Dr. Arthur P. Molella is awarded the 2020 Leonardo da Vinci Medal in recognition of his sterling career achievements and long record of service to the profession. Art, as he is widely called by friends and colleagues, is the founding director (now director emeritus) of the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a senior lecturer in the Department of History of Science and Technology at Johns Hopkins University. Over the course of a 40-year career, he worked as an eminent public historian, curator, educator, and ambassador for the history of technology. He has an enviable scholarly record, with numerous books, edited volumes, and articles to his credit. However, Art’s museum work—building collections, supporting fellowship programs, curating exhibitions, and leading educational and public programs—also had a tremendously important impact on his colleagues and the general public.
Molella earned his Ph.D. in the History of Science at Cornell University under the direction of L. Pearce Williams. His dissertation was entitled “Philosophy and 19th c. German Electrodynamics: The Problem of Atomic Action at a Distance.” In 1971, just prior to receiving his doctorate, Art accepted an offer to work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, where he has been a valued colleague for nearly fifty years. In his first position, Art worked with Nathan Reingold as an associate editor of the multi-volume Papers of Joseph Henry (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972-1981), which documented the career of the 19th century physicist and founding Secretary of the Smithsonian.
In 1981, Art accepted a full-time curatorial position at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), and began a career of research, exhibition, and publication projects. For example, in 1982, Art curated an exhibition and published a companion volume titled Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Intimate Presidency (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982), which marked the centenary of FDR’s birth. He focused on FDR’s mastery of radio during the Fireside Chats, and even exhibited FDR’s automobile, which had been modified with hand controls to accommodate his polio.
Over the next several years, Art Molella advanced through a series of leadership positions at NMAH, including chairing the museum’s History of Science and Technology department, before serving as chief of the entire History Division. With Robert Post, Art was part of the team that brought Technology and Culture’s editorial offices to NMAH in 1982. Art served as T&C’s book review editor from 1983 through 1987, and remained an advisory editor through 1993.
In the late 1980s, Art signed on as the project director and chief curator for an ambitious exhibition titled Science in American Life. It broke new ground by exploring the impact and meaning of science and technology as integral to American history and culture. It also challenged visitors to critically examine the military-industrial complex, nuclear weapons, the birth control pill, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and concerns over depletion of atmospheric ozone.
Shortly before the exhibition opened in 1994, Art and other curators found themselves embroiled in the then-raging science / culture wars. Two major scientific organizations, the American Chemical Society, the exhibition’s underwriter, and the American Physical Society, accused the exhibition team of politically correct interpretations and anti-scientific bias and called for content revisions. Art found himself embroiled in both the visible public controversy and difficult behind-the-scenes negotiations between the donors and Smithsonian’s top leadership. Not widely known outside of the Smithsonian, Art’s defense helped underscore the importance of internal curatorial control over exhibition content and the value of a scholarly voice in the museum setting.
In the midst of the Science in American Life controversy, Art published a series of articles, book chapters, and an edited volume on the history and contemporary concerns of science and technology museums. He also began to explore the historiographical legacy of the earliest philosophers of technology, including Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedeon, and Abbott Payson Usher. Along these lines, Art, Bob Post, and others facilitated the transfer of the Mel Kranzberg Papers and SHOT’s institutional records to the NMAH Archives Center in 1988.
Art’s career trajectory shifted considerably after he met the inventor Jerome Lemelson. Lemelson and his wife Dorothy established the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in 1995, with Art as its founding director. Art set a broad mission for the Lemelson Center aligned to public history goals for the history of technology field; recruited a team of like-minded historians, archivists, and educators; and then spent the next twenty years developing new collections, publications, multimedia products, exhibitions, public programs, and educational initiatives.
Under Art’s direction, the Center established the Modern Inventors Documentation (MIND) program to proactively identify, collect, and preserve inventors’ artifacts, papers, and oral histories. For example, pioneering home-playable video game system. Art and the Lemelson Center team also have prioritized collecting from women and minority inventors, such as ophthalmologist-inventor Patricia Bath, who developed surgical instruments to correct cataracts. Overall, since 1995, the Lemelson Center has accessioned approximately 85 inventors’ collections and oral histories.
