Climate Stories at the Science Museum

Coal at the Science Museum

Pots of coal, Changing Climate Stories, Science Museum

The Science Museum has a new art/ history of tech exhibition exploring issues of energy and climate change: Climate Changing Stories.

It mixes a few re-interpretations of old exhibits with some dazzling new installations. It weaves through the museum as a whole, plotting new narratives, connecting previously separate spaces. It plays with ideas of pasts, futures and futures past. It left me with a big grin and a head full of ideas. It comes highly recommended.

It’s also sponsored by Shell. Ignore that for a moment though, I don’t want it to get in the way of the many good aspects of the exhibition. Park it at the back of your mind – just as you might on a visit to the museum – and I’ll return to it later.

The trail starts at the front of the museum, in the history of energy hall, inviting you to think of the immediate impact of the Industrial Revolution on the 18th century countryside. This look back to past environmental change is echoed a couple of floors up, in a room next to the energy futures gallery, with a film about a flood in a seaside resort in the early 1950s which juxtaposes the optimism of growth of the town due to holiday-makers in the 1930s with this flood, explicitly playing with our sense of flooding as a future narrative of climate change in the process. There is a similar display near the Agriculture Gallery, this time on air pollution. Its 1952 news reels describe smog as the “greatest mass murderer of recent years”, calling for cleaner fuels. It’s futuristic in a way, abeit an old future, long gone now. It is also current, echoing 21st century debates about slightly less visible air pollution.

The Making of the Modern World gallery has some of the best pieces. I loved artist Yao Lu’s beautiful series of photos; made to look like traditional Chinese landscapes but actually mounds of rubbish covered in green netting. There’s also the incredible toaster project and their resident spaceship now comes with added note on Stewart Brand and the blue marble. The highlight, however, has to the electric London taxi cab from 1897, in the centre of the Wellcome Wing. We might think of electric cars as something futuristic but, again, the museum is keen to stress they’ve been the future for quite a long time now (nice Wired post on this).

One might be wary of the museum’s steampunkish play with narratives of climate change. The line on the BBC preview that the gallery explores how “humans have adapted to keep pace with our changing world” is the sort that can set some environmentalists’ hair on end, as if climate change is just business as usual. I don’t think the museum frames it that way, personally, though other eyes might read it differently. It’s probably worth noting that the end point of the piece on coal was a move to greater regulation, not a techno-fix (although there is also an exhibit on fictional world-saving GM crops).

Moreover, for me, exhibits like the electric cab help show that technology is the consequence of choices, that the world might have been different and, if we let it, provoke us to make better choices today. That cab reminded me of a great bit in Alexis Madrigal’s history of American green tech, Powering the Dream, about how a betting man at the end of the 19th century would have expected transport in the US to have gone in the direction of electrically powered public transport, not fossil-fuelled private vehicles. As Maggie Koerth-Baker puts it in her review of the book: “Energy isn’t just what it is. Energy is what we have decided we want it to be”.

electric london taxi cab, 1897

An electric London cab, from 1897! 1897!

Brilliant as many aspects of this exhibition are, I left the museum feeling something was missing. I realised later it was the topic of oil. Which is a shame considering their lead sponsor is such an expert on the topic.

My mother accused me of being snide with that comment, which is not my intention. I genuinely think it’s a shame. That’s in earnest, not sarcasm. I actually want to see more about the oil industry in museums, or at least more than logos.

Shell have a fascinating history (official version). Did you know they are called Shell because they started off as shop that sold seashells? An antique dealer in the 1830s realised there was a fashion for using shells in interior design. They were so popular he had to import them from abroad, laying the foundations for an international import/export business which – via trading of rice, silk, china, copperware, sugar, flour and wheat – by the 1890s was transporting oil. An exhibit based on that could be ace. You could even, like the electric car, use stories of how the world wasn’t always how it is now to consider how it might be in the future; have an interactive asking visitors what different products Shell could trade instead, for example.

So great as this new Science Museum trail is, you might want to stop by Tate Britain too and catch the Patrick Keiller Robinson Institute exhibition which has a bit on the history of BP (till October 14th, free, sponsored by Sotheby’s).

Postscript: A new campaign Science, Unstained aims to ask questions about the sponsorship of science communication. I’m happy to say I’m part of the group behind it. I wouldn’t have registered the URL in my name otherwise. There are several other people involved though, and it’s up to them to decide for themselves if they want to be open about this. It’s just a few 100 words on a blog at the moment and we’re not sure how it’ll develop yet. You can follow it, or even get involved, if you’re interested. Or not, if you’re not.

5 thoughts on “Climate Stories at the Science Museum

  1. Joe Smith

    Thanks nice post – and yes Keiller exhibit is excellent too. But am I right in thinking this is the show that Sci Mus put up about a year ago? Have they expanded or altered it? It is very good. Also agree that Shell more interesting as a subject than a sponsor. Amongst other things, interesting for doing so much to establish scenarios work motivated by oil crises (but then tending to ignore them?)

    Reply
    1. alice Post author

      There was the Atmosphere Gallery, review here http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/jan/12/climate-change-atmosphere-science-museum

      This is a new trail.

      Love the idea of scenarios based exhibit! Could dig out that old nuke train thing from the 80s too. A public history of public risk assessments, how fab would that be? Maybe is the BSHS could get together enough cash to sponsor an Antenna exhibit… (Antenna = their news-based temp exhibitions, always looking for sponsors).

      Reply
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