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By Tilly Blyth on

Rethinking collections research

Head of Collections Tilly Blyth examines how the choices we make about what to research can help us to understand the role objects in our collection had in supporting colonial structures and the new roles the collection might play in creating spaces that are open for everyone.

Research into the collections held in the nation’s museums, libraries and archives reveals important and neglected stories, increasing the sum of human knowledge.

But at this particular time, museums and organisations across the country are rightly asking themselves some uncomfortable questions about their collection’s specific connections to Britain’s imperialist past, and the Science Museum Group is no exception.

One perspective might suggest that this is mainly a concern for ethnographic collections and ‘world cultures’ museums, whereas the Science Museum Group Collection, focused on science, industry and medicine, is in some ways more ‘objective’.

But as writers such as Angela Saini have shown, politics, racism and entitlement have a long history within scientific ideas and scientific practice.

Science is embedded in the world around it, and only by seeing science as part of our broader culture can we begin to understand and interpret it in the rich and multifaceted way it deserves.

We at the Science Museum Group hope that through the activities of our museums and our collection, we can play our role in addressing Britain’s difficult colonial past and the racism inherent within our society.

One of the interests of working in a museum is that you are inherently immersed in the practice of history, working with the primary evidence of the collections to uncover forgotten narratives.

Our collection is the tool by which our curators, audiences and experts can ask new questions and foster new understandings of the past.

Research plays a deep and critical role in the way that we discuss and interpret the past and the present for our visitors.

Sometimes this is a joyful experience. At other times, we are brought face to face with violent histories.

Most recently, research by Dr Stephen Mullen at the University of Glasgow has brought to light forgotten links between the Scottish instrument maker, inventor and engineer, James Watt, and the trade in enslaved people.

It was already known that Watt’s father was involved in the oppressive practices of colonial commerce through the West India trades out of Greenock in the 1740s.

But Dr Mullen has now shown that James Watt was directly involved with the trafficking of a young black child, Frederick, in 1762.

This is obviously an appalling discovery about somebody who has, until now, been regarded as a hero of the Industrial Revolution.

Such new information requires us to ask ourselves some direct questions about how Watt is currently memorialised in the museum and online.

A view inside Watt's Workshop at the Science Museum.
A view inside Watt’s Workshop at the Science Museum.

In the short term, we are working to ensure that visitors returning to the Science Museum can learn about Watt’s direct involvement in the trade of enslaved people.

In the longer term, we need to reflect on how our museum ought to recognise his contribution to the Industrial Revolution whilst addressing this violent past.

We need to rethink Watt and others who played their part in the foundations of the Industrial Revolution, and our conclusions may undermine some previously established narratives.

Our task as curators is to embrace this sometimes uncomfortable task with humility, scholarship and vigour.

As the Smithsonian leader Lonnie Bunch put it recently, ‘to use history to help the public feel comfortable with nuance and complexity’.

The revelation about Watt also shines a stark light on how much we do not know.

The history of our collection, and the history of science, industry and medicine they represent, is intertwined with Britain’s history of empire. But to what extent did enslavement fund the Industrial Revolution?

Historians are asking these questions, and equally we need to consider how objects originally collected to celebrate the industrial revolution – from textile machinery, to models of a sugar cane rolling mill – may also be directly connected to experiences of enslavement.

We will work with others to understand our collection better and expand the research that is done around them.

Building on our initial work on culturally sensitive objects with the Wellcome Collection (one outcome being this post on Thalassemia), and our early public workshops on Decolonising Science Narratives, we know there is interest in developing research that explores the role objects in our collection had in creating and supporting racism, colonial structures and imperial power, and to start to question the new roles that these collections might play in the 21st century.

We are committing to beginning a programme that will grow in breadth and depth over the coming years.

Our Research Priorities define the research we undertake, including our Collaborative Doctoral Programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This year we will include decolonising the collection and addressing structural racism within the collection as one of our Research Priorities, allowing research in this area to benefit from three years of intensive doctoral research with our museums.

This is just a first step for our curatorial and research teams.

We know we need to learn from others, listen more and do more to address inclusivity in the people we show, the stories we tell and the way we understand, present and develop our collections for all our audiences.