The Science Museum is pants

Last night I gave a short talk at Museums Showoff. This is a slightly more coherent text version of my set. But first, here’s a picture of the world’s biggest tyre (ground floor of the Wellcome Wing).

wheel
For several years in the mid-naughties, I was on the cover of the Science Museum guidebook. It was a blurry photo, but it’s me. I worked there aged 18 to 24. When I left, I realised I’d been there a quarter of my life, I’d spent way too many of my Saturday nights sleeping on the floor of the Shipping Gallery, and the very idea of a Science Museum is a big old pile of pants.

And that’s what this is about: The Science Museum is a big old pile of pants. Sorry if you were coming here looking for analysis, this is really just therapy for a misspent youth. I suppose it is also a form of manifesto for science museums too though.

First problem: Museums tend to be about stuff that stays still, science doesn’t. There’s a great line in an old book about science museums where Graham Farmelo quotes Catcher in Rye saying a museum’s a great place to visit because it always stays the same, so you can judge differences in yourself. Farmelo uses this to challenge museum workers to think about how they might make their institutions more dynamic and foster more collective debate about the future. Much as the Wellcome Wing tries to engage audiences with debates around emerging technologies, I’m unconvinced it’s ever really managed to escape the constrains of a museum. Solution: Just stick to the history.

walking into the atmosphere gallery
The Wellcome Wing. It tries.

Second problem: What’s interesting about science and technology is also, often, what makes it either hard or simply boring to put in a case. My favourite example of this is the Science Museum’s Watson and Crick DNA model. It’s hard to put DNA in a case, so the museum hit on the idea of asking Watson and Crick’s old lab for the model of it they’re standing next to in the iconic photo of them in 1953. Except the lab had, understandably, taken the model apart to reuse, so the museum just rebuilt the model out of old bits and got Watson to open it to sort of make it official. At one point, they had two of them (because there were lots of bits left over). The Oxford Museum of History of Science similarly has a preserved blackboard left after Einstein gave a lecture: it’s the closest they can get to putting relativity in an exhibition case.

When it comes to technology, you have stuff, granted, but often what makes it worth displaying makes it a bit mundane. An old Director of the Science Museum, Lindsey Sharp, used to try to argue that the Science Museum was better than the National Gallery because people don’t sit on the bus talking about Monet, they sit on the bus playing with their phone. Nice spin, Lindsey, but we’ll just stay on the bus, thanks, playing with our phone. There’s all sorts of interesting chemistry and history involved in biros, but really most amazing thing about them is that we all use them. Which also means I don’t need to go to the Science Museum to experience them, I have one in my bag. Science can suffer from this issue too. What’s exciting about Newton’s laws of motion is that they’re so applicable. I don’t have to go to a museum to experience it; I just need to move something. Solution: Stick to the technology, but not the big-name stuff we all know.

fridge

This fridge runs on gas. Or ran. It’s old.

The Making of the Modern World gallery is wonderful, a parade of icons of modernity. Stephenson‘s Rocket. That DNA Model. A spaceship! But it’s also a winner’s map of science and technology. I’d much rather museums of science and technology should show us roads not travelled, the paths of technological development not taken. It’s exciting to see THE actual Stephenson’s rocket but it’s also a bit of an anti-climax because we already know about it. The gas fridge in the basement, however, is a whole bit of technology many people didn’t know existed (see how the refrigerator got it’s hum for more). Or my current favourite: The 1897 electric cab. This sits at the front of the Wellcome Wing and there is something beautiful about the positioning that reflects the display of the Rocket in the gallery just ahead of it (I hope it’s deliberate). We could have chosen electrified transport, and if we had we’d have had a lot more choice about how we made this electricity. If you look at UK energy budget maps, you’ll see that most of our oil goes into transport, and most transport is powered by oil. Breaking that link is a key step in a more sustainable energy future. Indeed, National Rail recently announced they are electrifying more of the system (not everyone might like their exclusive contract with EDF, but that’s another issue).

1897 electric cab

rocket

The electric cab at front of the Wellcome Wing and Stephenson’s Rocket at the start of Making the Modern World.

