Max Planck Institut for the History of Science

Martha Fleming
Natural History Museums as Scientific Repositories and Research Laboratories

Most natural history museums contain within their collections materials which span a considerable length of the known timeline of the universe, from the Hadean to the Holocene. Ranging from meteorites 4.55 billion years old, bearing traces of some of the earliest elements and falling to earth from lightyears away, to palaeontological specimens of early life on earth that show evidence of microbial mats some 3.5 billion years old, the scale of time and space encompassed is colossal. Of course, the history of how these temporal scales have been ascertained is the history of earth sciences, which have made a major contribution to history and to historiography, themselves often thought of as exclusively humanities disciplines. How is the natural history museum an archive for the sciences, and how does it produce ‘sciences of the archive’?

The matter of natural history collections, from minerals to molecules, and their forms – specimens, images, manuscripts, models, biobanks, databases – engage a multiplicity of management functions and science practices. Fieldwork, collecting, trading, cataloguing, taxonomizing, analysis, preservation and display are all museological activities that intersect tightly with instruments and laboratory practices of both the physical and the biological sciences – all of which have complex histories and epistemologies of their own. Moreover, technological advances of recent years in the fields of genetics, bioinformatics, spectroscopy and cryogenics among others are altering the way that collections – sometimes up to 350 years old in themselves – are analysed, used and displayed. This paper will articulate the multiple significance for history of science of the museum of natural history, and of the development of some of its function and practices over time.

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