Category Archives: london

Science Museum: The best bits

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 Museum electric cab

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.

1. The Watson and Crick Double Helix

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.

3. Apollo 10

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.

4. Hiroshima Bowl

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.

6. Handcuffs

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.

13. Antarctic ice core

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.

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.

Air craft

When I was a teenager, I didn’t have boy band posters on my bedroom wall. I had a tea tray decorated with an oil painting of a giant air craft carrier parked outside St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

There is some history to this rather strange object. Back in the early 50s, my Granny had been looking at paintings of Venice and, using a photo of my Granddad’s old wartime ship when it was stationed there, made one for herself. Then, on New Years Eve 1956/7, the family were told he had been drafted to another carrier and would be at sea for yet another three years, and she smashed the painting in anger (sometimes when my Mum tells this story Granny smashed it over her knee, sometimes she had an axe). She later painted it again, and it was set into a tray of inlaid wood that Granddad picked up in Rio during his travels on the Albion. The object said a lot about the sometimes fiery compromises of their relationship as well as the juxtaposition of the delicate beauty of Venice with a blundering big warship in the middle of it (let alone the odd glamour of either image mixed with the domesticity of a tea tray). I’m not sure why I ended up with the thing. I guess no one else wanted it and I just thought it was bit weird and kind of cool. I’m not sure where it is now.

I remembered my old Granny’s bit of aircraft handicraft when I was in Greenwich this weekend and spotted A BLOODY ENORMOUS WARSHIP parked there at the moment.

Yes, the caps lock was warranted. Seriously, it’s one of those huge objects it’s hard not to sound stoned describing. It’s, like, really, really big. And the smoke! There’s smoke coming out of the top. And grey, very smoothly grey. It’s HMS Ocean, the Royal Navy’s largest ship. There are some good images in the press especially after it had a near miss getting through the Thames Barrier (e.g. report from Channel Four and gallery on the Telegraph). According to the Mirror, this time last year the ship was anchored off the Libyan coast but it’s currently in London for a pre-Olympics “anti-terror exercise”. Apparently they focused on air security at the weekend, with river operations taking place between Tuesday and Thursday. As the Telegraph dryly put it, defence secretary Phillip Hammond dismissed suggestions he was going “over the top” as the Royal Navy’s largest warship sailed up the River Thames.

If you’re around town at the moment and have a free moment, do try to see HMS Ocean for yourself. Whether you think the UK should be spending money on ships like this or not, let alone whether you think it should be part of Olympic security, it’s a rare chance to see such advanced military technology up front. I kind of think the Imperial War Museum outreach team should be running workshops on the river banks. As my mother joked, that’s a proper live, modern warship, none of this “heritage” stuff they have further up West. If you look carefully at the picture of the bottom of this post, you can see the masts of the newly refurbished Cutty Sark in the background. They make for quite the comparison.

Go see it. Have a think about whether you want it in your city. Or anyone else’s. Go, have a good stare at the thing. Have a good think about our deployment of this great human power we have that is advanced technology.

Walking to Brixton

Like many Londoners, I’ve spent a lot of the last week struggling to find meaning in and around the riots. I’ve read the seemingly endless commentaries. I’ve talked to people and ranted at the radio. Mainly though, I’ve done what I’ve always done when I’m sad about something but don’t have any answers: I’ve gone for a walk. Yesterday, pissed off after watching David Starkey on Newsnight, I walked to Brixton.

Bookshop in Brixton

Brixton was a site of some of last weeks’ riots, and lot of it was still boarded up. Thirty years ago, it saw some rather different riots. There were more in 1985. In 1999, it was  of one of a series of nail bombs placed around London. It has a famous street called Electric Avenue (causing an ear worm every time I visit). Vincent van Gogh lived there for a bit. There is a nice cinema, some decent bars, loads of buses, a tube stop, a friendly bike shop, a few clubs, a good market and several housing estates.

Brixton is also where one of great-grandfathers was born. I never met him, but remember being told that he ran off to the Boer War as a boy, lying about his age to join the army. When he came back, he got a job as a bus driver, married a bus conductress and had five kids. That family lived slightly further south, next to West Norwood cemetery. There’s a story that, during the Blitz, him and my great-grandmother came back from an air raid to discover a tombstone at the bottom of their bed. A bomb had sent it flying across the street and in through their front window.

