Beyond Narrative: interpreting history of science in public contexts without selling out to comforting expectations


History and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine were transformed in the middle twentieth century as small groups of professional historians turned their attention to areas that had once been the province of the practitioners themselves, and societies, journals, and university programs proliferated. As this familiar historiography reached stable maturity in the 1960s, humanists and social scientists from other disciplines increasingly turned to this field and imported research techniques from their own disciplines of sociology, anthropology, political science, literary studies, etc. Broadly called "science and technology studies" (STS), and employing such programmatic monikers as "social construction" and "actor-network theory", this interdisciplinary approach spawned new societies, journals, and programs, and broadened the genres of historical interpretation beyond conventional narrative and analysis.

Yet, while scholars delighted in the complexity and diversity of science and technology revealed by these new frameworks, public presentation and interpretation remained largely narrative and simplistic. From museum exhibitions to documentary film, conventional wisdom and practice dictated that material needed to be simplified and hung on a clear, chronological framework to avoid confusing the public. In film and video production especially, sponsors demanded further that the “stories” needed to be told via memorable personalities, in order to hold the viewer’s interest. The scholar, curator, or consultant was thus torn between the exciting, new interpretations that dominated the professional literature and the demands to contradict those findings in favor of an outdated and perhaps dishonest interpretation. Further, scientists and engineers objected to the “gross simplifications” of the public products as well as the prominence of nonscientific social and other factors in the new scholarly interpretations, which became entrained in the “science wars” and “culture wars” of the 1990s and early 2000s.

This paper explores the quandary of interpreting sophisticated scientific issues and complex historical events and meanings to a public expecting clarity and comfort. It is based on a graduate history seminar taught recently by the author in collaboration with another historian colleague, also experienced in exhibition, new media, and conventional publications for scholarly audiences as well as the broad public. Our students read the critical literature, book, museum and exhibition reviews, and other materials and then engaged in a variety of projects ranging from conventional scholarly written reports to various projects in public presentation and interpretation. We consider and assess the possibilities for a more sophisticated public presentation of science and technology, more closely attuned to the scholarly analyses that have displaced simple narrative.Nike Zoom Kobe Shoes

Joseph N. Tatarewicz