Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Modern Muse and the Science Museum

It’s great to be able to announce the arrival of a new entry to the Articles department of this website.  One of a series of studies I wrote over the years for the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Great Ideas Today, it’s titled The Abode of the Modern Muse: The Science Museum. It can be reached by going to Articles on the menu bar; there, choose Great Ideas Today,; and finally, within Great Ideas Today, select the article itself.

I took the opportunity of this assignment to reflect on a long tradition beginning with the MUSEION, the grove sacred to the Muses of ancient Greece, and leading, I claim, in a way important to us today, to the role and concurrent  responsibility  of the modern science museum. Along the way the essay makes major stops, first at Alexandria, where it treats the celebrated “Library” as more truly an academy, and thus just such a meeting-ground of human minds; and finally, at our own Smithsonian Institution, regarded from its inception as a centerpiece of the scientific spirit of our nation.

One crucial role at the outset of this story is that of Aristotle, who affirmed, very much in his manner as thoughtful observer, that the human community is in essence one, and that a fundamental goal, alike of ethics and of politics, must be to realize this truth in practice. The tradition seems secure that Philip of Macedon, to free his son from the distractions of the court at Pela, hired Arisotle as tutor of Alexander, and sent the two of them off to the hills of Macedonia to focus on education.  The curriculum may have been cut short by Alexander’s early ascent to the throne, but it seems clear that Aristotle’s advice concerning the unity of the human community was foremost in Alexander’s mind when he made the founding of Alexandria in Egypt one of his first, and most successful projects.

There were to be many more Alexandrias as Alexander carried his campaign of munification across the Middle East. Readers may have encountered a recent exhibit of Ai Khanoun, an Alexandria discovered to everyone’s complete surprise under the sands of northern Afghanistan; my guide at the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington reported there are believed to be perhaps a dozen more to be unearthed, if our own present wars might cease. But the Egyptian center was surely the best. It began, indeed, as a “library”, whose mission was to collect books from the entire Mediterranean basin; copies were made at a publishing house (apparently the building close to the harbor destroyed by the legendary fire).  The copies were sent back to the sources, while the originals were stored securely at Alexandria.

The books, however, were gathered to be studied, not simply to be stored, and in this sense Alexandria is better thought of as paradigm of the universitas, than as library, fundamental as the books themselves must be. As university, Alexandria was conceived to be a new center of human learning for the entire Mediterranean world. It succeeded in that role to a remarkable extent, and we today are its beneficiaries in ways of which we aren’t always aware. This was indeed a science museum, as the works of Ptolemy and Euclid, to cite just two examples, attest. Euclid’s Elements is a synoptic work, a gathering of contributions from probably widespread sources. What is most exciting in that work is Euclid’s own: his brilliant grasp of a profound unity arising out of these contributions. It is a true Alexandrian moment when Euclid perceives in this mathematics the pattern of the tragic trilogy: for those tragic texts were being gathered and assembled in their own unities by that single community of thinkers. It had not occurred to anyone-least of all to Aristotle!-that the human mind need be or could be, compartmentalized into separate academic domains as we have done today.  Academic labors could indeed be divided, but the human mind, as gathered at Alexandria, remained focused on the whole.

This understanding, the article claims, remained intact in the early days of our republic: it is not by chance that our corporate seal, reproduced on the dollar bill (as well as on the seal of my own college, St. John’s) depicts an Egyptian pyramid and an insightful eye. Nor that the leader of the procession dedicating the new Smithsonian Institution was reportedly wearing George Washington’s Masonic apron. When Smithson’s benefaction was accepted as a gift to this nation, the concept of the liberal arts and the unity of learning was still very much alive, and the institution founded in his name was meant as a center of new learning very much in the Alexandrian tradition. We tend to forget this, but other science museums, here and abroad, today wear that same mantle, whether we are always aware of it or not. Most unfortunately, we forget that is not just science, conceived as domain of human endeavor separate from others, but rather science as an integral component of that spectrum of all human thought, collectively the best we can do in understanding and guiding our precarious life on this planet today.

The essay closes with a severe criticism of the abandonment by the Smithsonian, under heavy industry pressure, of a project in conjunction with an exhibit of the Enola Gay. The exhibit had been thoughtfully designed to help the public review in a social and ethical context, the decision to launch our two atomic bombs. Some readers of the essay in the past have disagreed with this judgment on my part, and in this matter, as in all others, I would welcome readers’ comments.

Now more than ever we as a world community need to gather our collective wits by any means possible. Science stands at the center of many of our pressing concerns, and the science museum may still be one of the best institutions we can turn to, as the grove of our modern muse.