He described winds of change in the museum world. A change away from the traditional curator with close and specific knowledge of the objects and collections in their care. Curating is now more concerned with exhibitions, events (and blogging) than with a close study of the stuff in the stores.
At the same time scholars have fallen in love with the material world. New materialism is however, Wittje points out, more wordy rather than matter-of-fact (or fact-of-matter). It fêtes the idea of the material without engaging it except in the over-hygienic spaces of museums (over-hygienic referring to the way the material world is represented in museums rather than to the state of cleanliness).
What kind of knowledge should a curator possess then? In debates about whether curators of recent science should listen to scientists or not, Wittje argues against hard and fast distinctions. Scientists and technicians are curators themselves. Preserved artifacts are often collected by scientists (or more frequently technicians) and accessioned by museums later. The scientists’ knowledge of the artifacts is crucial, but of course not everything about science can be understood through science itself.
The central case study of the talk was Germany’s first nuclear reactor in the visually stunning Atomei (literally “nuclear egg”).
The Atomei is heritage listed, but still radioactive – a rather uncomfortable position between science and history. It poses an acute problem to the curator: It cannot be turned into a museum, it cannot be collected, it can only be documented. Yet images and collection of museum-sized objects will not preserve its material impact.
The materiality of the Atomei impresses itself on groups that Wittje takes for visits. Particularly the rigmarole of procedures for protection against the radiation on site brings home the fact that matter acts upon us physically.
The pool in which the reactor was kept shows the mixed nature of modern science: It combines the mysteriousness of nuclear physics with the mundane bath-tiles of everyday existence. Students find it hard to believe this low-tech manifestation of high-tech: “Its looks just like a normal swimming-pool” (but it is not advisable to use it as such).
Yet the political movements that surrounded the building of the reactor have not left material traces. Wittje’s demonstrated with a personal note on his own engagement in the anti-nuclear moment that neither the scientists nor the curator is neutral.
No straightforward answers emerged on how to preserve recent scientific heritage, but we learned to look at the scientists as curators and to bring matter into materialism. After the talk, I liked to think of the effect of the material world as a (more benign) radioactivity, but I don’t hold Wittje responsible for this.