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Spring 2024, | Discussion | Museum practice

Theory and every thing: acquiring the office of Professor Stephen Hawking as a resource for history and museology

Tilly Blyth and Alison Boyle

Abstract

https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107

How do the curators of science and technology collections represent the daily realities of doing science? Through the acquisition of Professor Stephen Hawking’s office by the Science Museum, this paper will explore what is involved in making major acquisitions for national collections. How do curators consider what to preserve from the eclectic range of items found in the working spaces of scientists? What do the personal artefacts of a scientist’s life represent, and what do acts of curatorial choices say about the narratives that are foregrounded – and those that are not – in positioning that life historically? And how do those choices illuminate the considerations involved in the way science and technology is represented in our national collections?

By going beyond the glass case, we consider what it takes to bring an object into a collection: the intellectual considerations of how its stories are preserved for a nation and the practical considerations required so that items can even be considered for future display. The paper illuminates the formal and informal networks around scientists’ collections, and the processes and judgements that science and technology curators make every day when choosing what could be important for defining our history. Using the Stephen Hawking office as a case study the article explores the representation of scientific practice in museum collections, the relationship of some collections with celebrity and disability, and some of the challenges posed by science and technology acquisitions compared to other types of museum object.

The paper explores how knowledge is generated in museum collections, through the act of acquiring a new collection. It asks fundamental questions, which are essential to the fields of museology and science and technology studies, about the contribution to knowledge made by personal scientific objects. It goes beyond the study of collections as artefacts of display in exhibitions and galleries, providing a detailed analysis of a routine but often-neglected aspect of behind-the-scenes museum work: the acquisition of a collection. Arguing that a large and complex collection is a vital tool for understanding the complexity of science, the paper uses the ‘museum as method’ (Thomas, 2016) which prioritises simple curatorial questions and the use of the objects in exploration; this enables scholars and curators to respond to material evidence of scientific knowledge, and identify narratives that are prioritised, and others that are obscured, in the historic record. In doing so, it suggests that curators are uniquely placed to provide insights into the roles of human and non-human actors in the construction of scientific knowledge, demonstrating how the Hawking collection allows us to explore the nature of scientific practice, the creation of scientific celebrity, and the potential to give visibility to disability within the history of science whilst de-centring the myth of the scientific genius in museum narratives.

Keywords

collection, cosmology, curation, disability, Hawking, knowledge generation, material culture, mathematics, physics, science, Technology

Introduction

https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/

A slate gravestone in Westminster Abbey carries the words ‘Here lies what was mortal of Stephen Hawking, 1942–2018’. The words are a knowing echo of the Latin inscription on the grave of Isaac Newton, who lies nearby. Although Hawking was largely agnostic – like Charles Darwin, also buried in the Abbey – the interring of his ashes in the nation’s shrine was a fitting final act for the life of a man whose name would go down in the annals of science (Rees, 2018). Hawking was rightly recognised as one of the world’s leading scientists and science communicators, with his contribution to our understanding of our place in the universe widely acknowledged both during and after his lifetime.

The gravestone is emblematic of the challenges of making sense of Stephen Hawking, the mortal man. In the echo of Newton, we see the conscious construction of an image that Hawking himself cultivated throughout his life, one that has become so repeated in biographies that it can be hard to separate from reality. Much of Hawking’s popular image was built around transcending the ordinary realm of mortals. The stone also carries a stylised representation of a black hole, and his most famous equation, for Hawking Radiation. In the 1970s Hawking devised a mechanism to show that black holes aren’t as black as originally thought: pairs of quantum particles are constantly generated at the edge of a black hole, with one falling in and one being radiated away. The predicted glow of radiation is extremely faint, far beyond the capabilities of today’s detectors; lack of experimental verification of Hawking’s work during his lifetime is a major reason he was never awarded a Nobel Prize, despite his influence and fame. Almost all of his work was in the realms of theory and mathematics, unfettered by the nuts and bolts of instrumentation. Indeed, the image of Hawking as a mind free to roam the cosmos, while his body was confined by motor neurone disease, was frequently evoked throughout his life and after his death.[1]

But Hawking’s identity and intellect were real and human, embodied not just by Hawking himself but materialised, collectivised and distributed across a series of individuals, technologies and competencies (Mialet, 2012). Being Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most famous scientists, required not only specialist knowledge in mathematics and theoretical physics, but also tacit knowledge, embodied in artefacts and devices, that allowed science to be conducted and performed. Hawking’s science was not only delivered by the man himself, but by a system of supporting actors – of people and machines, human and non-human actors – that enabled his life and persona to be conducted each day. The practices and activities of Hawking as a leading scientist and celebrity can be found through the collaborative nature of his work – through the colleagues he worked with, within devices he used, through the innovative solutions he and his team devised to enable him to work at the highest levels – and within the office where he conducted his work. As Mialet notes, in some aspects of his work Hawking is not that unusual, and studying him is a useful way of making more explicit some commonplace academic practices (for example, how senior academics and group leaders delegate much of the administrative and research workload). However, Hawking’s dependence on a series of human and non-human actors is even more explicit than it might be for other scientists, as a scientist living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neurone disease (MND) that slowly erodes muscle control.

Scholars have remarked on a museological tendency to present overly simplistic narratives of scientists, their discoveries and inventions, with popular accounts of the history of science often relying on a brilliant individual who overcomes adversity to bring greater good to humanity and emerge triumphant over the ‘undeveloped’ past (Jordanova, 2014; Higgitt, 2017). To attempt to know the mind of Hawking we must move beyond the common trope of a lone genius whose intellect roamed the cosmos freed from physical human limitations and explore the collective knowledge and innovation that surrounded him and in which he was an active participant. In discussing the process of acquiring Hawking’s office at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), University of Cambridge, we show the extensive human and non-human networks involved in creating the work and reputation of this vital and pivotal scientist, through the material culture found in his workplace. Beyond this, we suggest that the personal collection of a well-known individual is not solely a tool for personal biography. It also provides an important methodological approach to thinking about distributed practices and places of science in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, exploding the fiction of the lone scientific genius.

