Making the Modern World

By Boon, Timothy | History Today, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Making the Modern World


Boon, Timothy, History Today


The Science Museum, London, last year opened its largest historical gallery. Timothy Boon, its Deputy Project Director, explains the role of history within the display.

IN HISTORY TODAY in May 2000, Ludmilla Jordanova argued that `public history' is a subject worthy of renewed debate. This broad field of history outside the Academy, which she defined as encompassing broadcasts, museums, heritage attractions and popular publications, might, she suggested, benefit from the modern historiographical approach, which deals with what questions we should ask about the past, and what approaches should be used to answer them. The `history of science', including the histories of technology and medicine, has been in the vanguard of this historiographical turn ever since the 1970s when it promoted the crusade against Whiggish approaches. Even Herbert Butterfield, celebrated critic of Whiggery in political history, had believed that science was the exception to the mid, and in his Origins of Modern Science (1949) he retained a place for reading the history of science `backwards'.

The critics of this view rallied to the arguments of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), a work that used historical examples to support his notion that science was not so much a smooth arc of progress as a series of separate paradigms, which in turn generated a set of `problems' solved during long periods of `normal science'. As Kuhn's interpretation took hold, a new generation of historians of science turned to examine the social contexts in which science had been pursued; favourite topics included the institutions of science, and sophisticated analyses of science and religious belief. In the history of medicine in particular this was complemented by Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1977) and The Order of Things (1970), which fertilised a growing perception that medicine in the past might have more to do with other aspects of life and conduct in the past than with medicine in the present.

History of science, liberated by these new interpretative strategies and by its own growth as a specialism, became the most historiographical of branches of history, constantly reviewing what are the most interesting and fruitful questions to ask about the past. Its catholic tastes led its practitioners to turn to other disciplines for further interpretative resources, notably from the philosophy of science, and branches of sociology and anthropology; and a sister discipline, the sociology of science, came into being. With a focus on `laboratory life', this provided more precise tools for the analysis of contemporary science, and demonstrated that scientific `facts' might be as socially-constructed as the organisations of science.

But the history and sociology of science are relatively small academic disciplines, pursued by just a few hundred scholars, in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of scientists who are engaged in the subjects it analyses. Impatience has been voiced about the slight impact that the academic history of science has had on public discourse about science. There is undoubtedly a public hunger to understand more of the histories of science and technology, as indicated in recent years by the popularity of a journalist's pacey retelling of a clock-inventor's tale in Longitude, and a playwright's ponderings on a war-time meeting between two nuclear physicists, Heisenberg and Bohr, in Copenhagen. Neither of these was written by an academic historian of science, and many such historians of science felt it was time for the profession to make more effort to impress its values on the public.

However, both archive-based micro-history of science and sociologists' close analyses of particular scientists' practice are marked by fastidious attention to detail, which has tended to make the concerns of the discipline ever more remote from the general public and from established popular notions of science and its past. …

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