As well as the roads not travelled, I’d like to see more of the cultural responses to science and technology; the way people have imagined, loved, hated, worried and hoped through it. I want to see robot toys, and anti-GMO protest signs, some transport geek’s collection of bus tickets. When I worked at the museum, one of my colleagues had a small private collection of visitors’ drawings of spaceships which also looked like penises. That’s totally the sort of stuff the museum should be collecting and sharing with the world: People’s sometimes weird rendering of technology.

And I’d like to see more of the objects which show the scars left by technology. My favourite exhibit for years was a small bowl from Hiroshima, with earth fused to the side of it after the blast. You can’t put an A-bomb in a case, so they have this leftover instead. Or there’s the ice core in the climate gallery. It’s framed more as a celebration of scientific discovery and the human ability to know (well done humans), however, not as a mark of what we’ve done to our planet (must try harder humans). Maybe it’s because the gallery’s sponsored by Shell.

Ice core at Science Museum

The Science Museum’s ice core.

Maybe the sponsor had nothing to do with that framing, but I do worry that the way the museum is uniquely able to theme its sponsors to the topic on display is a problem. Materials gallery brought to you by the Steel Industry, the BP Energy Gallery, Virgin’s Media… Stick to that model and you end up only presenting the technology that makes money, and that’s a limited view of technology. The Science Museum is in danger of turning into a bit of a trade show, which admittedly it has long roots in (with the Great Exhibition) but doesn’t have to maintain.

Let me end with something that was told to me on my first at the Science Museum: the design of the building is based on Selfridges, as they bought a cut-price design from the same architect. But we need more than the technology of consumer culture. Plus we have Selfridges for that. The winners of industry can pay to show off for themselves. As a public institution, the Science Museum should offer us something else, so might be better served modelling itself on a junk yard. Because you can tell stories in celebration of the world as it is, or you can use stories to help us think about making the world differently. If a science museum really is supposed to be about engaging the public with the future, isn’t that what it should be doing?

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20 thoughts on “The Science Museum is pants

  1. Bio_Joe

    A really interesting post, thanks for writing it as I am too far away from London to attend Museum Showoff events.

    I worry that the big problem with the Science Museum is it’s name. Both words alienate; lots of people don’t like or are wary of science and museums are thought of as boring.

    Reply
  2. Fiona Gilsenan (@fionagilsenan)

    Agree to some extent. I spend a lot of time there with my 11-year-old son. He pretty much dashes straight to the Launchpad and Who am I because they are so interactive. There’s a much better treatment of DNA in Who Am I–why isn’t the Watson/Crick model there? The gallery it’s in is a jumble.

    Having said that, we were there last week and were both fascinated by an expanded story of the photo taken by Nick Ut; it was a good little collection of context around the photo–but very hard to find–fitted into a sort of bench (near the DNA, as I recall).

    My other issue is that some of the galleries are so dark that you can barely see them. I also think the tours are great, but it would be great to have actual scientists or science students with pop-up displays and talks.

    We went to the ThinkTank in Birmingham a few weeks ago. They had one intriguing booth labelled with something about GMO. Oo, goody, I thought, controversy. But it wasn’t working:) Smart kids know about controversies–they have kids in their classes who won’t get vaccinated, they hear about ‘fair trade’ agriculture (and let’s not talk about the Agriculture gallery at the SM; it’s dire), they have family members who disagree about homeopathy. There must be ways to present current controversies without suggesting false equivalence. It’s probably never to early to start addressing some of these topics.

    Reply
  3. Andy Lloyd (@arlloyd)

    Hi Alice, I think this is a pretty fair analysis. A problem the museum has in common with a lot of science communication is that it’s primary business is information (in this case related to the collection of things). When access to information was not universal places like museums could stand a chance of being a primary source themselves. I think that position was lost at some point in the last decade. Working in a science centre (with no collection), we have had the opportunity to move away from the information transfer business and into the skills, self-confidence and process (wrt science) business which suits our medium much better. The US and Canadian science centres are trying something similar (e.g. Telus Spark in Calgary), so we’ll find out in the next couple of years if it works. Do you think the Science Museum is capable of such a re-positioning?