The development, use and maintenance of a series of assistive technologies and the regular medical activities needed to sustain Hawking as an active professor, colleague, husband and father were part and parcel of his life and work. The physical setup of the office and the objects in it enabled him to perform his role as an influential scientist and celebrity, and to live an active life with MND. From blackboards, books and theses, to wheelchairs, communication devices and computers, each object reveals a part of what it took to be Stephen Hawking, for the individual and for his wider entourage. Considered as a whole, the office provides a unique insight for historians of science (and those interested in museum studies and science and technology studies) into the construction and memorialisation of scientific practice and personality.

In reflecting on the acquisition of the office in 2021 by the Science Museum, which we led on in our then roles as Head of Collections (TB) and Keeper of Science Collections (AB), we are conscious that we are not impartial in our analysis. Rather, we offer our personal and professional insights into the process of what it took to acquire a large and complex collection, and our reflections on historicising and constructing scientific practice through consideration of artefacts and how they might be interpreted and re-interpreted as part of a national museum collection. We note that curators are well positioned to breathe original perspectives into history and museology, being in the privileged position of working closely with collections and their donors. Often seeing artefacts in their original settings before acquisition, curators have an intimate understanding of the collection, its wider networks, and knowledge of additional material that has not been acquired. They feel the responsibility of contributing to knowledge through a collection, both by relaying the knowledge held within the collection and by enabling access for others. Yet when an object is displayed in a gallery or exhibition, the story of how it came to be there is rarely captured or shared. At best the story of acquisition is reduced to information in the museum catalogue record. After the fact the objects appear to have been predestined to be important, to be authoritative and to have been fated to be in a museum collection. All too often in the case of science and technology museums, physical objects have been preserved and presented in isolation from the crucial wider context of the knowledge and practices they embody (Gauvin, 2023). We wanted to address that, to explore how the objects in Stephen Hawking’s collection ended up being in a national museum collection, why such a large and eclectic selection of objects was chosen to represent Hawking’s (and by default scientific) history and to acknowledge the unique opportunity that a collection such as this provides in terms of understanding the practice of science and its collaborative nature.

Despite a turn towards the ‘museum as method’ (Thomas, 2016) which re-values the practices of museum professionals alongside theoretical anthropological understandings of museum objects, it is only relatively recently that the activities of curators and archivists collecting for science and technology museums have been foregrounded (Alberti, 2022). The past collecting practices of science and technology museums can be uncovered from institutional records, although in the frequent absence of published collecting policies the accounts can often be patchy (see, for example, Bud, 2010; and the articles in Alberti et al, 2019). First-hand accounts of contemporary collecting often focus on practical challenges, with more reflection on intellectual practices needed (Boyle and Hagmann, 2017). We believe an examination of collecting practice matters even more for a collection such as that of Professor Stephen Hawking’s office. The process of collecting is an opportunity for curators and historians to reflect explicitly on why objects were collected, and the stories they might tell about the practice of doing science in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. How can a collection, so strongly associated with such a famous person, be used to represent the multiple dimensions of a scientific life beyond the often-told stories? Whilst this collection focuses on Hawking the individual, and the objects that surrounded him, it can also provide insights into the nature of scientific collaboration and communication; the office should not purely be a shrine to scientific advance or the achievements of one individual. We believe that over time, with the added perspectives and questions of future curators, this collection will provide further insights into changing scientific practice and the way scientific knowledge was created, as much as offering an illuminating record of the life of one physicist, celebrity and populariser of science. Which accounts of history are given prominence through the collection and which are placed in the shadows? The Hawking office collection provides a partial view, reflecting both the mundanity of everyday research life, but also the exceptional life of a highly successful scientist in the public eye.

Hawking’s office: a unique opportunity

https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107

Hawking’s office is the one in which he spent most of the second half of his career, during which his scientific work overlapped with global celebrity. The University of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) started to move into a new complex on the outskirts of the city in 1999, having outgrown its premises in central Cambridge. Hawking, a global superstar a decade on from the publication of A Brief History of Time (1988), was closely involved in the design of the office complex, and in the layout of his double-sized corner office, to ensure that they met his needs.

The story of Hawking’s life has been told many times, often by the man himself (with stories repeated and built upon over the years) or by close associates.[2]  Born in 1942, he studied physics at Oxford before moving to Cambridge for his PhD. His 1966 doctoral thesis was characteristically daring, running the theory of black hole collapse in reverse to show that the universe must have exploded from a single point in space and time. Hawking’s PhD was completed despite a devastating diagnosis of ALS in 1963. Supported throughout by his girlfriend Jane Wilde, to whom he was married from 1965–1995, he continued to work and had a highly fruitful period on black holes and quantum gravity, often in collaboration with Roger Penrose. In 1979 he was appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a Chair, as Hawking and journalists liked to point out, previously occupied by Isaac Newton). As his health continued to steadily decline, requiring the use of a wheelchair from the late 1960s and the loss of his voice in 1985 due to an emergency tracheotomy, Hawking sought income sources beyond academia to cover his medical expenses and his children’s education. His popular book A Brief History of Time was published in 1988 and became a sensation, despite being famously bought far more widely than it was read. Hawking continued to work on a range of topics including information loss in black holes and quantum cosmology. Throughout his career he attempted to unite Einstein’s general relativity (which describes the universe on its largest scales) and quantum mechanics (which describes the smallest scales), although by the 2000s he was less bombastic about the chances of finding an elusive ‘Theory of Everything’ than he had been earlier in his career. From the 1990s onwards he was also as likely to appear in the media commenting on areas of science beyond his specialism, or in celebrity contexts. Many aspects of his life and career are reflected in the office collection.

Figure 1 : A copy of Hawking’s PhD thesis, ‘Properties of Expanding Universes’ © Trustees of the Science Museum Group https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107/006

In moving from the Department’s old offices at Silver Street in the city centre, staff discarded a large amount of material, moving only what was considered essential to their new offices (Mialet, 2012). However, a significant amount of extra material came with Hawking: the establishment on campus of the Betty and Gordon Moore Library in 2001 (made possible with funds from Intel founder Gordon Moore) allowed Hawking to bring boxes of material from his old office and his home. Over the next two decades Hawking’s team continued to build the collection stored at the Moore, with materials such as drafts of speeches, television and film scripts, manuscripts, typescripts and proofs for scientific papers and research being inventoried and stored carefully, whilst also being considered for future digitisation.

