At its core, science is a method of knowing and understanding based on empirical findings. When discussed in museums, science tends to be understood as a neutral enterprise, due to its grounding in factual evidence. However, much like museums themselves, the history of science has been shaped by a range of political, and social factors that have influenced both the direction of research and prejudiced practices and findings. The aspects I want to concentrate on are how the scientific method is placed in opposition to other epistemologies and how and why the work of decolonisation is not seen as a pressing issue for science collections to engage with.
In museums, particularly science-focused ones, we tend to see science elevated above other ways of knowing. Other bodies of knowledge are reduced to being “traditional” (a term we’ll revisit later!) and grounded in superstition rather than fact. This binary does not allow for the ways in which other ways of knowing often use the same principles as the scientific method* nor does it allow for critical perspectives on how science has been used in oppressive systems.
The second point I want to raise is the relative absence of “decolonisation” initiatives in science collections. In recent years the call to “decolonise” museums has rung loud, yet (with some notable exceptions) activists and critics have largely focused their attention on ethnographic and so-called “world-cultures” museums. Similarly, the institutions that have responded to this challenge have also tended to have ethnographic focuses represented in their collections. Notably absent from the public discussion have been those collections that focus on science, medicine and industry. The view that decolonisation is for those who hold ethnographic material in their collections, and is therefore irrelevant for industry-focused institutions, is a grave mistake and evidence of the idea that science is neutral and therefore absolved from socio-cultural issues. Science and industry were key players in the colonial project, not least in the form of eugenics, railway engineering in the colonies and the links between enslaved African-Americans, newly-industrialised British workers and South Asian printers that coalesce around the history of cotton. Nor are these instances consigned to the past. The patenting of traditional ecological knowledge, biocolonialism and the refusal to respect Indigenous protocols and sacred sites are also a part of science’s utilisation in neo-colonial dispossession.
The point of this critique is not to be anti-science. Instead, these perspectives are introduced to encourage an acknowledgement of difficult entanglements in order to be cognizant of science’s history, a history that will be analysed in more detail in the next post.
*For more on this, see Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Other recommendations are: Subhadra Das and Miranda Lowe’s NATSCA article ‘Nature Read in Black and White‘ and Angela Saini’s Superior.