    Reply
    1. alice Post author

      Probably – I think much of it already does and there is a long history to that too within interactives movement end of things. Honestly, this is a rather narrow post focused on the more museum-y bit of the museum (when I do it seriously, as a provocation as the start to an intro lecture on sci museums for undergrads, I reflect more on that)

      Reply
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  6. David Williams

    “If a science museum really is supposed to be about engaging the public with the future, isn’t that what it should be doing?”

    I am not sure that is what a science #museum# should be doing.

    I visited the Deutsche Museum (in Munich) – much of this museum is about the history of technology and it does this very well (Well I enjoyed it anyway but then I am 50). The galleries seem to concentrate on how we got here, rather than trying to do science promotion, education, current (scientific) affairs or gee wizz interactive stuff. I think there are probably better and more relevant ways of doing all that and probably not in a physical museum.

    I visited the science museum many times as a child (of the ’60s) – and I loved it and I still do – none of the children (of the 21st century) I have taken have got anything out of the visit, typically giving up after half-an-hour and off we go to Hamleys/Harrods/etc.

    Reply
    1. alice Post author

      I’m not asking for “science promotion, education, current (scientific) affairs or gee wizz interactive stuff” – but I do think engaging with debate about the future is a key aim for the science museum, and rightly so. My point above is largely that they can do so partly through a more thoughtful approach to the history.

      Reply
  7. Jill

    I agree. The science museum is a bit rubbish, but I guess it’s also depends on what we think a museum should be. There is a place for the storing and displaying of artefacts that were involved with significant discoveries (I love the fact that the Museum of History of Science in Oxford kept that blackboard Einstein wrote on). However, maybe a Science museum should be something different.

    I’ve always thought that there should be a place somewhere that would be capable of displaying hands on experiments that are outside the budget of school science departments. Maybe that is something that Science museums should do instead? You don’t necessarily need the visitors to understand exactly what they have done, but it should give them an experience that sticks with them, and makes them think about it afterwards. An example of this is the Exploratorium in San Francisco (http://www.exploratorium.edu/). Instead of describing the science behind the hands on displays visitors are encouraged to play around with them and to ask questions. Having displays of old scientific equipment behind glass cases isn’t quite the same.

    Reply
    1. E.R.Evans

      Hi Jill,

      The very thing that you are explaining exists in many guises across Britain already. From the Centre for Life in Newcastle (the centre that Andy works at) through to Glasgow Science Centre, W5 in Belfast, @Bristol and Techniquest in Cardiff (plus many, many more that I haven’t mentioned). Each of these centres has a unique perspective on interactivity but all have many, many hands-on interactives, as well as live science shows & planetarium presentations.

      Experiential learning is at the core of what each of us do, the action of engaging with the scientific principle being the fundament on which further, more paper-based learning should be built.

      Reply
        1. E.R.Evans

          Very interesting point about decontextualising the science, although I actually think this may be a positive. My comment was more in response to Jills comments about the need for Exploratorium style exhibition spaces.

          With regards your article, I thoroughly enjoyed it the first time, nice to be reminded of it again. KC Cole’s book is on my desk…

          Reply
  8. Jim Grozier

    Personally I prefer the sort of museum where the building itself is part of it – my favourites are Bletchley Park and Herstmonceux, and part of the interest is the fact that, when these places were being used for their original purpose, the general public would not have been allowed in (in fact in the case of BP the general public didn’t even know it existed!) To be in one of the domes at Herstmonceux is to experience something of what it was like to work there, and this is made easier when the guide is someone who actually worked there! And of course Herstmonceux has all the hands on stuff too.

    I used to take my daughters to the Launch Pad when they were little (now looking forward to taking granddaughters!) but have not been in much in recent years. Glasgow science museum is also very good in this respect. If anything – and this is a very ill-informed view as I have not been back much – the SM comes across to me nowadays as a bit too gimmicky – I actually used to like the mock-ups of old labs etc that no longer seem to be there. Went to the National Space Centre once, hated it – too noisy – only interesting thing was the rockets hanging from the ceiling.

    One thought: if the SM has all that stuff in storage in Swindon, surely it needn’t be static?

    Reply
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