Over the course of Hawking’s life, he and his family had developed a longstanding relationship with the Science Museum. He loaned for display his 1988 communications system when it was replaced by a new one from Intel in 1999; he acknowledged that the Museum was one of his favourite places in 2013; and in 2012 hundreds of visitors sang ‘Happy Birthday’ for his 70th birthday celebrations. At various points over the course of this association there had been conversations about the potential for the Hawking family to offer parts of his legacy, through objects and archives, to potential museum and library partners, such as the Science Museum, but there was no certainty at the Museum that this would come to pass.

When it was announced on 14 March 2018 by Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, that Hawking had died at his home in Cambridge, the sad news was also met with appreciation that he had lived such a full life with MND for over fifty years. The Science Museum passed its condolences to the family, with Dame Mary Archer, Chair of the Science Museum Group Board of Trustees, saying: ‘While Stephen’s work transcended space and time, he was very much a man of this age: he was a wonderful science populariser as well as a very great theoretical physicist’ (Highfield, 2018). We hoped that, over the course of some time, a few objects might come to the Science Museum to reflect such an important British scientist’s life.

However, this was not straightforward: after his death, anything associated with Hawking became even more of a celebrity commodity. Later that year, a collection of 22 objects from Hawking’s working life were sold in a Christie’s online auction. Titled On the Shoulders of Giants: Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Hawking, the auction firmly pitched Hawking amongst the pantheon of science and attracted high interest from collectors. A late 1980s BEC Mobility wheelchair used by Hawking reached nearly twenty times the estimated value (Christie’s, 2018). As a national museum, funded in the main by government Grant in Aid, we knew we would not be able to bid competitively on items that were reaching top market valuations. We also had an added concern that an item already on loan to our collection – Hawking’s 1988 communications system – was rapidly increasing in its estimated value. Private collecting of twentieth and twenty-first century science and technology tends to focus on fairly narrow areas of interest (Hyslop, 2017) and commodification can distort the public record by foregrounding certain narratives or by placing important historical evidence into private hands.

Luckily, the vast majority of the Hawking collection did not go on the market. The items sold by Christie’s were a sample assessment, enabling the auction house to assess the value of the collection as James Hyslop, their science and natural history specialist, drew together a listing for the Hawking family of items held in the office, Moore Library and at Hawking’s home. We were greatly relieved when, over a year after the auction, we received a phone call from the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) team at Arts Council England who were interested to know whether we might consider being the place of allocation for the objects in the office collection if they were found to be of pre-eminent importance by the AIL panel.

Arts Council England’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme (see Arts Council England, 2023) enables those with an inheritance tax liability or estate duty to pay that tax with an important cultural object(s) or work(s) of art. It is a vital scheme that allows museums to acquire things they otherwise can’t afford and ensures that significant objects remain within cultural organisations rather than being sold on the open market (and often leaving the UK). If the AIL panel, supported by advice supplied by external advisors, finds that the objects are pre-eminent then they are formally allocated to public museums, archives or libraries by the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS).

In the case of the Hawking collection, the offeror – in this case the Estate of Stephen Hawking – had made the offer conditional on all objects in the office collection going to the Science Museum, with Hawking’s archives to be offered to Cambridge University Library. (For a discussion of the contexts of creation of the archive, including collaboration and human and non-human assistance, see the article by Katrina Dean and Susan Gordon in this issue.) We were delighted that the two institutions were being considered as the places of allocation, considering long associations with Hawking and the facilities to care for and make accessible the different types of collection. However, at this stage we did not have any detail on the range and quality of the material to be included in the offer to the Science Museum, so we were keen to receive the listing and to be able to review the material directly.

Science and technology acquisitions are rare in Acceptance in Lieu cases (they are much less commonly offered than art or decorative items, where sculptures, paintings, furniture and other significant art works and archives are allocated to museums and libraries across the country). This would also be unusually large and complex for an acquisition of any type: having visited Hawking in his office while he was alive, we knew that it contained a wide variety of material including books, awards and communication devices. We were also conscious that there was likely to be digital material which might require particular care in preservation, or include more personal material that should be removed prior to acquisition. We formally received a list from Arts Council England on 6 November 2020, revealing that the offer included a sofa, six wheelchairs, medals, gifts and communications equipment, and started the desk-based work of reviewing and considering what was significant. We also started to make arrangements to view the office at DAMTP at the University of Cambridge – normally a relatively straightforward visit, but not at this time due to the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

We were advised that due to the wishes of the family the technical innards of communications equipment, and anything that might contravene GDPR rules or the privacy of the individual, had already been removed by Hawking’s Graduate Assistant, Jonathan Wood. This included the removal of any of the voice synthesiser cards to prevent anyone attempting to recreate Hawking’s voice in future. Such concerns may now seem irrelevant, given that Hawking’s voice had already been recreated in his lifetime through software rather than hardware (see the article by Juan-Andres Leon in this issue) and that recent advances in AI mean that the reconstruction of his voice is now relatively straightforward, but the symbolism of Hawking’s voice still goes to the essence of who he was and how he was known. Personal emails and photographs had also been removed. While we were concerned that we would effectively be left with shells without real workings of equipment, it also simplified the curatorial and conservation challenge ahead as we didn’t need to worry about how to acquire the items without compromising the privacy of the individuals associated with Hawking’s life.

