07.04.2015
13:50

Science Museum

Address:

Exhibition Road, South Kensington, SW7 2DD

Phone:

0870 870 4868

Website:

www.sciencemuseum.org.uk

Opening times:

Daily 10:00–18:00

How to get there:

Tube: South Kensington

Entry fee:

Free

Additional information:

Cafés and shop

Like the Victoria & Albert Museum, the origins of the Science Museum lie in the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the following year the Museum of Manufactures was opened on the first floor of Marlborough House, maintaining a permanent collection of selected Exhibition items, later transferred to the South Kensington Museum. In 1870, following the museum’s acquisition of a collection of mechanical instruments, the Scientific and Educational Department of the South Kensington Museum merged with this new collection and the Patent Office Museum collection, a hybrid which came to be known as the ‘Science Museum’. In 1924 the Museum acquired the contents of James Watt’s workshop and four years later moved into its present site on Exhibition Road, where it has continued to grow, presenting the development of science, technology and medicine from the early 18th century to the present day. The focus of acquisitions has been on artefacts that demonstrate developments in concepts and theory as well as practice, in the processes of discovery and invention, and in their relationship to economics and society. Artefacts associated with important historical events in science, individuals, groups of people and institutions have also found a home here. To mark the millennium the Wellcome Wing was opened, purpose-built to display the latest developments in digital, biomedical and electronic science.

 

The Collections

 

Ground Floor

The recently renovated ‘Energy Hall’ introduces the collections with a riveting display of early engines, including Boulton and Watt’s rotative steam engine (1788) and the much later Harle Syke red mill engine (1903), awesome when in steam. The ‘Space’ gallery re-creates the race for the moon and beyond with a replica of the Apollo 11 lunar lander, describing developments in missile technology and investigating the future of space exploration. The main part of this floor is devoted to the museum’s core collection in ‘Making the Modern World’, an exhibition depicting the development of technological society using some of its landmark products, beginning with Puffing Billy (1815), the oldest steam locomotive in the world. It worked for nearly 50 years on a five-mile stretch between Wylam colliery near Newcastle, and Lemington on the Tyne. George Stephenson’s Rocket can also be seen here, which reached a record-breaking speed of 29mph at the Rainhill trials of 1829. The pace of change is demonstrated by the Columbine (1845), recognisably a modern steam locomotive, as well as by the oldest surviving traction engine in the world, an Aveling and Porter steamroller from 1871, the type of machine that paved the way for the internal combustion engine. Nearby the Portsmouth Block-Making Machines (1803), designed by Marc Isambard Brunel, father of Isambard Kingdom, and manufactured by Henry Maudslay, are the first purpose-designed and integrated system for quantity production in the world, in use for more than a century, supplying 100 thousand pulley blocks each year to the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era. The idea was adopted for the navy by Samuel Bentham, brother of the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Nearby, the Holmes Lighthouse generator (1867), in operation until 1900, was installed at Souter Point near South Shields, showing the most powerful light in the world at the time, visible from some 20 miles off the coast.

The transport theme continues with vintage cars and aircraft. More recent innovations on display are Mad Dog 2, the UK’s most successful solar-powered racing car, coming first in the stock class of the 1998 World Solar Rally in Japan; and a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner from 1983, of the type used at the Royal Aberdeen Infirmary, where the first clinically useful image was achieved three years earlier.

Technology in every day life 1750–2000’ displays artefacts in common use from five periods, each laid out according to a contemporary system of classification. The period 1750–1820 is arranged according to an order suggested by the Encyclopédie (1751–80) edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert. The period 1820–80, covering the Great Exhibition, is laid out according to Lyon Playfair’s scheme specially devised for the event, with British exhibits divided into four sections: Raw Materials, Machinery, Manufactures and Fine Arts. Thirty different classes were identified under these headings. Under Manufactures, for example, fell ‘Class XV. Mixed Fabrics, including Shawls, but exclusive of Worsted Goods (Class XII)’ or ‘Class XVIII. Woven, Spun, Felted and laid fabrics, when shown as specimens of Printing or Dyeing’. Fine Arts was allotted just one category: ‘Class XXX. Sculptures, Models and Plastic Arts’. The layout of artefacts dating from 1880–1939 employs a system devised by the pioneer Scottish sociologist and town planner Patrick Geddes (1854–1932); the period 1939–62 uses the catalogue of the Festival of Britain in 1951, organised into five areas: Art, Architecture, Science, Technology and Industrial Design; finally, the period 1968–2000 is arranged according to an order suggested by The Next Whole Earth Catalog of 1980, first published in the US in 1968. Among the objects exhibited from this period are an Apple II desktop computer (1977), a lap-top (1982), a radar speedtrap (1992) and a wheelclamp (1999).

 

First Floor

The Steel Experience’, designed by Simple Productions, is a wrap-around audio-visual insight into steel production from raw material to finished product. Other displays deal with telecommunications, featuring an Enigma ‘cypher’ machine and operational telephone exchange from 1950, followed by the History of Agriculture, an unusual series of 51 dioramas showing agricultural developments since 1500 bc, as well as artefacts such as ‘Bell’s Reaper’ (1826), the first mechanical corn cutter, alongside a bright red Massey-Ferguson combine harvester (c. 1953–62). The ‘Surveying’ gallery displays instruments for mapping the earth’s surface from chains and theodolites to Global Positioning Satellite receivers. ‘Time Measurement’ features a particularly fine collection of antique clocks and their mechanisms, such as the 14th-century example from the cathedral at Wells, one of the earliest mechanical timepieces in the country. Watson’s Astronomical Clock (1695) was the first instrument in England to show the sun fixed on the Copernican principle.

