Sciences and their past: what challenges for scientific heritage-making?

In our early XXIst century, any idea, any item, any place, from ancient buildings to shopping lists, seem likely to be turned, one day, into heritage. What about memory practices at university? What about the processes for scientific heritage-making? Past scientific activities are as relevant to researchers as they are to politicians and the media. But what is the meaning of these commemorations, historiographic productions, museography setups, communication strategies and other traces from the past?

Which particular historical context and what factors turn a figure, an instrument or a place into an object of heritage practices? Based on the case of Toulouse university, the Pastel project (Patrimoine scientifique toulousain et environnement local, concerning Toulouse and its nearby local scientific heritage) has studied the heritage-making processes of scientific activities at various chronological and territorial scales.

By analysing the various scenography and narratives framing scientific activities, we have questioned not « what heritage is », but « what makes heritage » for the stakeholders involved. It has enabled us to better grasp the symbolical part played by sciences in Western societies.

  • Lefebvre M., Jolivet A.-C., (coord.), 2020, Des patrimoines en action. Les processus de mise en mémoire des activités scientifiques, PUM.

Muriel Lefebvre is a member of LERASS, université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès :

Anne-Claire Jolivet is the head of the DCST department, université fédérale de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées :

A new approach to heritage

Since the end of the 70s, there has been an increasing interest in heritage issues in Western societies. The injunction to remember and to pass down has grown steadily, associated with a sense of emergency to preserve the cultural, but also natural heritage which should be transmitted to future generations.

As underlined by Nathalie Heinich, heritage has now become a cult object, altogether fostered by the broadening of the notion of heritage and by the sacralisation of transmission. We have moved away from the idea of heritage as legacy to that of a legacy claimed as a contribution to our construction as a social group (Pierre Nora).

Today, heritage is considered as the final outcome of a « making» process, based on remembering the history of men and women in specific contexts. Above all, it is perceived as existing only if it has been designated so at a given time. The process of this making is known as « heritagization ». It is a political act in a particular economic, social or symbolical context

Heritagization actually contributes to construct a real identity myth. Any community has its own heritage to protect. That is why heritage is said to have to do with scenography (via exhibitions, commemorations, slabs, books, etc.) backed by appropriate storytelling in order to legitimize the heritagization of an object, of a figure or of some practice.

Heritagizing scientific activities

The importance paid by scientific institutions to the traces of their past is the result of this increasing concern for heritage. Over the last thirty years, many French universities and research institutions have paid particular attention to collecting and mobilising the past scientific activities they have hosted.

They do so via commemorations and celebrations (the Pasteur Institute’s one-hundred-year-old birthday in 1988; CNRS fifty-year-old birthday in 1989, to only quote a few examples), or through the growing interest in their scientific collections (dried-flower collections, minerals, instruments).

These institutions preserve and display their heritage, both as an object of research and for the sake of telling their own story, but also as a contribution to shaping a common institutional and disciplinary identity or else, to mobilize attractive communication setups valorising knowledge.

Toulouse university and its heritage

Besides its long history (1229), Toulouse university is one of the major French university sites. As early as the beginning of the Third Republic, it clearly became part of its socio-economic environment. It enjoys a large and diverse disciplinary and institutional offer and prides itself on a great number of scientific figures and considerable tangible or intangible heritage.

The PASTEL project focuses on some of the different ways chosen to preserve and mobilise past scientific activities over a period starting from 1880 up to now. The fields selected by the study belong to six disciplines: law (Chairman Gabriel Marty), botanics (Henri Goussen), ethnography (the area of Sault), fluid mechanics (the Banlève wind tunnel), archaeology (the mas d’Azil), astronomy (the Pic du Midi de Bigorre observatory).

The analysis of memory practices has highlighted the great variety of the stakeholders involved in the process of mobilising all these scientific, but also economic, political, cultural and media fields. Their concern for preservation and heritagization is either part of their research work and/or teaching, but they also act through the heritage and cultural missions of local authorities (region, county, town). This has permitted to identify the numerous political, identity and local issues related to the heritagization of sciences.

Heritagizing science: beyond academic exclusivity

The study of the scientific figures of the Doyen Gabriel Marty, in law, and of Henri Gaussen, the botanist, has shown how the various territorial stakeholders have taken on the life and work of these researchers.  Their peers, first of all, and the scientific institutions have emphasized the memory of some scientific figures (male figures most of the time) who have been mobilized in order to strengthen the academic community and display a specific common identity.