We quickly became engrossed in conversations that only weeks before might have seemed ridiculous. How many wheelchairs were enough? How different was one blink box (used by Hawking to control his computer) to another? In general, the Museum avoids acquiring duplicates, but given the widespread interest in Hawking should we do so to enable us to loan artefacts to more organisations? Did we need all of Hawking’s pairs of spectacles, or just a sample that showed technological developments as they were integrated with his communications equipment? We debated whether we should acquire Hawking’s tea and coffee cups, his birthday cards, a fridge and microwave, the shelves holding his personal library, a large winch for moving Hawking to the sofa where many of his medical procedures were conducted (which he usually refused to use), and even disposable items such as cleaning materials and paper towels. The answer always seemed to be yes, but…what was the condition of the objects? What stories could they tell? Who could we speak to so we would understand more about the daily routines and experiences in the office so that we could understand what each object represented? Whilst we justified the specifics of acquiring every object against the use of public money to conserve and store it, the broader point remained in the forefront of our minds. Each iteration of a wheelchair, or development of communications technology, or apparently mundane item, would allow us and future generations of curators, historians and the public to explore the way that scientific knowledge and celebrity is constructed. As Alberti (2022) has shown, scientific collections can be employed to reflect the often complex and messy process of creating scientific knowledge. By retaining items for the historical record, we were showing how scientists worked, how they built relationships and knowledge, and in this specific case (quite literally) how they were given voice within history.

From early on we made the curatorial decision to try and capture the entire office, in so far as was possible. Rather than seeing science – particularly theoretical work – as objective, as separate, as rarefied, the office in its entirety could prompt reflection about what it meant to live as Hawking the scientist, the man, and the celebrity; a man who was rarely alone, whose office was often busy with media producers, collaborators or students, and who was always aware of how he was presented to and reflected in the world outside his office.

We did not want to the office to just be a relic or shrine to Hawking. To earn a place in the national collection we knew it must be able to tell multiple stories of scientific practice, of the construction of scientific personality, and of living with a disability in the public eye, and for new stories to be uncovered by future researchers and interpreters. As a precedent, James Watt’s Garret workshop in the Science Museum collection had started as both a practical workplace and a personal museum, but then became a place for multiple interpretations of Watt, first as heroic scientist, then as craftsman and engineer (Russell, 2014) and more recently as slave trader (Mullen, 2020). We wanted the contents of Hawking’s office to be just as multifaceted and revealing to its future audiences.

Some scientific working spaces, such as Michael Faraday’s laboratory in the Royal Institution, have been preserved in situ (with varying degrees of reconstruction). This is rare: other spaces such as Newton’s home at Woolsthorpe Manor (with its famous apple tree), Darwin’s study and gardens at Down House or Alexander Fleming’s laboratory in London’s Paddington were restored to something like their original appearance many years after their renowned use. In-situ preservation was never a feasible consideration for Hawking’s office, located in the middle of a working university department not equipped for public access. So, if we wanted to preserve the entire office its contents would have to be recorded, moved and stored ready for recreation in a museum setting, similarly to what had been done with artists’ studios such as those of Francis Bacon (Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) or Constantin Brancusi (Centre Pompidou, Paris).

We were aware that the office was not precisely as Hawking had left it. From the time between Hawking’s death in 2018 and our visit in 2021 multiple people connected with Hawking, from his colleagues and family, through to media producers and auctioneers, had had access to the office and the objects within it. Items had been moved within the office, and related items stored elsewhere in the Department had been moved there for safe keeping. This led to various practical and intellectual challenges in reconstructing the office, as we will see in the next section.

Preserving the office: what version to capture?

https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107

For curators it is always a challenge to justify an acquisition. How does one know that this is the right moment to bring an object into a collection? Why is it significant now? Might there be something more noteworthy that becomes apparent in the future? Can you ensure that your actions will be defensible in history and not exploitative? Are some acquisitions just the result of a series of random events? Ultimately, the important thing is that curators acknowledge imperfection, recording and reflecting on their acquisition practice to enable future generations to understand how and why particular collections have come to have particular shapes. In this instance the circumstances where the collections of a major scientific celebrity became available during a global pandemic made the Hawking collection more challenging than most. Even attempting such a large acquisition at this time seemed at once both imperative and absurd.

We made a first visit to check the office collection in March 2021, with the assistance of the DAMTP team. This required considerable advance planning, as we needed to adhere to the pandemic restrictions then in place in England and DAMTP’s in-house rules for Covid mitigation. There was a need for social distancing, with only two Science Museum Group staff able to be in the office at the same time (Hawking’s office being double-sized was helpful, as the other department offices only allowed for single person occupancy), the windows kept open despite the chilly weather, and the mask-wearing and regular hand-sanitising that had by then become familiar to everyone.

As the office door slowly swung open (it was on an automatic opener to allow Hawking time to enter and leave in his wheelchair) we were met with a jumble. Several of Hawking’s old wheelchairs had been moved into the office, as this had been considered safer than leaving them in a general university storage room, and were taking up almost all the available floor space. Boxes of communications material and papers had been moved in from the adjacent offices previously used by his personal assistant and graduate assistant, which due to the usual pressures on university office space had been reallocated to other staff members. Checking the list we had been provided with by the AIL team (meticulously compiled by James Hyslop) became something of a ‘hunt the object’ game, as many items were no longer in the same location that Hyslop had found them in. We also found some small items that museums never want, in the shape of moths – an infestation had taken hold while the Department had been shut down due to Covid with the usual regular cleaning schedule not possible.

Colour photographs of the authors visiting Stephen Hawkings office
Figure 2 : The authors on a first visit to Hawking’s office, March 2021 © Tilly Blyth https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107/007

Over the coming months members of the Science Museum Group’s curatorial and collections services teams, working in rotation to keep personnel numbers low, worked at DAMTP (it was a source of amusement that we were spending more time working in Hawking’s office than our own, with most Science Museum collections staff continuing to work from home unless there were exceptional circumstances). The initial step was to confirm that all the objects on the AIL list were present to enable Arts Council England to make the arrangements for legal transfer to the Science Museum collection. In addition to the items in the office, some communications equipment had been stored at the university library, and high-value items such as Hawking’s medal collection had been stored at Christie’s for safe keeping. Once every single item on the list had been confirmed, the collection was formally allocated to the Science Museum on 31 March 2021 and the work to reconstruct and move the office began.

