeable as the speakers. You can read the abstracts here.
How do you see the future shape of the history of science?
The BSHS is developing and implementing some valuable diversity and inclusion policies, and I would like to see individual researchers taking responsibility for taking that further. We should be aiming beyond diversity in our own scholarly community and communications, and also choosing to apply our skills and methods to historical and epistemological areas which are under-researched and where there is potential for social justice to come about through our findings. We need to develop methodologies and modes of working that are in line with the intersectional and complex transhistoric issues that we have not yet attended to with the rigour that they deserve and require – for example, in relation to climate change or decolonisation.
An abridged version of this interview features in Viewpoint magazine issue 116 (June, 2018).