This was first published in the November edition of Popular Science UK. Subscribe to read current edition including a column from me on science comedy.
Science museums are fascinating bits of the world, full of the artefacts of old ideas of what the future might bring. A hodgepodge of moments in human discovery and invention. Some of these moments are long gone. Some are still with us. Some float back and forth into fashion or utility. Here are my top fifteen exhibits in the London Science Museum. Use them as a guide for your next visit, or as a virtual tour.
In some ways, the very idea of a science museum is a bit silly. How do you display the worlds of the very small, the very big, the very fast, the very slow or plain invisible which science manages to perceive through application of maths, theories, specialist equipment and years of measurement? You can put a law of motion a case. You can’t hang a theory on a wall.
So science museums get devious and, for example, the London museum wanted to display the great British discovery of DNA, and came up with the ingenious idea of using the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. The problem was that the people in the lab had, quite sensibly, taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was taken. So the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them off and rebuilt it. So it is a mockup, albeit an official one. It’s also very beautiful, displayed almost as abstract art, perhaps with too little explanatory text.
2. 1926 Kelvinator Gas Fridge
The technology side to science museums – which arguably dominates – can be as hard to display as the science. Often, the same thing that makes a technology iconic is also why it’d be a bit weird to expect someone to visit it in a museum. You don’t need to go to Exhibition Road to see a mass-produced product like a biro or an iPhone or a Yale key. It’s in your pocket, or at least someone else’s near by.
One option is to display technological routes not taken. Which is the case of the ‘Kelvinator’ gas fridge, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery. The battle of gas versus electric fridges is a classic tale in the history of technology, one that helps explain why fridges hum, but also reflects the ways in which hype and the alignment of particular business interests can move us in one path over another.
Another option for displaying technology is to go with firsts, and there are many in the museum’s flagship Making the Modern World gallery. It’s maybe not very patriotic to pick one of the American icons in a gallery full of the stars of British industry, but really how can any of them compete with a spaceship?
People got inside of this object and went on a trip around the moon. All the way back in 1969. It’s not futuristic, it isn’t fiction. It doesn’t even look very modern. If anything, it’s a bashed-in old idea of the future.
It will simultaneously make you feel powerful to be part of the human race, and incredibly humble. As all the best science museum exhibits should.
Another problem with displaying technology is the sheer size of it. The museum has purpose-built galleries for fitting large objects, but even it struggles with planes and ships (largely going for bits of them or just models). Moreover, it’s not always the technology itself that’s of interest or importance, but the broader social context/ environmental impact around it.
With both of these issues in mind, how do you display an atomic bomb? There are many ways museums around the world have found to answer this problem but I really love the decision here, of a humble bowl found in Hiroshima after bombing in August 1945. You can see the sand fused to the sides of the porcelain.
A small exhibit, especially as it’s surrounded by the large machines of Making the Modern World, but possibly one of the more affecting.
5. Turbine blade
Hiding up against the side of a wall on the Wellcome Wing, a cynic might say it’s hard to spot because it’s part of a Shell-sponsored climate exhibition, and fossil fuel companies would rather we avoided talking about renewables. But equally we might argue there is something very pro-wind about how unobtrusive it is, considering turbines are often criticised as a blight.
It’s also interesting to see a turbine on display on a national gallery, considering the politics surrounding climate activists’ attempt to “gift” one to the Tate last year.
These are easy to miss amongst the trains, trucks and spaceships, a rather anonymous pair of handcuffs makes up part of the “technology in everyday life” section of the Making the Modern World Gallery. Next to rollerskates, some bits of cutlery, a typewriter for the blind and a few bikes.
The handcuffs are noteworthy as an example of a technology of control; something the museum could make more of. I remember reading about an exhibition on plastic bullets put on in Brixton in the mid 1980s by the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. It would be interesting to know why the Science Museum itself didn’t at the time, and if they would think of something similar today.
It’s also worth considering the particular take on the history of technology which keeps bikes on the side in a gallery where cars are given pride of place in the central thoroughfare. The last few times I’ve visited the museum, friends have remarked “why isn’t there a massive gallery filled with bikes?”
7. Iron baby
One of the many pieces of art dotted around the museum is a small statue of a newborn baby by Antony Gormley. You can found it snuggled away at the side of a case on first floor of the Wellcome Wing. According to museum mythology, when staff researched visitors’ reactions to it, girls would bend down and stroke the baby whereas boys kicked it. I don’t really care if that story is true, I just like it (I also find the exhibit very kickable).