We first arranged for large items which had not been kept in the office day-to-day, such as the old wheelchairs and boxes of communications equipment, to be moved. With fortunate timing, the large freezer at our new National Collections Centre had recently come into operation, so any items leaving the office went there first to deal with any moths that might hitch a ride, before going into storage. Following a clean of the office by the Conservation team we were left with the question of how to capture its contents and their physical relationship to each other. We had decided to do this in a variety of ways alongside the object listing – high resolution photography, dimensioned drawings of the room and its fixtures, and a LIDAR scan (Science Museum Group, 2023) – but knowing that many of the objects were not in the same places as when Hawking had last used the office, the question was what version of the office we should be reconstructing.

We decided that there was no canonical ‘moment in time’ at which Hawking’s office ought to be captured: from inspecting photographs and film of Hawking in the office over the years it was clear that items were frequently moved around, often to make room for film/television lighting or to provide a suitable backdrop for a photograph (a large poster of Hawking’s beloved Marilyn Monroe seems to have been particularly peripatetic). We opted to restore the office to resemble the placement of objects captured in photographs taken in 2018 by Christie’s, before things had been disrupted by usage for storage. In matching these placements, we frequently found that objects lined up with fade marks from where sunlight would have come in the large windows, suggesting that we had found the spots in which certain objects had spent most time in recent years.

However, we were aware that this approach still had limitations, as some items had already been removed (for example, for the 2018 auction to assist in valuing the collection, for safe storage in Christie’s, or for personal retention by family members). One key item in the office had also been altered after Hawking’s death. When we first visited the office we noticed that the green chalkboard opposite Hawking’s desk carried a very neat drawing of Hawking Radiation, evidently done for media purposes. The 2018 photographs showed the chalkboard with partly scrubbed out scientific workings (presumably written by one of Hawking’s students or colleagues, although there is no way of knowing whether Hawking was present at the time). Conversations with Hawking’s team clarified the matter: the Hawking Radiation diagram had been drawn in 2019 for a recording of the office made by a production company working with the Hawking family; this was likely also when various other items in the office had been moved around.

During our visits to the office it was tempting to make inferences from the placement of particular objects – was Hawking particularly fond of the objects that were within eyeline from his usual position at his desk (including family photos, a portrait of Richard Feynman, the photocopied sheet showing his bet with Kip Thorne)? Was there deliberate humour in the placing of his biographies beside ones of Galileo on the shelves, nodding to how dust covers of his books often alluded to Hawking’s birth on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death? But Hawking himself didn’t place the items where they were – indeed he may have never touched many of them – and with words such an effort he was unlikely to spend much time instructing others where to place things. Also, as we have seen, items were often moved around. So unless interviews with colleagues and associates reveal more, we cannot be certain.

Hawking’s office, in life and after his death, was a palimpsest, actively altered as his scientific practice and media identity were continually negotiated and renegotiated. We therefore make no claims for our recordings of the office beyond it being another layer of the palimpsest, reflecting how the office appeared at the point of being collected by the Science Museum in 2021. It is a very close representation of how it was as Hawking used it, but not a completely exact one. The recordings will assist future interpretation for research and display, but as understanding of the office grows, and possibly additional items are added to the collection (for example, medical items which were not part of the AIL offer) physical recreations may vary from the 2021 recordings. The office is a working recreation to be used, rather than a shrine to be preserved and marvelled at.

LIDAR scan of Professor Stephen Hawkings office
Figure 3 : Still from the LIDAR scan (pp 22, 24–5 ScanLAB Projects) © ScanLAB Projects https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107/008

Once the recordings had been made, all portable items in the office were carefully packed up according to a location bay system devised by the Museum’s Collections Information team. Some less portable items came too, with shelves, cupboards and even the kitchen sink kindly donated by DAMTP to the Museum to be used alongside the formal Hawking collection (their removal was tied in with the planned refurbishment of Hawking’s office for conversion to two regular-sized offices). It was obviously not possible to bring building fabric, so the manner of recreation or evocation of walls, windows and floors will be up for future discussion. Following the collection’s arrival at the National Collections Centre in May 2021, a dedicated curator (Juan-Andres Leon) was appointed and colleagues across the Science Museum Group worked to conserve, photograph and catalogue the collection, while a small display toured SMG’s sites to give a flavour of what more was to come (Sample, 2022). Whilst the work of acquisition had been completed, and the office was now formally part of the national collections, the work of understanding the collection and considering the kinds of stories it might tell in future had only just begun.

What stories might the office tell?

https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107

As scholars such as Hooper-Greenhill (2000) have shown, museum collections embody and exhibit social values, values which ‘necessarily operate to discriminate, to emphasise and downplay, to make visible and to put away’. Curators and archivists, particularly of science and technology collections, are acutely aware that historically the sector has drawn out, for example, nationalistic narratives of technological and scientific progress that continue to promote social inequity and present a form of knowledge for those with power. This collection gives museum professionals the potential to uncover hidden stories. Many of the existing narratives surrounding Hawking give due prominence to him as one of the major figures of modern science (Ferguson, 2011; Highfield, 2024). However, there are far wider stories to be told, especially in popular accounts, to explore the often-hidden work of the graduate assistants, technologists and nurses that were also central to his endeavour. The office brings researchers an opportunity to question given narratives and explore the broader networks, to show how scientific knowledge was embodied not just by Hawking himself, but by the way it was distributed across his networks, through the blackboards, gifts and objects in his office, and collectivised in the theses, lectures and public appearances he gave. It also brings the prospect that new significance and meanings can be found in the ways that science can be understood, perhaps through highlighting alternative ways that people contribute to scientific knowledge, the experience of living as a scientist with a disability, and highlighting previously untold stories of collective scientific effort.

