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Practice and technique in the twentieth-century natural history museum

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Salim Al-Gailani.

This paper will advocate a holistic historiography of the museum. Collections and their histories are studied in various disciplines, and historians of science are adept at studying techniques in other sites, but few studies combine these to tackle the minutiae of museum practice. What went on behind the scenes at the museum, in the ‘black box’ of the collection? The biography of an object does not halt when it reaches a collection, and nor is its meaning frozen. The museum was not a static mausoleum but a dynamic, mutable entity where specimens were added and preserved, discarded, and destroyed. Museum objects were subject to considerable work during their life in the collection. In this paper I outline the physical processes intended to make them stable; the textual practices that ordered them; and a variety of exhibitionary techniques to render them intelligible. As a step towards a history of museum practice, this paper will give examples from the Manchester Museum during the century from its formal opening in 1890. It will draw on archival material, images, oral history and the objects themselves. Touching on quotidian yet diverse techniques from conservation to cabinet making, documentation to education, this paper will explore museum activities and people in their historical contexts. By examining not only how these techniques were carried out but also by whom, we gain insights into the professionalization of the museum sector. And by tracing the shifting meanings of objects, we can appreciate how nature is constructed in the museum. The history of collections is also the history of people, the history of relationships, and a history of practice.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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