This was originally posted on our student blog, Refractive Index.
This is a picture of some Sue the TRex lipbalm, on sale at the gift shop at the Chicago’s Field Museum. Behind it is the eponymous Sue: the largest, most complete, best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world.
If you look carefully, you’ll see a sign saying the museum’s purchase of the fossil was made possible by a donation from McDonald’s. Disney helped too with the $8.36 million it cost (great book on this). I’m posting it because I think that the lipbalm and Sue itself are nice examples of the ways in which museum exhibits are more than just exhibits in a museum, but belong to a broader set of intersecting cultures, including consumer culture, and the ways in which we construct as well as reconstruct them.
Putting dinosaurs aside for a moment, I’ve always found the idea of a science museum a bit weird, especially when you try to display the physical sciences and technology. What makes a lot of science amazing enough to want to display is often what also makes it either hard or simply plain boring to put in a glass case. Newton’s 3rd law of motion is so exciting because it is so applicable. Material cultures are part of a story of Newton, but they aren’t necessarily the top-line. Similarly, the chemistry and engineering of a ball point pen is pretty interesting, as is the personal history of the Biro brothers, but what makes the humble biro quite so iconic is how humble it is. We don’t have to go to Exhibition Road to see one, we already have one in our pocket. As a consequence, museums of science and industry often have to find ways to manufacture their exhibits, or at least add a sense of theatre to them. It’s the push button side of the science museum experience, and part of the long-standing role artists, designers, writers, film-makers and game-producers have had in the production of exhibits, not just displaying of them.
Museum-made exhibits like these have been around a while now, and I love the way in which these models have become part of the history of science. The Science Museum has a fair number of its old models in store, I remember stumbling across a load when I got to on a tour of Blythe House (a study of them would make a great PhD). My favourite example of this is the push-button door in the Science Museum‘s basement. I’ve seen lovely pictures of kids from the 1950s starring in amazement at this door which OPENED FOR YOU IF YOU PRESS A BUTTON. Today, kids walk up to it expectantly, amazed when they realise they AND YOU HAVE TO PRESS A BUTTON?! The exhibit has never moved physically, but the world around it shifted so it’s gone from being one of the museum’s “geez whizz look at the future” pieces to historical artifact.
Museums of science also find odd ways to turn abstract ideas into something to display in a classic glass case. Einstein’s chalkboard at the Museum for the History of Science in Oxford is a lovely example, as is the relic-like display of Galileo’s finger in Florence, but my favourite is London’s DNA model. You know, that iconic picture of Watson and Crick with their model of DNA? The Science Museum wanted to put the model on display. Except the people in Watson and Crick’s lab had, quite understandably, taken the model apart to reuse not longer after the photo was staged. So, the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a reconstruction. The museum are honest about this (if you read the sign), for all that they also nod to a sense of authenticity with a sign saying Watson unveiled it and it was made from the same pieces as the one in the picture.
The Diplodocus in the main hall at the London Natural History Museum is a reconstruction too. The original is in Pittsburgh. It has a fascinating history in itself though, I don’t think that because it’s a cast it’s any less interesting, just differently so. On the subject of iconic exhibits at the NHM, there’s also the lovely story about the distillery built inside the giant whale, which I guess says something more about the role and use of these exhibits within specific cultures. I think it’s an urban myth, though wikipedia says there is a trap door inside it the workmen used for fag breaks (you have to buy me a drink before I tell any more stories of museum staff ‘tinkering’ with exhibits).
Back to the TRex lipbalm: I find the manufacture of science not only for display on gallery, but then for sale in the museum shop fascinating too. It reflects not only the cultural appeal of scientific ideas and work, but also the ways iconic science museum exhibits have their own cultural currency. Books, toys, postcards, pencils, glow in the dark periodic table tshirts, dinosaur soft toys, science themed ties… The Mütter Museum sells conjoined twin gingerbread men cookie cutters and the Franklin Institute have Ben Franklin ‘original nerd’ spectacles. Some of these products sell a nod to the collection of the museum (postcards, logos on a pencil) some sell a promise of connection with the scientific profession (how to kits, books). I bet the the Science Museum has an archive of its shop somewhere, which’d be another treasure trove of material for a PhD.