Let us imagine entering a future physical recreation of the office. Behind the door bearing a famous name we enter a large bright room with double aspect windows, their sills covered in awards and photographs. There is plenty of free floor space, allowing turning room for Hawking’s large, motorised wheelchair. Centre-left is a large desk with a curved screen and a tower computer; behind the desk is where Hawking usually sits with his laptop mounted on one arm of his wheelchair. The desk is positioned to allow views of a green chalkboard on the right-hand wall behind the door, in front of which there’s plenty of space for colleagues to stand and write on the board. This is an office arranged to enable collaboration: colleagues and students can sit beside Hawking at his large desk looking at his computer or stand at the chalkboard scribbling to capture discussions (for more on Hawking’s visual style of working, see Mialet, 2012). Behind the desk are bookshelves stacked with traces of Hawking’s work before this went increasingly digital – a row of PhD theses written by his students and contemporaries, proceedings of conferences he attended, and copies of his popular works, some translated into different languages. Also behind the desk is the kitchen area. Like many disciplines, theoretical physics runs on caffeine: the DAMTP common room along the corridor is a busy place for discussion at morning and afternoon coffee time, which Hawking frequently attends. The personal kitchen in his office allows him to have smaller gatherings while he works. Interviews are underway with many of Hawking’s collaborators to get a sense of how they worked with him inside the office, and the types of conversations they had.

Figure 4 : Above: Side view of Hawking’s office; Below: View from desk towards the green blackboard © Jennie Hills, Trustees of the Science Museum Group https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107/009

In addition to the overall office layout, individual objects within the space also provide insights into the collaborative nature of science and snapshots of scientific thinking (including trends since superseded) at different stages of Hawking’s career. Items such as PhD theses, publications and conference photographs feature well-known and less well-known names in cosmology. Some are major names in their fields, including Nobel Prize winners, and their archives will be preserved by relevant institutions. Others may not be, but the collections of the better-known scientists, particularly a global superstar like Hawking, can act as an entry point to stories of individuals which might otherwise not be preserved and to the community as a whole.

High on the wall to the left of Hawking’s desk is a large blackboard covered in cartoons and graffiti. One of Hawking’s favourite possessions, this was brought from the offices at Silver Street, where it had been saved after a 1980 conference on superspace and supergravity. (See the article by Juan-Andres Leon in this issue for insights into what the blackboard reveals about the work of Hawking and his collaborators at that time.)

A series of framed bets which Hawking made with Kip Thorne and John Preskill illustrate their years of collaboration and friendship. Some were made at Caltech in Pasadena, where Hawking was a regular visitor. They show Hawking’s playful side – and that he was careful to hedge his bets, sometimes betting against his own position. They also illustrate how some questions in cosmology have become settled, while others remain open to debate. In 1974 Hawking made a bet with Thorne on whether or not a black hole would be found in Cygnus X-1, a source of strong X-rays in the constellation of Cygnus which many astronomers thought suggested the existence of a black hole. Hawking bet that no black hole would be found – seemingly an odd bet for him to make given that so much of his research was on black holes, but he described it as a form of insurance. If black holes turned out not to exist it would be unfortunate for his research, but at least he would have won the bet. If no black hole was found, Hawking would win the bet and a four-year subscription to Private Eye; if a black hole was found, Thorne would win the bet and a year’s subscription to Penthouse. Hawking conceded in 1990 – there is abundant evidence that the object in Cygnus X-1 is a black hole, as nothing else can adequately explain the observations. (And since then, a black hole has been directly imaged – in 2019 scientists released an image of a black hole in the M87 galaxy). The framed bet in Hawking’s office is a colour photocopy of the original in Thorne’s possession; that one also contains a thumbprint which Hawking made to concede the bet, having broken into Thorne’s office with the connivance of his students. In 1997 Hawking bet Preskill that information entering black holes would get lost for ever, contradicting the expectation held by most physicists that it should be preserved. In 2004 Hawking conceded the bet, agreeing that information would be scrambled but could theoretically be retrieved – although scientists continue to debate exactly how. Preskill’s prize was a baseball encyclopaedia, something from which information can be readily extracted.

Colour photograph of three framed wagers from Professor Stephen Hawkings office
Figure 5 : Group of three bets, including a bet on the existence of a black hole at Cygnus X-1 (centre) © Trustees of the Science Museum Group https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107/010

In addition to the awards and photographs on the windowsills, almost all the available office wall space is covered in framed photographs, prints and awards. While there are some items that might be found in many physicists’ offices (pictures of inspirational figures such as Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman, or ‘team photos’ from conferences), we also see many images of Hawking the celebrity – photographed with popes and presidents, starring in Star Trek: The Next Generation, or as his cartoon self in The Simpsons. There are many instances of playful humour reflecting Hawking’s own personality and overall the office feels like a welcoming space. The general impression one gets is of a man enjoying his fame and conscious of how his importance can be framed through references to others – be they dead or alive, real or fictional.

Behind the desk, the Permobil wheelchair is a stark reminder of its famous owner. Hawking’s daughter Lucy remarked on the emotional impact of seeing it empty in the Science Museum on the day that she visited to announce the acquisition of the collection for the nation; her father’s wheelchair, she said, had become akin to his exoskeleton.[3]  Jonathan Wood, the last person to occupy the Graduate Assistant role responsible for Hawking’s communications technology, described it as much more than a chair – it was Hawking’s mobile office, communication system, and ventilation support to help him breathe.[4]

The collection of communications equipment shows how Hawking, his friends and colleagues, and eventually leading companies such as Intel (under the instruction of their founder Gordon Moore) developed bespoke systems to enable him to continue communicating as his needs changed. Although many people think of Hawking’s technology as being state of the art – with him often being characterised in popular media as being part cyborg – the reality was that much of his equipment was an idiosyncratic combination of the latest algorithms combined with outmoded 1980s technology. The solution-finding, adaptation and repair work constantly being performed by Hawking’s team and associates makes the collection a promising resource for history of technology which considers the everyday work of maintenance beyond the much rarer practice of innovation (for example, Edgerton, 2009; Russell and Vinsel, 2018).

After the loss of his voice following emergency windpipe surgery in 1985, Hawking briefly used physical word cards but found them very slow and frustrating. Shortly afterwards he began to try a voice synthesiser and software that allowed him to select letters or pre-programmed words and phrases. Initially Hawking communicated using Equalizer, a piece of software developed by the company Words Plus, through an interface that allowed his hands and a clicker to choose words. Then, as the physical mobility in his hands reduced, he communicated by moving a cheek muscle that was sensed using an infrared detector on his glasses, adapted by his then Graduate Assistant Sam Blackburn from a commercially available device. The detector interacted with his computers via EZ Keys, a piece of software that provided a keyboard on the screen and a basic word-prediction algorithm to speed up his word selection. Over the years Intel colleagues around the world, including key figures such as Gordon Moore and Lama Nachman, the director of the Anticipatory Computing Lab and project head, worked on iterations of Hawking’s communications systems. Eventually Hawking was given an improved word prediction algorithm using a system called SwiftKey, which was applied to a specific user interface that worked for his needs.

