Wednesday, November 3, 2010

natural history museums and boundary objects

Recently I have been re-reading work by the sociologist of science, Susan Leigh Star, for a paper I am writing with my supervisor. Sadly Susan Leigh Star died this year, unexpectedly, leaving a great sense of loss in her personal and professional worlds.

One of my favourite papers by Leigh Star (and James Griesemer) was 'Institutional ecology, 'translations' and boundary objects: amateurs and professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907 - 1939' (Social Studies of Science 19(3): 387 - 420), which discusses the ways in which members of different social worlds coordinated their efforts in building the museum. Leigh Star and Griesemer's ethnographic study was ecological, in the sense that it included the perspectives of administrators, amateur collectors, professional trappers, farmers who served as occasional fieldworkers and zoologists. In this paper, the authors introduced the concept of the 'boundary object', which they explained as that which facilitates common understandings between multiple social worlds. It is a concept which has been used widely in the discipline of STS, and other areas of research, ever since.

I could not help but also think of this study when visiting the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart with my mother (see her own blog post about the visit here Home Tweet Home: Museum Visit). At the museum we did fieldstudies: I took photos of the zoology exhibits and mum sketched some beetles and butterflies for inspiration for her ceramics. Whilst we were photographing and sketching, we had a number of conversations - one with a visitor and another with a gallery guide – about the animals that we were picturing/drawing, and other tales of flora and fauna. The taxidermy was a boundary object in the very similar, almost literal, sense used by Leigh Star and James Griesemer, as something which facilitated an interaction between our different worlds of experience and interest.

This led me to wonder whether pneumatic tube systems are boundary objects? I am not sure if anyone has any thoughts on that? In many ways, the technology serves to facilitate multiple transactions between different worlds. For example, in hospitals, pneumatic tubes are considered, and used, quite differently by engineers, pathologists and nurses. But I wonder whether pneumatic tube systems are really 'plastic' in their adaption to local needs, or are they more structured?
Photos are my own.

No comments:

Post a Comment