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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?