Engines of Knowledge: The Museum and the Exhibit

Engines of Knowledge: The Museum and the Exhibit

Hamish Robertson

My focus is on what I have termed, after Ian Hacking’s idea, engines of knowledge. This notion of engines includes not just tools and methods but institutions and processes that we have come to take for granted, even, in sociological terms, naturalised. The machine metaphor refers to the capacity of these things, singularly or taken together, to produce new practices, concepts and ideas. Amongst these knowledge factories were the institutional formats of the university, museum, library, the hospital and, in organisational formats, the many associations and societies that emerged to formalize, authorize and regulate knowledge development and outputs. In this piece I look at the museum as an archetypal knowledge factory of the Victorian era that formalised, institutionalised and then diversified itself on the basis of a range of earlier prototypes. The normalization of the museum and its role in modern state formation have become so commonplace that it was only with the emergence of museological theory from the 1970’s onwards that the sector began to unpack its own forms of knowledge production and validation.

From Curiosity Cabinet to Knowledge Factory
The museum is both an ancient idea and a relatively modern institutional form. The original museum in classical thought referred more to a place for philosophical contemplation and discussion, more university than a collection of artifacts or exhibit space. Early modern examples include Ole Worm’s (1588 –1654) scientific curiosity collection in Copenhagen or the opening of the Ashmolean art museum in Oxford (1683). The British Museum was established in the 1750’s based on Hans Sloane’s collection of curiosities. Diderot proposed a national museum for France in his Encyclopédie in the 1760’s. This 18th century developmental phase became an increasingly international phenomenon in the 19th century as the growth of knowledge expanded at a phenomenal rate, and the instruments and methods for knowledge production were increasingly universalised. We also need to consider the variety of museums that has emerged since this time with a small number of types expanding into dozens of variations and thousands of institutions worldwide. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) currently lists 20,000 formal members and many more institutions qualify as informal museums.

People are familiar with the wunderkammer or curiosity cabinets that preceded what we now think of as the modern museum. These were often collections of interesting objects that had their own story but did not follow what we now think of as a modern taxonomical logic. While some debate exists on this transition from curiosity cabinet to museum, what I suggest here is that a formalization, even regularisation, of the entity known as the museum began to take place during the 19th century, and with that formalization, a specific understanding emerged of the kind of knowledge produced in and through museums and their activities, including the individuals who produced and authorized that knowledge. In addition, the formalisation of the purpose or role of the museum as a producer and authorizer of specific knowledge types emerged at this time.

The idea that nature and society could not only be captured and inventoried but that they could be scientifically classified, ordered and divided into every finer sub-domains was central to the structure and operation of museums, and especially science and natural history museums, as we now know them. These ideas of classification, taxonomies and specialization within discrete domains were central features in the rapid development of human knowledge generally and the sciences more specifically, right down to the present day. The rapid growth in museums and in the size and scope of museum collections also fed into the processes of taxonomy, themselves based on the practice of expert judgement rather than quantitative analysis. Expert judgement obviously requires experts who do the judging and this was another feature of emerging specialization and forms of expertise in the 19th century.

One of the features of the museum as an institution was that the basic archetype rapidly diversified to include a wide, and still increasing, variety of institutional types based on the general format. This diversification initially followed the development of the sciences and associated cultural domains – the natural history museum, the art gallery, the ethnographic museum, the science museum and so on. Characterised by an almost unbelievable scale of collection and associated indexing practices, the museum was focused on material objects as its fundamental cultural currency. If the library has books and the archive has documents, the museum has objects and it has them in abundance, so much so that often only a small fraction is (or even can be) on display at any one time. One of the issues here is that there is an assumption, as Nélia Dias has remarked, that the objects collected are (a) scientifically neutral and that (b) they tell us things about themselves. This position becomes more problematic in the human cultural domain and especially so when we consider the role of the museum in the context of the emergence of the modern state.

State Formation and the Museum
Museums have acted as formalizing institutions for a great deal of social and cultural knowledge, and the period in which their expansion accelerated was that of the rise of nationalist state ideology – the singular people with a single language (often the dominant group’s dialect), a national anthem and a flag – so beloved by Europeans and others. To produce this kind of uniformity of identity and processes of identification requires institutions to promulgate the illusion of sameness, to historicise it, and to develop a neat linear narrative arc from the messiness of normal human societies and their complicated histories. For a long period of time the museum, like the school, was a key focus for the articulation of the nation-sate mythos. The national museum, for example, is usually located in a nation’s capital and its near neighbours are often institutions with a similarly emblematic role. It is no surprise then that museum visits for school children were and still are almost mandatory in many societies, because they are not only ‘educational’, they also affirm membership and participation in a particular vision of the nation state and a commitment to a particular narrative presented as historical fact.