From its founding under Art’s guidance, the Lemelson Center also supported research by scholars, public historians, and film-makers through a competitive grants process. To honor Art’s retirement in 2015, the Lemelson Foundation expanded the Center’s fellowship offerings through the endowed Arthur Molella Distinguished Fellowship. To date, the Center has named four Molella Distinguished Fellows: Rayvon Fouché, Stephen Mihm, Patrick McCray, and Amy Sue Bix.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Art led the Lemelson Center in producing a series of educational videos for distribution to schools; topics included Thomas Edison, women inventors, African-American inventor Lewis Latimer, and the inventions of bicycles and of the electric guitar. Along with other public programs that brought school classes to the museum to meet invited inventors, Art established an educational approach that highlighted creativity and invention among a diverse variety of people and in fun and unexpected domains, thereby reinforcing the notion that everyone can be inventive.
Under Art’s leadership, the Lemelson Center established and maintained an active and award-winning exhibition program. In 2001, Art cooperated with the Deutsches Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to curate Nobel Voices. In 2002, Art and the Lemelson Center team broke new museological ground through the Invention at Play exhibition. With interactives and hands-on invention challenges at the front of the exhibition, visitors could explore how playful habits of mind—including curiosity, imagination, visual thinking, model building, and problem solving—are shared by successful inventors. Invention at Play was the first hands-on exhibition of its kind at the Smithsonian and set a new bar for interactivity. In 2003, the American Association of Museums awarded the travelling exhibition its Excellence in Exhibitions Award.
Under Art’s direction the Lemelson Center established and pursued an active publication program. In the early 2000s, Art and Joyce Bedi approached MIT Press and established a new book series, the Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation. Art and Joyce published the first title in the series, Inventing for the Environment (MIT Press, 2003), an edited volume that emerged from a Lemelson Center symposium. Art also co-founded with Robert Kargon of Johns Hopkins University and Simon Joss, then of Westminster University, the International Eco-Cities Initiative.
In recognition of his work on the eco-cities initiative and his numerous career achievements, Westminster University presented Art with a doctorate of science, honoris causa, in 2005.
In 2014, Art curated Making a Modern Museum, which celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of NMAH (founded in 1964 as the National Museum of History and Technology).. The exhibition explored the NMHT’s opening in the midst of the Cold War; the building’s modernist architecture, and the museum’s 1980 name change reflecting its inclusion of social and cultural history alongside the history of technology.
The eco-cities work Art co-initiated in the early 2000s evolved into a broader exploration of the role of spaces, places, and communities in fostering invention, leading to his final exhibition with the Center. Places of Invention, along with its companion volume, examines why certain places, at certain times in American history, became hot spots of invention and innovation. The exhibition explores six high-tech communities—precision manufacturing in Hartford (1850s-1860s); Technicolor and movies in Hollywood (1930s); the medical device industry in central Minnesota (1940s-1950s); the computing industry in Silicon Valley (1970s-80s); the invention of hip-hop in the Bronx (1970s-80s); and green energy initiatives in Fort Collins, Colorado at present. The exhibition received SHOT’s Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibitions in 2016 and the Smithsonian’s inaugural Excellence in Exhibitions Award in 2017.
Molella retired to emeritus status immediately after Places of Invention opened in July 2015, but has remained active at the Smithsonian and in the field as a scholar, mentor, educator, and museum consultant. Over his nearly fifty-year career, he has published dozens of book reviews, served as a reader for hundreds of manuscripts, and mentored many students, interns, and junior scholars. Besides his long association with SHOT, Art has served on the boards of the National Academy of Inventors, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the MIT Museum. His outstanding achievements and service to the profession make Arthur Molella a worthy recipient of SHOT’s Leonardo da Vinci Medal.