Celebrity plays an enormous role in popular culture — just think of film making and Academy Awards (Oscars). Yet with some exceptions, e.g. a recent conference and a follow-up blog, Academia (of the university kind, not the film industry’s!) shuns the phenomenon of celebrity.
Neither have historians of science, technology and medicine paid much attention to it. A notable exception here is Janet Browne who wrote an article on “Charles Darwin as a celebrity” in the journal Science in Context (vol. 16, March 2003), in which she explored the imagery of the famous evolutionist as a 19th-century scientific celebrity “by comparing the public character deliberately manufactured by Darwin and his friends with images constructed by the public”, and argued that “Darwin’s outward persona drew on a subtle tension between public and private”.
Janet Browne’s paper is the exception that proves the rule, however. And the rule includes science, technology and medical museums who also seem to be pretty uninterested in scientific celebrities. Take a tour around the Science Museum in London, for example, and you will hardly find a single individual, not to mention a famous one. You will have to walk across the city, to the National Portrait Gallery, to find pictures of individual celebrious scientists, engineeers and medical doctors, like Dorothy Hodgkin.
This neglect of celebrity in science museums is all the more interesting because these are institutions which are supposed, after all, to cater particularly for the public understanding of (engagement with) science, technology and medicine. And since the famous individual and his/her personality is probably one of the best ways of forging bonds between the public and the content of museums, one might expect that museums would emphasise celebrities in their exhitions. But nope.
Why is this so? ‘Individuality’ and ‘personality’ are among the most important analytical concepts for understanding the dynamics of recent science, technology and medicine. ‘Famous’ (celebrious) scientists get more attention, set more agendas, have more political influence, and draw in more grant money than other scientists.
From a moral and political point of view, I don’t like this to be the case. And I don’t like the cult of celebrity in the popular media either. But personal moral opinion (and possible resentment) of celebrity should not shadow for the fact that this is a fascinating and important social and cultural phenomenon. I believe we have to bow to the fact that ‘individuals’, ‘personalities’ and ‘celebrities’ do indeed play a major role in the workings of science, technology and medicine. And given this role — shouldn’t celebrity then be reflected in the way science, technology and medical museums arrange their exhibitions?