The same process applies to the heritagization of particular scientific sites. The history of the Toulouse fluid mechanics Institute (IMFT), that of the Pic du Midi Observatory or of the Mas d’Azil cave have thus been rewritten in order to reconstruct their past and better understand it.

But non-academic stakeholders have also taken on the traces left by scientific activity. Regional archives (in the case of Henri Gaussen, for example), have wished to contribute to a positive and selective image of science and of its actors. A roundabout and a street have also been dedicated to the memory of the chairman Gabriel Marty.

The heritagization of these scientific sites is also strongly rooted economically and politically. It is the case of the Mas d’Azil site, for instance. The municipality, together with the various territorial authorities involved, has greatly contributed to the rehabilitation of the cave into a tourist site. Similarly, the opening of the Pic du Midi site to tourism has been achieved mostly thanks to a strong political determination. Last of all, the site of Banlève, where the IMFT was built, has granted an extra scientific and technological dimension to the larger heritagization of the local aeronautical activities and of their history.

Finally, this use of scientific memory traces far exceeds the scientific field. The past is mobilized to construct and reconstruct an image of the academic institution, but also of the political and economic authorities involved, through different territorial and institutional linkages.

An inconsistent concern

As previously mentioned, heritage does actually exist only through the institutional or other stakeholders ‘concern, through all those who clearly demand it, safeguard it and organise its transmission.  Recognition is what grants heritage a status, even its very existence.

Nevertheless, not being registered as “Monument historique” (historical monuments) does not mean that its status will remain unchanged and fixed for an indefinite period of time: the example of the Mas d’Azil cave illustrates the extent to which the approach may vary. This cave has experienced many revivals, frequently disappearing and reappearing, in successive or simultaneous cycles between oblivion and recognition on the scientific stage but also in the political and cultural worlds, according to the variable part played by each.

The social « necessity » of heritage has greatly changed over time. We have observed the same mechanism recurringly at work, regardless of the scientific field studied, regardless of the figures, items or sites analysed: cycles of interest and disinterest keep alternating, depending on factors which do not have much to do with the scientific activity itself.

Memory, history or heritage?

At the end of our study, can it be said that the memory processes we have analysed all refer to heritagizing procedures?

As described by Jean Davallon, heritage-making is the outcome of five steps of an irreducible « heritage chain » (designating – classifying – preserving – rehabilitating –making it public). But, most of the case studies conducted reveal that several major steps of the process were recurrently missing.

The first step i.e., designating what or who should become part of heritage, is unanimously carried out, inventory-making and classifying are often fragmentary, unfinished in some cases. Similarly, preservation and rehabilitation often lead to arduous battles between the various stakeholders involved before being sometimes- but not always- completed.

The last step which consists in making it public, that is to say valorising the memory traces selected and sharing them with a large public, has also proved to be missing or, at least, fragmentary in the proposed setups. Finally, most of the cases studied show historiographic and/or memory practices which have rarely been subjected to the whole heritage-making process.

In the end, by analysing the heritagization of scientific activities, we have altogether questioned the history of science, the history of the university and the way it relates to its environment as well as the production methods of scientific knowledge. As a matter of fact, the potential impact of the PASTEL project on the scientific traces studied should be further examined.

Can it be said that, by focusing on specific periods of the past, the project has somehow contributed to building heritage where it had not been initially thought of? To what extent have the collections selected for analysis been transformed? This project obviously demonstrates that research work must be systematically sustained by a reflexive approach to gain an understanding of the impact researchers may have on their objects of study.

  • Davallon J., 2006, Le don du patrimoine : une approche communicationnelle de la patrimonialisation, Hermès Science/Lavoisier.
  • Heinich N., 2009, La Fabrique du patrimoine. « De la cathédrale à la petite cuillère », Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.
  • Nora P. et al, 1984-1992, Les lieux de mémoire, 3 volumes, Gallimard

Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet.

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Muriel Lefebvre et Anne-Claire Jolivet

Muriel Lefebvre, université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès, LERASS ( et Anne-Claire Jolivet, université fédérale Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées, service DCST (

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  1. 09/05/2022

    […] Lefebvre et Anne-Claire Jolivet, “Sciences and their past: what challenges for scientific heritage-making?“, carnet Mondes […]

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