Hawking’s famous voice, which for years was generated by a Speech Plus CallText 5000/5010 text-to-speech synthesizer mounted on his wheelchair, is a good example of new innovation being underpinned by out-of-date technology. Combined with the new interface provided by Intel, Hawking preferred to retain his ‘original’ voice through the hardware board well after a purely software version had been developed. The new version was based around a Raspberry Pi computer, with the software emulation version only starting to be trialled by Hawking towards the end of his life. It is a unique insight into one of the paradoxes of Hawking’s life, on the one hand having access to state-of-the-art technology that made communicating while living with ALS possible, on the other retaining historic technology through a text-to-speech synthesizer board that embodied the voice of Stephen Hawking. The office collection also contains many hand clickers, blink boxes, spectacle-mounted sensors and electronic boards which, alongside correspondence and product literature for assistive communications technology in the Hawking Archive at Cambridge University Library, may enable the tracing of how Hawking’s mobility and communications systems evolved over the years and helped him to live with motor neurone disease (see Katrina Dean and Susan Gordon’s paper in this issue for further information about the assistive communications technology in the context of how the archive was created).

Photograph of a pair of spectacles with attached cheek movement sensor
Figure 6 : Eyeglasses with infrared cheek movement sensor © Trustees of the Science Museum Group https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107/011

However, we need to bear in mind that Hawking’s life with MND was atypical – he lived for decades longer than had been predicted after his diagnosis, and his fame and resources meant that he had access to care, particularly advanced technological supports, that were not available to everyone. Around the office there are traces of the non-communications supports that speak to more intimate experiences of MND: running along one whole side of the room beneath the windows are a table and chairs used by his care team, and a sofa where Hawking could be moved for care assistance including the regular need to clear his lungs. (He generally eschewed the large ceiling winch which the Department had installed to help with moving him to the sofa, preferring to be lifted by his carers.) Currently most of the medical equipment, including breathing apparatus mounted on the back of his wheelchair, is not part of the collection: it would have been at home with Hawking in his final months, rather than in the office. Whether any material which has survived might join the collection in future is a matter for careful discussion with the Hawking family and experts in the representation of disability in a museum context.

In recent decades museums have moved on significantly in how they think about disability, going beyond a previous focus on overcoming physical barriers to accessing museums to a focus on representing disability culture, histories and lived experience. More recently work has questioned ableist representations of living with a disability (Sandell, Dodd and Thomson, 2010) questioning the medical desire to ‘cure’ difference and attempting to counter prejudiced representation of disabled people in museums. Significant permanent galleries in the UK, including Being Human at the Wellcome Collection (2019) and Wellcome: the Medicine Galleries at the Science Museum (2019), have pushed the boundaries of disability representation, most notably (for Being Human) through the development of a participation project entitled When Medicine Defines Normality, which acknowledged the diverse perspectives of individuals who felt that society considered them to fall outside medical and social norms (informed by Sandell et al, 2010; also see Curating Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries). In the last year researchers have produced guidance for ethically researching and interpreting disability histories, developed alongside those at the National Trust (Research Centre on Museums and Galleries & National Trust, 2023) to support the development of natural connections to disability history in our landscapes and buildings.

Despite these developments, studying the life of Hawking as a scientist with a disability is an area of future research on the collection which requires particular care. How might the norms and attitudes that shaped Hawking’s experience be captured by the office collection, or has relevant material been lost to posterity? Would a representation of Hawking as a man with ALS be a fair representation of what it is for others to live with ALS? Researchers would need to be particularly mindful to overcome common disability stereotypes, such as the ‘heroic achiever’ label often applied to Hawking, to draw attention to omissions and support more nuanced accounts of living with a disability.

Collecting the past for understanding the future

https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107
Oil painting portrait of Professor Stephen Hawking
Figure 7 : Portrait of Stephen Hawking by Fred Cuming, 2003. This portrait, which hung in Hawking's home and was offered by his family to the Science Museum Group alongside the office contents, was his favourite. It depicts him with his trachaeostoma visible, smiling mischievously and actively engaged with the viewer in contrast to many portrayals which feature him lost in thought. © Fred Cuming, R.A.; Trustees of the Science Museum Group https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107/012

Our hope is that our father’s scientific career will continue to inspire generations of future scientists to find new insights into the nature of the universe, based on the outstanding work he produced in his lifetime. For decades, our father was part of the fabric of life at Cambridge University and was a distinguished fellow of the Science Museum so it seems right that these relationships, so dear to him and us, will continue for many more years to come.

 

 

Lucy, Tim and Robert Hawking, 2021

Museum objects are one way that societies make sense of the past and define what is important to their future. Museum curators are aware of their own biases, and their responsibilities, to both make the collections they hold relevant to their audiences, and freely accessible, whilst also leaving them open to reinterpretation by others including future generations. Particularly in science and technology museums, they have often used heroic discourses ‘to attract audiences, gain their attention and explain science’s pasts to them’ (Jordanova, 2014). In this paper we have examined the practice of curation in science and technology museums through the process of acquisition. We suggest that such re-centring is vital if we are to move beyond alluring hero narratives, or collections being understood as merely tools for display and exhibit, to instead understand how material culture can illuminate the ways scientific and technological knowledge is constructed. The nuanced and complex process of developing meaningful scientific knowledge, creating ideas with many collaborators and through multiple devices, was a challenge not just for Hawking in the late twentieth century, but is a facet of scientific practice across the centuries, and remains vital today. Representing scientific knowledge as distributed, connected and embodied through human and non-human actors is crucial for the science and technology museums of the future.

