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Towards a history of interactivity (through interactive objects)

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In the course of the 20th century, science museums stalled, science centres, however, surged. This is presumably due to politics of display or economic constraints; but it is also related to the use of objects. The focus has shifted from artefacts to interactives, as a new paradigm of interactivity greatly influenced how science was exhibited in the public space. In my paper I will discuss some preliminary results of a larger project in preparation, which attempts to write a history of interactivity by studying the development of the science museum in Europe and Northern America between the late 19th and the late 20th century. It appears that a line can be drawn from the Berlin Urania founded in 1888, which leads to the Deutsches Museum and the Science Museum in London as well as to a number of American museums of science and industry opened since the 1920s, which not only carries the idea of interactivity, but which actually is one of ‘objects in transit’. By following push-button experiments, hands-on demonstrations, working models and the like from one place to another, a transatlantic discourse on interactivity may become apparent. While the Exploratorium in San Francisco has absorbed much form East Coast museums and European institutions at the end of the 1960s, the first European science centres imported – or re-imported? – many interactives from there some twenty years later. Clearly, my approach is meant to deconstruct the purported singularity of the Exploratorium and its concept invented by Frank Oppenheimer to some extent by putting it into a wider setting. At the same time this may question the ‘political machines’ pushing the interactive turn, which replaces artefacts of curiosity and narratives of progress, which can be scrutinised, by context-free presentations of entertaining phenomena, which rather cannot.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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