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(2013) A Rediscovery of Scientific Collections as Material Heritage? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A

(2013) A Rediscovery of Scientific Collections as Material Heritage? Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
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   A rediscovery of scientific collections as material heritage?  The case of university collections in GermanyDavid Ludwig, Cornelia Weber Final Version forthcoming in: Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science A (2013)  Abstract:  The purpose of this article is twofold: on the one hand, we present the outlines ofa history of university collections in Germany. On the other hand, we discuss this history asa case study of the changing attitudes of the sciences towards their material heritage. Basedon data from 1094 German university collections, we distinguish three periods that are byno means homogeneous but offer a helpful starting point for a discussion of the entangledinstitutional and epistemic factors in the history of university collections. In the 19thcentury, university collections were institutionalized and widely recognized as indispensablein research and teaching. During the 20th century, university collection became increasinglymarginalized both on an institutional and theoretical level. Towards the end of the 20thcentury, the situation of university collections improved partly because of theirreconsideration as material heritage. University collections preserve a large variety of scientific objectssuch as astronomical instruments, mathematical models, geologicalsamples, taxidermies, herbaria, and archaeologicalexcavation pieces. Despite their often crucial importance for thedevelopment of scientific disciplines, university collections havelong been neglected in the history of science. Recent debates aboutthe material dimension of scientific practice have challenged thissituation and contributed to a quickly growing number of publicationson university collections and their holdings. However, mostof these studies focus on individual objects, individual collections,or collections of individual universities (e.g. Hoffmann & Maak-Rheinländer, 2001; Kunst, Schnalke, & Bogusch, 2010). Macrohistoricalaccounts that examine the general history and significanceof university collections are still sparse (an important exception isLourenço, 2005) and entirely missing in the case of university collections 1  in Germany. The aim of this article is twofold. On the one hand, we presentan account of the development of university collections in Germany.On the other hand, we want to discuss the recent historyof university collections as a case study of the changing attitudesof the sciences towards their material heritage. The first two sectionsintroduce the data and methodological assumptions of ourstudy. We base our discussion on data from 1094 collections atGerman universities. We argue that this data provides crucial insightsinto the development of university collections in generalas well as in specific disciplines. Furthermore, we try to go beyondthis data by examining the diverse epistemic and non-epistemicfunctions of university collection in the light of concrete casestudies.In the remaining three sections, we outline a history of universitycollections in Germany. Although the developments of differentdisciplines are by no means homogeneous, we still think thatit is possible and helpful to distinguish three major periods ofthe history of university collections in Germany. The first periodspans from the late 18th to the early 20th century and is characterizedthrough the emergence of modern university collectionsacross the disciplines. We argue that collection-based research as well as collection-based teaching was widely recognized as indispensableat German universities during this time. The situationchanged, however, during the 20th century and we show that universitycollections became increasingly marginalized especiallyduring the second half of the 20th century. This does not mean thatuniversity collections lost all functions in research and teachingbut they were often pushed to the periphery of disciplines by thedominance of laboratory work and other research projects that didnot utilize scientific collections. In the last section we discussdevelopments since the end of the 20th century and argue thatthey indicate a reconsideration of university collections as materialheritage. 2  By presenting a macrohistorical account of the development ofGerman university collections, we also hope to provide a casestudy of the changing attitudes of the sciences towards their materialheritage. In particular, we argue that the institutional marginalizationof university collections during the second half of the20th century also reflects a theoretical marginalization of scientificcollections. Scientists often stopped paying attention to epistemicpotentials of collections and moved on to areas they consideredmore fruitful and timely. Furthermore, the reconsideration of universitycollections towards the end of the 20th century was at leastpartly caused by a general reconsideration of science as having notonly a theoretical but also a material heritage. 