The Stephen Hawking office collection is one of the Science Museum’s most significant recent acquisitions. It represents items that inspired Hawking, records key moments in his scientific career, and contains objects that were part not only of his life but also those of his colleagues and collaborators, students, family and carers. But it also reflects the difficulties for science and technology museums and their collections, stuck between accounts of popular stories that celebrate scientific advance achieved by individuals, and more intricate and complex narratives that acknowledge how scientific knowledge is produced by teams, through collaboration, joint capabilities and iterative processes. This collection contains iconic objects, which can signify a single concept or theory, and unique technical objects. It also contains many mundane objects, including some which might not have been considered as candidates for the national collections in their own right without their additional context as part of the overall Hawking office collection, but are part and parcel of scientists’ daily lives.[5]  It provides a unique opportunity to explore more complex narratives of science that result from the diversity of human life, rather than simply representing narratives of invention and discovery. In a way these ideas co-exist in the office, which can be seen, both as a tool for moving science collections away from stories that celebrate scientific advance in a simplistic fashion (providing insights into the minutiae and mundanity of life as a scientist), as well as being a means of acknowledging the important role that Stephen Hawking played in theorising, popularising and communicating science on a global platform. It will continue to do both as future curators and audiences research, interpret and imbue it with new meanings.

As the relationship between Stephen Hawking and the Science Museum moves into a new phase, we hope that his office will be multi-faceted: providing inspiration (particularly in humanising genius), provoking questions and revealing new insights. The office is a complex object – it has been deliberately placed on the Museum’s inventory as a single object made up of hundreds of individual objects, rather than considered as a collection of related objects – which reflects a complex man; a man who was both exceptional, but also normal. Considering Hawking’s office – as its constituent parts and as a whole which is more than the sum of these – has the potential to reveal insights about a scientist, a peer, a supervisor, a collaborator, a friend, a husband and father. Through decades of scientific life, intertwined with global celebrity and living with disability, the office reveals how being Stephen Hawking meant being part of a web of people and artefacts who supported his persona and work.

During the period that he occupied the office ‘being’ Stephen Hawking meant being a celebrity scientist, an atypical one; and yet as Mialet notes (2012, p 197), there was much that was typical enough about him and his interactions with others and inferences can be made about scientific practice, media and political communications, living in a digital age, and how we interact with physical objects. By studying the fabric of Hawking’s life, and the embedded and tacit knowledge reflected in the artefacts of science, much is open for interpretation and reinterpretation. Stephen Hawking once remarked that ‘one of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect’ (Hawking, 2010). Just as he wanted people to think about the potential of science and the universe, so the office collection opens us up to the possibilities of future displays and understandings of science, ones that do not provide a limited narrative of endeavour and achievement but embrace complexity, difficulty and the humour of humanity.

 

Acknowledgements
The Stephen Hawking’s office collection was accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by H M Government from the Estate of Stephen Hawking and allocated to the Science Museum in 2021.

The acquisition was made possible by the work of many people. We thank the Hawking family, Jonathan Wood, and colleagues at the Arts Council England’s Acceptance in Lieu team, Christie’s, the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and Cambridge University Library. At the Science Museum Group the acquisition involved colleagues across many different departments including Curatorial, Collections Services, Communications, Exhibitions, Design, Digital and Directorate, and the team continues to work on making the collection accessible for the future.

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Footnotes

1. See multiple media references, such as the one on PBS Newshour 14 March 2018, where Hawking said “Although my body is very limited, my mind is free to explore the universe, to go back to the beginning of time and into black holes. There are no limits to the human spirit.” https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/probing-the-universes-mysteries-stephen-hawking-proved-the-power-of-the-human-spirit or as Roger Highfield claimed, ‘While his body was immobile, Hawking used his mind to journey through the cosmos, glimpsing the origins of space and time.’ https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/in-memoriam-stephen-hawking/ Back to text
2. See, for example, White and Gribbin (2003) and Ferguson (2011). Hawking’s own My Brief History (2013) reveals little new personal information, often repeating stories told in his earlier popular science works. For more critical portrayals Jane Hawking’s Music to Move the Stars (updated in 2000) is an unflinching personal account of the Hawkings’ domestic life and Stephen’s illness. Charles Seife’s unauthorised biography Hawking Hawking (2020) attempts to deconstruct the Hawking celebrity myth but suffers from lack of access to original sources. Graham Farmelo’s authorised biography is due to be published in 2024. Back to text
3. Lucy Hawking to AB, at a media event for the acquisition on 26 May 2021. The Permobil wheelchair is the last of two used by Hawking; he had a pair of chairs to enable them to be interchanged to facilitate repair and travel. The collection includes a series of wheelchairs used by Hawking over the years. Back to text
4. Email from Jonathan Wood to TB and AB, 25 May 2021. Back to text
5. Many physicists will recognise essential but unacknowledged tools such as ethernet cables, screwdrivers, and copious supplies of coffee. The collection can be browsed at https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/search/collection/stephen-hawking%E2%80%99s-office Back to text

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Authors

Tilly Blyth

Tilly Blyth

Professor of Museum Studies and Head of School

Tilly Blyth is the Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. She brings together sector knowledge, with creative practice and academic research, to consider the relevancy and structural challenges of the sector, and support a new generation of global museum professionals

Alison Boyle

Alison Boyle

Senior Research Associate

Alison Boyle is a Senior Research Associate of the Science Museum Group and an Honorary Research Fellow of the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London. She is currently Programme Manager, Education and Public Engagement at Science Foundation Ireland and a Board Member of the National Maritime Museum of Ireland

Media in article

Colour photographs of the authors visiting Stephen Hawkings office
LIDAR scan of Professor Stephen Hawkings office
Colour photograph of three framed wagers from Professor Stephen Hawkings office
Photograph of a pair of spectacles with attached cheek movement sensor
Oil painting portrait of Professor Stephen Hawking

Imprint

Authors:
Tilly Blyth and Alison Boyle
Published date:
20 May 2024
Cite as:
10.15180.242107
Title:
Theory and every thing: acquiring the office of Professor Stephen Hawking as a resource for history and museology
Published in:
Spring 2024,
Article DOI:
https://dx.doi.org/10.15180/242107