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Working in physics: Curating the space-time continuum

Alison Boyle describes how working in a science museum offers plenty of variety and the chance to interact with great scientists – past and present.

History in the making

There cannot be too many jobs in physics that combine shaking hands with the Queen and rummaging around in filthy sheds, but I have one of them. As curator of astronomy and modern physics at London's Science Museum, I am responsible for about 10,000 of the museum's 200,000 collected objects, concentrating on physics from the late 20th century onwards, as well as astronomy and timekeeping. As a result, I like to think of myself as "curator of the space–time continuum".

The Science Museum is world-renowned for its historical collections, galleries and educational activities. It is currently celebrating its centenary year, although some of its collection was founded in 1857 with objects shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. There are currently 23 curators at the museum, each responsible for a different slice of the collection. Being a curator involves a range of duties, including acquiring new objects, improving knowledge about existing collections, and interpreting the objects for the public – as well as a bit of shed-rummaging and shaking of dignitaries' hands whenever an exhibition opens.

During major exhibitions or Web projects my fellow curators and I tend to work in big teams made up of staff from across the museum, including conservators, experts in how people learn, designers and members of the museum's workshop team. However, I also spend a lot of time working alone, especially while doing research for an article or conference. It is a clichë, but there really is no such thing as a daily routine in this job – especially since the museum usually has several projects running at any one time, each in different stages of completion.

Catching the museum bug
My physics career began with a BSc in experimental physics at the National University of Ireland, Galway, followed by a Master's in astronomy. I intended to stay on in Galway to do a PhD in astronomy, but after a few months of struggling with C code (never my strong point) I realized I was much better at writing about science than I was at doing it. So, I came to the UK to study for an MSc in science communication at Imperial College London.

This course included a module on communicating science in museums, and since the module was taught by staff from the Science Museum, which is located next door to Imperial, I quickly got to know the place and the people. As the course was ending, I saw that the museum was advertising for new employees, so I applied. Initially, I only intended to stay for six months, but I got bitten by the museum bug and stayed on.

After a couple of years of working on general topics across science, technology and medicine, I was starting to miss physics and astronomy, but then I had another stroke of luck: the curatorial post for this part of the collection opened up, and I was able to move into it. I have now been at the mu_seum for eight years, although I am still a relative newcomer compared with a few of my colleagues – some of whom have been here for decades.

The language of physics
Being responsible for the national collections is a huge privilege. Not many people get to hold a first edition of Copernicus' On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (wearing the obligatory white gloves, naturally) or get a close-up look at John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton's original atom-splitting apparatus. I am also very lucky in that my work regularly allows me to meet some of the best physicists, astronomers and historians in the world.

One of my most memorable days at work came when I met the Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise – although I am sorry to say that I got completely tongue-tied and just gaped gormlessly at them.

Despite these "perks", managing the collections is a challenge as well as a privilege. Each of the museum's curators is respon_sible for a wide range of objects, spanning long historical periods. In addition to trying to get to know the vast existing collections (what you see on display is only about 7% of what is held) we also need to stay on top of current practice so that we keep acquiring new objects. This is vital to ensure that the museum's collections will continue to be strong in the future. Having a background in physics has been invaluable, because it means I have contacts across the UK physics community and I am already familiar with major areas of research. It also means that I speak physicists' language. This is really important because sometimes historians and scientists might as well be on different planets.

My main focus recently has been an astronomy exhibition entitled Cosmos & Culture, which opened in July 2009 and will run until the end of 2010. I was the lead curator on the project, which meant I managed the team that selected the objects and wrote the scripts for labels and interactive exhibits. At this time last year, I was busy editing text at my computer, studying objects directly in the conservation lab and visiting scientists to find out more about their work. I also spent a lot of time trying to get my hands on new kit for the displays: we wanted to showcase the cutting-edge research being done by UK astronomers and space scientists, so almost a third of the objects on show in Cosmos & Culture are new loans and acquisitions.

As the exhibition's opening date drew nearer, my work became more hands-on, as I helped to install the exhibits and started talking to the media. The last few weeks before opening were a flurry of activity, as we tried to ensure everything was completed in time. The opening day itself went by in a blur of a morning press launch, an afternoon of TV and radio interviews and an evening VIP reception. However, our work does not finish once the exhibition is open. In recent months we have carried out a detailed feedback study with visitors and will be making some changes to the exhibition layout to respond to their needs. For example, we are experimenting with a novel digital interface instead of the standard printed labels to interpret the objects; we have found that visitors are supportive of this innovation but they also need a bit more introductory information on how to use it.

Getting into the role
Although I have found that my technical background is definitely an asset, there is no set qualification required to become a curator at a science or technology museum. Indeed, one nice thing about the curatorial team is the range of backgrounds represented, including scientists, historians, and people who have amassed vast expertise since joining the museum as young trainees. This means that we approach things from slightly different perspectives.

Most museums would, however, require candidates to have a solid background in science, history of science or museum studies, at least to degree level. Prior experience of working in museums is also a real bonus. For those who do not get this experience through a formal course like the one that I completed, volunteering is a great way to try out lots of different aspects of museum work. The Science Museum and its partner museums now have more than 100 volunteers.

Aside from the formal qualifications, some personal qualities that help in my job are enthusiasm, the ability to juggle lots of tasks at once, and being good at processing a lot of information. It also helps to have a sense of humour, and to be extremely diplomatic when someone is on the phone telling you at length about their new thesis, which disproves Einstein and which aliens have told them via coded text messages. And yes, that has happened to me.

We need your stuff!
The Science Museum is seeking objects that will highlight advances in physics since 1980. This could be anything from spare parts to prototypes or scale models. We are particularly interested in particle physics, cosmology and environmental physics, but if you are aware of something from a different field that you think we should consider, then please get in touch. We cannot take everything that is offered to us due to competing demands for storage space and resources, but we may be able to advise on other suitable homes for objects. Accepted objects will not necessarily go on display immediately in the museum, but they will form part of the national collections and be a resource for future research and interpretation. We will also make new acquisitions available online. You can get an idea of what is in the museum's existing collections at collectionsonline.nmsi.ac.uk.

About the author
Alison Boyle is curator of astronomy and modern physics at the Science Museum, London.


This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Science Museum/Santiago Arribas Peña

last edited: November 05, 2014



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