 

Second Floor

The History of Mathematics and the History of Computing face each other across the building, their stories inextricably entwined. The Pegasus Computer (1959), the last valve-based computer still operational and one of the first to be built for general-purpose use by large businesses, can be compared with a recently completed working copy of Charles Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine No. 2’, designed in 1847–49. The ‘Ship Gallery’ beyond displays the museum’s unusually comprehensive collection of model ships, an important historical record of many long-lost actual vessels as well as an impressive overview of different types of craft from around the world.

 

Third Floor

Science in the 18th Century’ is a traditional display based on King George III’s collection of scientific apparatus, illustrating the type of equipment used at the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Artefacts include an air pump made by leading scientific instrument maker George Adams in 1761; a mechanical model of the solar system— the original orrery made for the Earl of Orrery in 1712—and another example, much more ornate, enlarged in 1733 to include Saturn. The ‘Optics’ gallery explains the nature of light, illustrates Victorian and modern developments in the field, including microscopy, and demonstrates with examples the invention of holography by Hungarian scientist Dénes Gábor in 1948. The small prism and mirror from around 1800 with which William Herschel explored the spectrum beyond the visible region, discovering infrared, can be seen here, along with the massive lighthouse optic (1881) from Anvil Point, Swanage. Nearby is the Great Rosse Telescope Mirror from Birr Castle, Ireland. Made in 1845 for Lord Rosse, it remains the largest metal mirror ever manufactured for a telescope. The ‘Photography and Cinematography’ gallery features a reconstruction of Beard’s Studio, the first photographic portrait studio in Europe, used to produce daguerrotypes, and a series of display cases illustrating the development of cameras and processing equipment. The ‘Flight Gallery’ offers rides on a motion simulator. Classic aircraft crowd the floorspace and ceiling, and a raised walkway provides access for closer viewing. The de Havilland 60 Gypsy Moth Jason from 1928 is the biplane in which Amy Johnson made her solo flight from England to Australia in 1930. The Fokker E. III from 1916 was the type of aircraft fitted with synchronised machine guns that wreaked havoc on the Royal Flying Corps in the middle years of the First World War. Early jet aircraft include a Gloster E. 28/39, from 1941, the first in Britain, and a Messerschmitt Komet of 1944, designed to defend Germany from Allied daylight bombing raids.

 

Fourth and Fifth Floors

These are devoted to the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine. The collections of Sir Henry Wellcome FRS (1853–1936) were given to the museum in 1977. Born the son of a poor pastor in northern Wisconsin, Henry Wellcome founded a very successful pharmaceutical company which patented the word ‘tabloid’ for its pills. An obsessive collector, he became a naturalised British citizen and was knighted in 1932. On the stairs a display case contains striking oddments from the collections, such as shrunken heads from South America, Florence Nightingale’s moccasins, a lock of the Duke of Wellington’s Hair, Captain Scott’s medicine chest, Nelson’s razor and Napoleon’s field toilet case (almost complete with 19 different implements, sadly short of his comb and mirror). On the Fourth Floor, ‘Glimpses of Medical History’ is a series of diorama models depicting scenes in the development of medicine: trepanning in Neolithic times; the treatment of Roman battle casualties; eye-couching in 11th-century Persia; an anatomical theatre in Padua around 1594; and the effects of plague in 17th-century Rome. On the fifth floor, ‘The Science and Art of Medicine’ is an impressive exhibition presenting the history of medicine, mainly in western but also in other cultures around the world. Included is a 1.66 model of the temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, a site where faith met science: a sort of cross between Lourdes and a sanatorium. There is also the Giustiniani Medicine Chest of 1565. Made for Vincenzo Giustiniani, Genoese governor of the Aegean island of Chios from 1562 until the Turkish invasion of 1566, it was bought by Henry Wellcome in 1924 and contains 126 bottles and pots for drugs, several retaining their 16th-century contents. While the governors of Genoa supported Holy Roman Emperor Charles V against the French, the city state’s wealth also provided the economic power behind the Spanish exploitation of the New World. This explains the American origins of several of the drugs in the chest. There are also two small pieces claiming to be unicorn horn, although they are probably narwhal tusk.

 

The Wellcome Wing

Bathed in an eerie blue light, the Wellcome Wing extension extends over four floors in a cunning open-plan design by Richard MacCormac (2000). On the ground floor, ‘Antenna’ is the largest of the galleries, updated weekly and dedicated to the very latest developments in science, the displays exploring anything from MRSA superbugs to nanotechnology and the footfall-sensitive flooring of the future. The first floor of the gallery asks the question ‘Who am I?’ with a bleeping array of ‘Bloids’, computerised interactive puzzles and games arranged under four categories, ‘Human Animal’, ‘Family Tree’, ‘Identity Parade’ and ‘Live Science’, each designed to explore themes ranging from ‘Where did you get your looks from?’ to allowing visitors to participate in current research projects. On the second floor, ‘Digitopolis’ looks at the future of digital technology, including audio-visual developments and the everyday digitial networks connecting people, with an array of interactive computer terminals. The third floor asks the question, ‘In the Future, how will life be different?’. Interactive computerised board games encourage visitors to debate subjects such as ‘Choosing the sex of your baby’, comparing responses with previous participants.

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.

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2 Willow Road (National Trust)
William Morris Gallery
Whitechapel Gallery
Westminster Abbey Museum
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Wallace Collection
Victoria & Albert Museum
Tower Bridge Exhibition
Tower of London (Historic Royal Palaces)
Tate Modern
Tate Britain
Sutton House (National Trust)
Spencer House
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South London Art Gallery
The Courtauld Institute of Art (Somerset House)
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Ranger’s House (English Heritage)
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The Queen’s Gallery
Prince Henry’s Room
The Photographers’ Gallery
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