Last week a large amount of scientific instruments from the Unilever Research Laboratory in Vlaardingen arrived at the store of Museum Boerhaave. This acquisition of instruments used in the Unilever laboratory from the 1950s on, reflect the typical challenges put to museums like Museum Boerhaave by modern scientific objects: they largely concern unattractive, mass-produced bulk instruments, which are moreover hard to understand for laymen. How can such instruments have any value for a museum?
The reason why we admit the Unilever instruments to our collection is that they represent the story of one of the most famous Dutch industrial research labs, where important research has been conducted in particular on margarine and washing powder. The instruments we have selected from the bulk offered to us are instruments as colorimeters and penetrometers (for testing the hardness of margarine). Instruments like these express the particular Unilever identity. We have excluded, on the other hand, all kinds of anonymous pH-meters and voltmeters that do not reflect Unilever particularities – even if we do not have such types of instruments in our collection yet.
It is clear that the Unilever-instruments are not appreciated as ‘classical’ showpieces, which are simply wonderful or interesting to look at in a museum display. We consider – in our jargon – the Unilever-instruments as ‘key objects’. Key-objects function as a ‘key’ to the (significant) story that lies behind it. A Unilever colorimeter, then, is not collected as an attractive, intriguing or rare instrument, but as an artefact that represents Unilever’s washing powder research.
A consequence of the key-object approach is that both displaying and collecting should be regarded from a more ‘organic’ point of view. Since the object derives its value from the story behind it, context-materials should be added to it to express this story, as all kinds of documentation, images, film, animations, other objects, etcetera. A key-object can never be displayed or collected in isolation. An ugly object is never alone.
Further reading: A. Maas, ‘The Storyteller and the Altar: Museum Boerhaave and its Objects’, in: The Exhibition as Product and Generator of Scholarship (which will soon appear in the preprint-series of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science: http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/en/resources/preprints.html) .