As a historian of science, technology or medicine you might think of your research as being grounded in documentary sources or other media, such as oral history recordings or film. However, even if material culture isn’t your area, museum collections offer a variety of sources ready to be tapped into by historians. If you are fortunate enough to locate a well-recorded acquisition, the history of the use or user of an object may also be available to consult. Curator’s tools, such as history files on specific objects, the accession register (a log of every object acquired by the institution) and exhibition catalogues can also provide rich contextual details.
There are many benefits to exploring the tangible realm of your period; the possibilities object-centred study and questioning the agency of things is set out in the relevant literatures of museology, anthropology and art history. An excellent place to start for the historian of science is Sam Alberti’s paper for ISIS on ‘Objects and the Museum’: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/498593
In this blog, rather than recount academic work on museum collections, I offer some practical guidance to accessing this rather complex resource.
Finding out about objects relevant to your research
Identifying where to start can be difficult. If you are researching a topic that doesn’t align with subject-specialist museums, you can start by narrowing down by locality. Local and industrial history museums also contain artefacts of interest to the historian of science or medicine. Civic museums collect objects that represent local worthies and societies; for example, Gallery Oldham hold a microscope and cabinet of slides presented to James Nield by Oldham Microscopical Society & Field Club for his contribution to natural science.
Whilst many museums, like the Science Museum Group (https://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/), offer an online portal of their collections databases, this is by no means consistent across the board owing to ongoing deficits in museum funding. Local authority institutions in particular struggle to maintain online portals to their collections, and unaccredited museums may have yet to document their collections. Here is an example of a local authority partnership, the Greater Manchester Museum Group, which created a website in 2013 to provide a taster of each subject covered by its institutions: http://www.gmmg.org.uk/our-connected-history/
In the absence of a database, you can gain idea of prospective object collections by researching permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions an institution hosts.
The first step to accessing objects is to generate an emailed research enquiry based on your findings. Contact details for curators, archivists, librarians, and conservators are usually readily available online, though you should be prepared for a small delay in response. Museums often follow similar guidelines to libraries and archives, responding to emails within 10 days. If you have yet to receive an acknowledgement of your enquiry, I recommend a follow-up email after two weeks.
Once you’ve established contact, accessing material in person is the next step, as looking, holding and sensing an object is the aim of object-centred research. Most museums will allow supervised object handling – but be prepared to don attractive purple nitrile gloves and do take guidance from staff!
There are some difficulties at this stage too: for myriad reasons a museum may not be able to show you an object: they may be engaged in a store move whereby objects are in transit, the object could be on loan or even deemed too hazardous for handling. Wherever possible, curators strive to provide research access – so if the object is not accessible it might be that related materials (such as conservation photographs) can be shared with you instead.
A particularly unfortunate scenario is when an object is known to a museum but categorised as missing. It’s easy to understand how this can happen when you consider the vast size of museum collections relative to the number of staff working with them: even smaller, local museums house hundreds of thousands of objects. In this unlikely event, you may comfort yourself to know that simply because of your enquiry this object is more likely to be found in the future, as you have highlighted it to curators.
Knowledge gained, knowledge shared
Now you have seen, handled or at least discovered more about an object, how can you use this knowledge? Ideally, you will have engaged in some level of analysis that benefits your paper. In turn, it is common courtesy to share a copy of a publication with the institution that provided you with access. If you are a student, even if you do not use this for publication or an assignment, curators will still be interested in what you think and gladly accept notes on an object. Through sharing your work, you are enabling curators to discover more about their collection, in turn this knowledge is more likely to be disseminated amongst wider audiences.
I believe that encountering the tangible, material culture of your field will enrich your research and hope that these tips prove fruitful – enjoy encountering collections!