Articles

A New Digital Platform for Science in Museums

by Allison Meier on April 2, 2014

William Bally’s miniature phrenological specimens, England (1831) (© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

William Bally’s miniature phrenological specimens, England (1831) (© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

A new online journal is aspiring to create a dialogue among museum professionals and the public on science and museums in the 21st century.

The Science Museum Group Journal, which launched its first issue on March 25, is a twice-yearly open-access publication, with content that’s peer reviewed and Creative Commons licensed. The journal is published by the Department of Research and Public History at Science Museum London and centers on the research and activities of the Science Museum Group, comprised of five British museums (including Science Museum London). The planned scope of the journal, however, goes beyond the UK to discuss the presentation of science in museums around the world and the research coming from such institutions.

George Adams, ‘Instructions to the Illustrator’ of the mechanics manuscript, fol. 6, fig. 24, showing a fragment of engraving cut from the plates of ’s Gravesande’s Mathematical Elements (© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

George Adams, “Instructions to the Illustrator” of the mechanics manuscript, fol. 6, fig. 24, showing a fragment of engraving cut from the plates of Gravesande’s Mathematical Elements (© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

The first issue is promising, with essays solidly grounded in academia but featuring accessible language and topics. Alice Cliff, curator of science and technology at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, offers a thorough examination of the art, purpose, and origin of William Bally’s miniature phrenological specimens in the institution’s collection — 60 tiny plaster busts created with the antiquated purpose of using skull shape to gauge personality and intelligence. Florence Grant, a postdoctoral research associate at the Yale Center for British Art, published a study of reading, writing, drawing, and making in the 18th-century instrument trade, showing innovative visual approaches to organizing mechanical information. There’s also some content focused on how to present topics in science museums that aren’t necessarily readily exciting for broad audiences, with Jean-Baptiste Gouyon, a postdoctoral research associate at the Science Museum, discussing the institution’s 1960s display of the Freedom 7 NASA Mercury program spacecraft as an example of bringing new technology into an exhibition in an innovative way.

It’s definitely time for science museums to get engaged with in-depth digital content; their collections are already visually out there, except frequently taken out-of-context with the quick image sharing of social media. As Science Museum London Director Ian Blatchford writes in his first issue editorial, the journal can “share our extraordinary library of images, film, and multimedia, not just as wallpaper but as an important and often beautiful primary source in its own right.” Each article handily has a media download area at the bottom of the page.

Digital journals can be a successful way for science museums and scientific academia to have a public voice. Last month the Wellcome Collection debuted Mosaic, a digital platform with Creative Commons–licensed science journalism content. Last year science magazine Nautilus launched with a strong online focus and a print publication, thanks to backing from the John Templeton Foundation. Its goal is to be, as founder John Steele put it to the New York Times, “a New Yorker version of Scientific American.” Hopefully Science Museum Group Journal, dryly named as it is, will communicate in a similar fashion the importance of science museums as places for research and exhibitions on topics that are too often pushed to the side of wider discourse.

The Freedom 7 space capsule at a Science Museum London press viewing in 1965 (© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

The Freedom 7 space capsule at a Science Museum London, press viewing, 1965 (© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

The spring 2014 issue of Science Museum Group Journal is available online. The next issue will be published in the fall.

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