8. Advertising on the stars
Hidden at the back of the George III gallery of 18th century science is a globe displaying charts of the stars mapped more earthly spaces. Above the Northern hemisphere you can see familiar characters of Greek astronomy; animals and heroes and the like. But bend down to the Southern hemisphere and you can see the makers of the globe were more puzzled as to what to put. So they used this map of the skies to chart pictures of the other products their company made; lab benches and other chemists’ equipment. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of ancient and more modern science, and also an early example of the connections between science and advertising.
9. A smile machine
The cases in the Who Am I Gallery are a treasure trove of ephemera and other interestingness relating to the broad and diverse science and technologies of being humans. See if you can find the Swearing Association Challenge Cup, a penis packer used during gender realignment, the freeze-dried mouse, the knitted telomeres, the white peacock and a smile machine.
The ‘smile machine’ is a slight misnomer, it’s actually an electrotherapy machine, but as the museum label points out, in the 1860s, physiologist Guillaume Duchenne used pulses from such devices to provoke twitches in patients’ faces to explore how we formed expressions, concluding truly happy smiles use the eyes as well as mouth.
10. Snuff boxes
Running alongside the big steam machines in the main front to the museum, and just before you get to Watt’s workshop are some of the more domestic sides to the Industrial Revolution. This includes a ‘Power, Products and Prosperity’ display which reflects, quite plainly, how much of this period was about the rise of shopping. A slightly uncritical display of consumer culture, arguably, but the cases are a real treasure trove of 19th century stuff and, as the museum label notes, this reflects new the power of the emerging middle classes: “Some saw it as a new democratisation of taste.” There’s a great collection of snuffboxes, including one shaped like a harp, as well as buttons, toys and a urinal next to a custard cup.
11. The building itself
Like many old purpose-built museums, the building itself is an exhibit, reflecting some history of how we have thought about science and technology.
It’s roughly split into three parts. The first from 1928, delayed because of WW1 but finally finding a permanent home for galleries which had been in and out of various prefabs since the Great Exhibition of 1851. The central galleries are an extension dating back to the 1950s, partly linked to the Festival of Britain. Finally there’s the Wellcome Wing, part of a swathe of science museum and galleries (or rebuilds of old ones) for the millennium.
It’s worth having a look around the outside of the museum too and exploring some of the history of South Kensington. What is now the Science Museum used to share space with what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there is still the odd marker to this in the V&A building. Look out for scientists’ names on the door of the garden, and the Science and Art corridor near the silver gallery.
When I take people to the museum, I also get them to look at the sponsors sign at the front too. A thanks to supporters but also a declaration of conflict of interest of sorts, and reflection of the groups who have an interest in the way we display science and technology (or at least those groups with money to spare).
12. A Victorian electric taxi cab
We might think of electric cars as futuristic, but the Science Museum has one from 1897. In some ways it is like the gas fridge, a route of technology we didn’t take, but it’s also a steampunkish reflection of how hopes for the future can return in new and different contexts, even seem a bit retro.
It’s currently on temporary display in the entrance to the Wellcome Wing. I sometimes wonder where they’ll put it when that exhibition ends. I’d like to see it moved into the Making the Modern World, disrupting that gallery’s chief narrative of linear progress. Because the history of technology isn’t linear, the Science Museum should know this better than most, but somehow still often perpetuate the myth.
This is one of the few objects from the natural world in the Science Museum (their definition of science has always been “stuff that’s not in the Natural History Museum next door”). Hidden at the back of the climate gallery, it shows evidence of the scar on the planet made by those machines of the industrial revolution so proudly presented at the front of the museum. Beautifully – albeit depressingly – haunting.
14. Rotation Station
The hands-on Launch Pad takes a play-based approach to science education. This approach – and many of the blueprints for the gallery’s exhibitions – stems from San Francisco’s Exploratorium, although this itself drew inspiration from the London museum’s Children’s Galleries, first developed in the 1930s.
My favourite exhibit here is the Rotation Station. An attempt to explain the conservation of angular momentum, the visitor is invited to climb on, hang on and spin. If you stick your bum out as you spin you make a larger circle which it takes more energy to travel along: stand up straight and you go much faster.
It is an approach to explaining science which takes the idea very far out of any social context, and often criticised as such. But such decontextualization is both clear and reflects an approach to science. Also, the bum-controlled spinning is lots of fun. Best avoided when hungover though.
15. 1933 Electric door
Currently tucked in the middle of the Secret Life of the Home gallery is an electric door you press a button to open. Initially displayed to show off the wonder of new technology, the museum’s archives contain some great old black and white photos of school children playing with it with wide-eyed delight on their faces. For the last few decades, however, kids just stand there waiting for it to open, bemused that you have to press a button for a door to open. The exhibit itself hasn’t changed in any material sense, but changes in the world around it transforms it entirely. There is something incredibly beautiful about that, and it reflects the way the museum itself is part of the same history of science and technology it aims to collect.