Problematic in some of these scenarios was the implicit and even explicit hierarchies that social and material taxonomies tended to produce. One of the areas where this was most complicated and also had major implications was in the area of ethnographic museums which undertook the emerging scientific study of human beings and their societies. The ethnographic museum emerged at a time when anthropology and the other social sciences were in a formative state. In addition, technical developments such as photography, and more dubious constructs such as phrenology and eugenics, emerged and were frequently applied to ethnographic work. The results included extensive collections and displays of purportedly primitive cultures (and classes, once transferred from the colonial periphery to the metropole) often including not only their material artifacts but even their skeletal remains.

The varied racisms of this period became scientific and were harbingers of much of the racial violence of the 20th century, from Namibia and beyond. The emergence of human zoos tended to place cultural and ethnic minorities on a similar footing to carnival freak shows and wildlife exhibits. What we have seen as a consequence, especially since the late 1970’s has been a series of renegotiations between museums and various marginalised groups, particularly indigenous peoples in colonial settings. This includes the return of some artifacts and more particularly bodily remains. Some of the knowledge domains and curatorial processes of the 19th century museum are gradually being renegotiated and rewritten. An enduring problem is the idea that it is sameness that defines us (religion, state, language etc.) and here of course it has to be someone’s version of sameness, singular and dominant.

Critical museology, beginning in the 1970’s and gaining momentum through the 1980’s and 1990’s, has revised much of the ‘givenness’ of the traditional institutional museum in its wider social and political role. In addition, the establishment of alternative types of museums and cultural institutions has opened up the authoritative nature of the ‘museum’ in a singular sense to the variety of alternatives that exist in any society, especially for more marginalized groups and their histories. The newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC illustrates how powerful the symbolism of the institution itself remains in modern society and the enormous effort it can take to have alternative views authorized in the cultural spaces of the nation state. So while the museum itself has undergone considerable change as an institution it remains that many of these changes are very recent.

Indexing the World
One of the roles of the museum has been to help index both the natural and social worlds. The sheer scale of biological, zoological and geological data emerging from the new sciences was so great during this time that more than mere taxonomies were required. One of the problems in this first information age was the volume of data (artifacts, samples etc.) being collected and the availability of categories with which to meaningfully index them, since so much material was so utterly new. In addition, the diversity of human cultures and their artifacts has also challenged the museum to produce meaningful understandings that do not entirely abstract the knowledge of those groups that actually produced the collected artifacts. The classic knowledge problem of over-generalisation versus extreme particularisation (every artifact is after all genuinely unique) proved a challenge then and still does. And part of this problem resolves to two issues – adequate physical space and the contemporary shift to digital or virtual environments.

Supply rapidly exceeded ready display space in a problem which, even with contemporary digital methods, remains a significant issue – there is usually not enough space for the display of complete collections even where there is sufficient room for storage. While contemporary digitization makes virtual versions of the original objects more accessible in theory, there is still the issue of knowing what to look for and where and how to find it. In this sense the epistemic versus the ontological distinction remains a persistent problem for us even as we cross from the analogue to the digital domain. The claim to a space of knowledge and the processes developed in the museum were co-productive, generating a place, a profession and a discipline. The museum is not only an active agent in knowledge production but its activities generate new problems for it to resolve. The massive analogue collections of the 19th and 20th centuries will necessarily become supplemented by their digital versions in the 21st century.

As the 19th century progressed a broad repertoire of techniques and technologies emerged, often mutually constitutive, that formalised a variety of organisations and institutions as places for the production of particular forms of knowledge. Institutions were central to these processes and their related outcomes providing both focus and legitimacy. In this piece I have begun the process of exploring some of the foundational engines of knowledge that the 19th produced. The concept here is not simply to identify the ‘factories’ themselves but also their corresponding intellectual and physical technologies, many of which persist into the present day. It is these inheritances that interest us in particular. In a time when ‘big data’ is increasingly pervasive as a concept, a marketing slogan and an increasingly formalised set of practices, it is even more important to examine those things we are carrying forward from the past.

To identify those factories, to examine the engines of knowledge they gave rise to and to critically review their tangible and intangible products all help us in critiquing and unpacking the conceptual heuristics we live by. Institutions formalize their authority by circumscribing not just their knowledge products but their right to authorize knowledge within their domains of activity. The museum’s knowledge claims are as various as there are types of museum and as a result we are now in the fourth century of expansion and diversification in the knowledge claims of the museum. Our present information age is a product of these early knowledge factories including their concepts and methods for understanding the world.


Hamish Robertson is a geographer at the University of New South Wales with experience in healthcare including a decade in ageing research. He has worked in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and he has presented and published on a variety of topics ranging from ageing, diversity, health informatics, Aboriginal health, patient safety and spatial science to cultural heritage research. Hamish is currently completing his PhD on the geography of Alzheimer’s disease and recently finished editing a book on museums and older people.