From Leonard da Vinci's anatomical drawings to Cern, all cutting-edge science is eventually history – Dr Samuel Alberti

The National Museum of Scotland first opened in 1866 as the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. Many of the beloved Victorian science and engineering objects displayed now as examples of science history were viewed in a very different context 150 years ago, when they represented the leading edge of British industry and innovation.

Leonardo Da Vinci's anatomical drawings show the connection between art and science
Leonardo Da Vinci's anatomical drawings show the connection between art and science

This contemporary collecting, and the ongoing process of reinterpreting these fascinating artefacts, continues to this day. Even the world-famous Dolly the Sheep, an emblem of futuristic cloning technology when she was born in 1997, was reappraised in a historical context when she was redisplayed in 2016.

The ability to shift focus in line with developments both within and beyond science is a key feature of how museums with scientific collections operate, and is also one of the paradoxes of their existence. Such museums must remain accessible and enjoyable to the casual visitor whilst representing increasingly complex science.

As an example, the extraordinary 2.5 tonne copper cavity from Cern is a proportionally tiny component of the 27km Large Electron Positron collider, a predecessor of the Large Hadron Collider which proved the existence of the Higgs Boson.

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Few people can explain what the Higgs Boson actually is, but the display of the copper cavity gives a sense of the scale of the endeavour, and Scotland’s contribution to our understanding of the universe.

Cutting-edge particle physics is only one of a range of topical issues that museums can engage audiences with. As trusted organisations, museums are ideal places for people to reflect on the challenges of our age, including climate change, sustainability and biodiversity loss. Museums can also address the current and historic role of science with respect to disability, inclusion, human rights and inequality.

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As a multi-disciplinary museum, the National Museum of Scotland can address these issues using a unique combination of art and science.

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The current exhibition, Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life, is about science history and, fittingly, is part of the programme of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival.

Anatomical art, exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci’s astonishing sketches which open the exhibition, developed in part due to a technological imperative: drawings and paintings were the only way to illustrate scientific findings until the advent of photography and, later, more advanced scanning techniques.

The exhibition paints a picture of Enlightenment Edinburgh, but also highlights the economic circumstances of the 19th-century city which gave rise to an environment in which anatomists paid handsomely for bodies for dissection.

This practice led to grave robbing and even murder in the case of Burke and Hare. We are able to reflect on past practices and the price paid for progress through the conclusion of the exhibition, which reflects today’s more ethical and compassionate approach.

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Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life is just one example of how, through art and science, museums tell compelling stories of our world, and our place within it.

Dr Samuel Alberti is director of collections at National Museums Scotland and the author of Curious Devices and Mighty Machines: Exploring Science Museums, published on August 15.

Anatomy: A Matter of Death and Life runs at the National Museum of Scotland until October 30.

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