1. The available data  Although historians of science increasingly recognize theimportance of university collections, macrohistorical accounts ofthe development of university collections are hard to find. Themain reason for this gap in research is the poor documentation,especially of smaller scientific collections at universities. Often,universities do not even know about their own collections andthe insufficient data makes it tremendously difficult for historiansto present reliable results about development of university collections.Our account is based on data from a research project thatgathers information about university collections in Germany since2004. Although the results of this research project are publiclyavailable in an online database 1 , this article provides the first attemptto utilize the data for a general account of the developmentof university collections in Germany. As of April 2012, 1094 collectionsare documented in the database. 769 of them have a precise year of foundation and for another 184, we were able to provide atleast a rough estimate for the founding dates. Furthermore, we knowof 101 university collections that were destroyed or disbanded before2000. Table 1 shows the growth of the number of university collections 1See <>3  between 1550 and 2000 as suggested by this data:It is important to keep the limitations of our data in mind. Although the data has been carefully collected in a collaborativemulti-year project, it should not be considered complete. The mostimportant limitation of the data for an analysis of the historicaldevelopment of university collections is that it is probably biasedin favour of more recent collections. Many older collections arenot included in the data set because there is no documentationof them or because the only traces of them are hidden in universityarchives. A second limitation is that the ‘‘founding date’’ of a universitycollection is often very difficult to determine. This is notonly due to a lack of historical information but also a definitionalissue. Often, scientists slowly accumulate objects that finally becomea university collection. In some instances, an accumulationof scientific objects becomes recognized as a scientific collectionat a specific time. In other cases, there is no formal institutionalizationof a collection and it is up to a historian to determine anappropriate ‘‘founding date.’’ A third aspect that needs to be considered is the definition of‘‘university collection.’’ Following the database, we define ‘‘universitycollections’’ as collections of three dimensional or audio-visualobjects at institutions of higher education. It is important to understand what collections are excluded and included by this definition.On the one hand, the definition excludes libraries anduniversity archives as well as scientific collections that were neveraffiliated with universities such as many museums and collectionsof scientific academies or companies. On the other hand, the definitionincludes collections that are affiliated with universities evenif they are not scientific collections in a strict sense. Examples includeart collections at universities or memorial places such asFriedrich Schiller’s ‘‘garden house’’ at the University of Jena. Furthermore,the definition also includes botanical gardens and aquariaas collections. Other definitions would be possible and wouldlead to different data. 4  Despite these limitations, the available data provides a helpfulstarting point for a discussion of the history of university collectionsin Germany. This becomes already apparent in the case of Table1 that indicates some very general trends: until the second halfof the 18th century, the number of university collections grows very slowly. After 1750, this growth quickly accelerates andreaches its peak between 1850 and 1900. In the 20th century, thisgrowth slightly decelerates despite the reasonable assumption thatthe data is skewed in favour of more recent collections. Table 1 does, however, suggest rather more stability than theremay, in fact, have been over the past 250 years. One way of reachinga more adequate picture is to look at the foundations of scientificcollections in different disciplines. Our data allows disciplinespecific analysis, as every database entry of a university collectionis connected to metadata that specifies appropriate disciplines. Table2 shows the number of newly founded university collections inastronomy, ethnology, mathematics, and forestry in the 17th, 18th,19th, and 20th centuries. The table illustrates that the developments within different disciplines were extraordinarily uneven. 2. The functions of university collections Even if it is possible to estimate the changing numbers of universitycollections in different disciplines, the data of the last sectionprovides a very incomplete picture as it says nothing about thefunctions of these collections in scientific practice. In this section, we will outline a model of the epistemic functions of universitycollections that we will apply to different case studies in the followingsections. On a very broad level, one can distinguish betweenthree functions: University collections can be researchcollections, teaching collections, and collections that serve the publicpresentation of science. Of course, these functions are not mutuallyexclusive, and it is very common for collections to serve more thanone of these purposes. Botanical gardens, for example, are usuallyopen to the public as well as used in botanical research and academic 5
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