Preserving the Past

irreg3332Every summer the Pembroke-King’s Programme offers a series of Plenary lectures for its students. In 2016, PKP welcomed Professor Liba Taub to speak about her work as Curator and Director of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

In Professor Taub’s lecture she spoke about the process of preserving historical scientific artefacts and the debate regarding what should be preserved for future generations.

Professor Taub explained that the question of what scientific artefacts to save for posterity is not new. In 1990, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution published an article entitled: ‘What is a scientific instrument, when did it become one, and why?’ These questions were prompted by practical considerations; the curator wondered what to collect for her museum.

Twenty-six years later, science curators still have questions about what to collect. If we wish to ‘collect’ a radio telescope in Cambridge, what do we preserve? How many dishes? How much of the railway track? Where do we store or display such objects? Outdoors, as they were used? Inside a museum? Many scientific instruments are very large, others very small—even invisible and intangible—including those related to biomedical science.

Professor Taub spoke about the importance of everyday items such as test tubes, the value of which is currently very minor but which might one day become outdated and rare. Therefore, at what point do you start preserving and keeping equipment and where do you keep it?

Professor Taub left the audience with this question as they pondered the importance of preserving items such as Watson and Crick’s model of the double helix of DNA which no longer exists in its complete form.



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