By Diane Courtin
From March to June of this year I was an intern in this project. I applied for an internship because I was hoping to gain a first research experience at the intersection of the history of science and the history of exhibitions, both disciplines rooting my field of study: I am a master’s student in the Museology of the Human and Natural Sciences programme at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
My mission was to research the staging of scientific internationalism through congresses within great exhibitions, focussing on the case of the Month of Intellectual Cooperation at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. The first challenge for me was to contextualize this very specific object. What was happening in 1937 in Paris and elsewhere? What was the International Exhibition like? Who were the most influential actors in its organization? What were the institutions behind the Month of Intellectual Cooperation? This was a necessary first step before I could address the Month proper.
I was then able to establish the first catalogue raisonné of the nine events that made up the Month and lay out their different objectives. I described the institutions and key figures involved, highlighting a strong French presence. I also investigated the connected exhibition Les échanges intellectuels à travers le monde and explored the features it shared with the Month, notablytheir academic overtones, faith in a change of mentalities through education, and a common ideal of peace.
I next looked at the League of Nations’s ideology in order to shed light on the aspirations of the Month’s organizers. I discussed their proximity to the Trocadero Museum, since several of its members participated in the exhibition Les échanges intellectuels à travers le monde, and I noted the tension between their desire for internationalism and the eurocentric reality of the Month. I found that reliance on the League of Nations’ intellectual cooperation as a diplomatic tool, notably to defend national interests, shaped the Month’s positioning within the International Exhibition, depending on the political issues of the moment. Lastly, despite having been planned from the start within the Exposition, the Month’s significance appears to have shrunk over the time of its preparation, in terms of public visibility, locations and funding.
Archival research led me to different places including the Central Library of the National Museum of Natural History or the National Archives in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. I discovered different ways of managing and browsing collections. I also learnt that archival work in the 21st century includes a large digital component and long hours spent behind a screen, with its advantages and disadvantages; for instance when I consulted the digitized UNESCO archives.
Because of the available materials and the affinities that come with my training, my study of conferences broadened to investigate an exhibition considered as a material embodiment of the discourse of the Month’s organizers. In addition to official documents, circulars and correspondence I ended up studying sketches, diagrams and note sheets related to the preparation of this exhibition. I became very interested in visual and the artistic materials in these archives, and these have provided leads for future personal research.
This experience has given me precious insights into how research is carried out in an international project and how, practically, research is done. My supervisors Charlotte Bigg and Thomas Mougey helped me gain a foothold in the archives, and they subsequently encouraged me to sharpen my questions and to deepen my reflections and analysis. In the years to come, I hope to continue my wanderings in the world of research. I am grateful to have had such a positive first experience.