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Paving the way for integrated archival and collection-based research in the history of science

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Preservation, access and case-studies of the collections of the Museum of Science (University of Lisbon)

Host Institution: Museu de Ciência da Universidade de Lisboa

Starting Date: 1 April 2008

Duration in months: 36 months

The prime aim of this project is to make scientific collections more relevant to the history of science. Since history of science in Portugal has established itself as an independent field of study, regulated by international standards, it is now possible to initiate reflection on the role, scope and historiography of scientific material culture.

This project is a collaborative initiative of the Centre for the History of Science and the Museum of Science, both University of Lisbon, bringing together researchers from different backgrounds with the following objectives:

  1. to raise preservation standards of the Museum collections and archive and improve their accessibility to meet demands of contemporary studies in the history of science
  2. to develop integrated archival and collection-based research using the Museum collections and archive as sources
  3. to assign the Museum a more prominent role in post-graduate teaching and research at the University of Lisbon and other universities
  4. to establish long-term research partnerships between the Museum and historians of science from Portugal and abroad.

Museums have only played a minimal role in mainstream history of science. Only a small percentage of historical research has been collection-based or has made significant use of three-dimensional sources. Scientific instruments in museums, when not ignored altogether, are relegated a decorative role in papers and theses. Despite recent signs of change at an international level, scientific material culture is still terra incognita in Portugal.

Increasing the relevance of collections for research is a complex task and poses many challenges - first and foremost to museums themselves. Museums often complain about their collections not being used as a source for history of science. However, are museums prepared to 'deliver' history? Do they consider documenting the history of science as part of their mission? Are collections intellectually and physically accessible? When they are, do inventories and documentation systems meet the needs and expectations of historians?

One way of diminishing these problems and gradually enhance the relevance of museums is by establishing partnerships. For two reasons university museums are especially well-positioned to initiate partnerships with research groups in the history of science: i) because of their strategic position between the world of academia and the world of museums; ii) their collections and archives - laboratory notes, class plans, didactic panels, instrument apparatuses - are typologically distinct from the typical museum of science: they document the history of scientific research and teaching.

The Museum of Science of the University of Lisbon is particularly resourceful. Apart from an important collection of historical scientific equipment, it also holds significant historical archives and a library. The Museum is heir to books and instruments, as well as institutional documents and memorabilia, from the Noviciate of Cotovia (1619-1759), the Colégio dos Nobres (1761-1837), the Polytechnic School (1837-1911) and the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon (1911 onwards) - one of the oldest institutional lineages of scientific teaching and study in Portugal. The largest part of this heritage - covering Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Mathematics - is from the 19th and 20th centuries, but the Museum collection, archive and library have great consistency as a whole and together encompass c. 230,000 items which have barely been used in history of science.

The Museum has occasionally benefited from the collaboration of historians and wants to be more proactive in stimulating collection-based research in the history of science. This, however, poses major challenges. Although the Museum's heritage has been kept under generally good conditions, only the library is catalogued and accessible. Only one third of the collection is inventoried and a much smaller portion is photographed. The collection database is obsolete and not accessible online. There are no conditions to host visiting researchers. The archive is not catalogued, let alone microfilmed or digitalised.



> FCT Project PTDC/HCT/64181/2006

> Coordinating researcher: Marta Lourenço

> Museu de Ciência - University of Lisbon

> Research opportunities:

presently closed

> Methodology
> Outcome
> Persons
> Literature








This Project brings together a group of historians of science to assess the Museum's preparedness to deliver history of science, advise on how to improve it, and develop actual research. It will raise preservation standards for the archive, catalogue it and make it accessible for research. Collection preservation standards will also be improved and the database upgraded. About 50% of the instruments will be studied, inventoried, photographed and made accessible online. At the end of the project, an integrated system that cross-indexes information from the collection, the archive and the library will be developed.

The Project has two PhDs, one master's and two post-doctoral projects. These researchers will develop five case-studies, using both archival sources and collections, with subject matter covering different aspects of the history of science (the Physics Laboratory at the Faculty of Science in the 1930s, the 19th century Laboratorio Chimico, outsourcing chemistry services in 19th century Polytechnic School and the collection of early scientific instruments), and paper conservation studies (collection of technical drawings). Case-studies will enable close monitoring of preservation and accessibility measures as they are implemented throughout the Project and facilitate the discussion on the role of material culture in the history of science.




Bridging the gap between history of science and museums will benefit historians, museums and society at large. Historians gain from broadening their sources and 'ways of looking', enriching narratives and confronting alternative material evidence. Museums benefit from academically validated research, which not only enhances the use and significance of their collections, but also provides additional opportunities for public interpretation and exhibition. Society as a whole benefits as scientific heritage may gradually receive the same social and political recognition granted to artistic, architectonic and natural heritage.




Research Team

  • Marta Lourenço Coordinator
  • Ana Simões
  • Henrique Leitão
  • Ana Carneiro
  • Luís Saraiva
  • Samuel Gessner
  • Vanda Leitão
  • Ana Sousa Prates
  • António Perestrelo de Matos
  • Vítor Gens 



Alberti, S.J.M.M. 2005. Objects and the Museum. Isis 96: 559-571.

Anderson, R.G.W. 2005. To thrive or survive? The state and status of research in museums. Mus. Man. and Cur. 20: 297-311.

Bennett, J. 2005. Practitioner's Postscript. Isis 96: 602-608.

Corn, J.J. 1996. Object lessons/Object myths? What historians of technology learn from things. In W.D. KINGERY (ed). Learning from things. Method and theory of material culture studies, pp. 35-54. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Dancy, J. 2006. The thing to use. Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 37: 58-61.

Golinski, J. 1998. Making natural knowledge. Constructivism and the history of science. Cambridge University Press.

Hopwood, N. 1999. "Giving body to embryos". Modelling, mechanism, and the microtome in late nineteenth-century anatomy. Isis 90: 462-496.

Houkes, W. & A. Meijers 2006. The ontology of artefacts: the hard problem. Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. 37: 118-131.

Kingery, W.D. (ed) 1996. Learning from things. Method and theory of material culture studies. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Lindsay, G.C. 1962. Museums and research in history and technology. Curator 5: 236-244.

Lourenço, M.C. 2002. Working with words or with objects? The contribution of university museums. Paper presented at the meeting "Do Collections Matter to Instrument Studies?" British Society for the History of Science/Scientific Instrument Commission of the IUHPS/DHS, 29-30 June, Museum of the History of Science, Univ. of Oxford.

Lourenço, M.C. 2005. 'Between two worlds: the distinct nature and
contemporary significance of university museums and collections in Europe'. PhD dissertation, Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris.

Lubar, S. & W.D. Kingery (eds) 1993. History from things. Essays on material culture. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Pickstone, J.V. 2000. Ways of knowing. A new history of science, technology, and medicine. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Sánchez, J.R.B. & A.G. Belmar 2002. Abriendo las cajas negras. Colección de instrumentos científicos de la Universitat de València. Univ. de València y Fundació General de la Univ. de València.

Taub, L. 2003. Ancient Meteorology. Routledge, London.



  Última actualização 16-02-09