Digital archive? The middle finger of Galileo's right hand. Credit: ISTITUTO E MUSEO DI STORIA DELLA SCIENZA

Pixels and piety

The digital collection at the Museum of the History of Science in Florence.

Many museums have spent large sums of money embracing the digital age, often to no great effect. Online access to images and information is certainly valuable in extending the audience of any museum, but most of the projects go no further than archiving, and make little creative use of the potential of digital imaging. Likewise, most of the on-site digital access that museums provide for their visitors relies on low-level interactivity conceived by middle-aged curators who hope that touching a computer screen will transform the museum experience for 'young people'.

Happily, a few museums are now moving on to a more creative level to enhance their interaction with both real and virtual visitors. No museum has a more ambitious programme in this respect than the Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy, whose director, Paolo Galluzzi, is developing an imaginative range of digital access (as the site map at testifies). The most ambitious of the projects, Galileo//thek@, will, when it is completed in February 2004, provide the most comprehensive set of images, primary sources, interpretative materials and animations for any historical figure. Animations, of which there are several on the museum's website, are particularly important, as they provide an immediate and dynamic insight into the working of instruments that sit as inertly as sports trophies in their sealed museum cabinets.

In Florence, the latest technologies are blended with extraordinary levels of traditional reverence for Galileo, the 'god' of Tuscan science. Alongside hard-nosed information about galilean astronomy and dynamics, scholarly information about manuscripts and editions, and extensive secondary literature, are some extraordinary memorabilia of the Italian scientist, presented with a piety that is at least the equal of any found in a church. The most sanctified relic is the shrivelled middle digit of Galileo's right hand — the medium of which is laconically listed in the museum catalogue as “finger”!

When Galileo's remains were transferred to the main body of the Florentine church of Santa Croce on 12 March 1737, the antiquarian, Anton Francesco Gori, took the opportunity to detach the finger as if it were a revered fragment from the corpse of a saint. For many years, the relic was exhibited in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, having acquired its elaborate eighteenth-century mount and inscription, before passing in 1841 to the new Tribuna di Galileo in the Museo di Fisica e Storia Naturale on the via Romana in Florence, and eventually to its current resting place.

The flavour of such piety is embodied in another Galileo reliquary now housed in the same museum. This contains the objective lens used by the astronomer in 1610 to discover the moons of Jupiter, which he designated the 'Medicean Planets'. Mounted in a florid ivory frame by Vittorio Croster in 1677, it was for years part of the cherished collections of the Medicean Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the Galleria degli Uffizi, alongside the masterpieces of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.

One of the Latin inscriptions on the mount of the lens captures perfectly the tone of adulation: “The sky, opened by the lynx-like mind of Galileo with this first lens of glass, showed stars never before seen, rightly called Medicean by their discoverer. The knowing mind masters even the stars, indeed.” The animal allusion is to the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the pioneering scientific academy of the 'lynx-eyed', of which Galileo was the brightest luminary. The academy celebrates its 400th anniversary this year (Nature 422, 467–468, 2003).

The finger may be dry and withered, and the lens cracked beyond even rudimentary utility, but the relics maintain their potency. They are, as they say, the real thing. At the end of the day, this possession of the authentic item provides the enduring strength and fascination of museums. Digitization is a potentially vivid means of enhancing the relationship between the museum object and the curious visitor. But it is not an end in itself.