Tate, Bovril

At the heart of Brixton today is a space now called Windrush square. There’s a monument to Henry Tate – of sugar cubes and art galleries fame – who built the library there (and is buried in that cemetery next to where my great-grandparents lived). At the edge of the square is a derelict building where the Black Cultural Archives are currently being build. Just to the south is a road called Effra, named after an ancient buried river. There’s plaque to Sharpville around there too, though it might be off being cleaned at the moment. London is a patchwork of long, intertwined histories.

old london

It is often said that London is a collection of villages, and that the bits of this patchwork don’t always connect that well; that it can be quite tribal. I grew up in North West London (if you’ve read White Teeth, Zadie Smith describes the area very well) and, as a child, Brixton and West Norwood seemed almost as far away as Aberdeen, where the rest of my family are from. I must have been 16 when I seriously started walking the city, I’d leave the house and see where I’d end up. By foot, I’d work out the overground connections to stops in the Tube, discovering whole new bits. I think a lot of Londoners do this. As an adult, I’ve lived North, West, South and, most recently, East. With every new bit, I never feel at home till I’ve really walked it.

People's Friend

Around the same time, one of my school teachers started taking us out for weekly trips in London. An English teacher, she focused on Literary London; not just London in writing, but people like Keats, Shakespeare and Dickens as Londoners. We also visited places like the Royal Courts of Justice and the British Library. We’d walk around the streets and she told us historical stories, showed us secrets others’ didn’t always know about or see. This was important. Even though we were Londoners, the centre of town was reasonably alien to many of us, we didn’t feel we belonged there (now, I have more letters after my name than in it, but still feel like a bit of an impostor at the British Library). Ms Hook helped us lay claim to our city.
the view from Frank'sAt 18, I got a job at the Globe and so was hit a tourists’ view of the city too: a consumption of the city where you purchase a postcard or a pinbadge. Back before the Jubilee Line extension, Tate Modern hadn’t opened yet and area around that bit of Southwark wasn’t as busy as it is now. On my evening breaks, I’d sit by the river with nothing but a passing boat to keep me company, glancing over the north bank, pondering the long history there. I’d walk in to evening shifts via the Monument, moving in the opposite direct to city kids on their way home. If I was running early, I’d take a detour to pass over London Bridge. I’d look east over to the Tower, and imagine Tudor heads on sticks. Sometimes I’d go via Waterloo, and stroll along the South Bank, stopping to watch the skater kids under the Royal Festival Hall.
stripe along riverFor all its various boundaries, bits of London do bleed into each other, and it’s a city with a multitude of international connections. Bits change too. The Kilburn I grew up in is very much Queens Park now. It’s all posh bakeries and boutiques, in sites I remember as boarded up shops. Change isn’t just gentrification though. Just north of those bakeries is a mosque (part of school) that only a few decades ago was a synagogue. It was built to look like a church though, in the hope that if it blended in it’d be less likely to be attacked. Three major religions and centuries of people rubbing often uncomfortably alongside each other encapsulated in a collection of bricks, cement and coloured glass. I could list a whole host of other changes too; short and long term, personal and political, big and small. Places shift.

Stepney Nature Study Museum

One of the things Ms Hook taught me was to look out for street names like Effra Road and the old river it refers too, and try to learn what bit of history it is a remnant or memorial for (mildly not-safe-for-work example). I lived for a while in Nunhead, near Peckham, just off a place called Dr Harold Moody Square.  We wondered who this Moody guy was, and why the Dr was included in the place name, which seemed unusual. We googled him and discovered an amazing life. I was a bit surprised I’d never heard of him before. Growing up in Brent, we’d done a fair bit of black history (or at least more than most UK kids) but maybe Moody was too much of a South Londoner to make it onto the curriculum in NW10. I also learnt about things like the Peckham Experiment and other cool bits of local history while I lived there.
round pond

I can’t explain what happened in London last week. I suspect there will be many explanations. Many, because it is most-likely multi-factorial but also we because finding out will be hard, leading to a range of competing explanations. Right now, I’m feeling my roots as a fourth generation Londoner quite strongly, but I want to stress that I feel these roots as a large set of stories; ones that reflect ongoing, shifting problems as well as ongoing, shifting delights. For all that people might try to impose binaries of class, race or age to comprehend these recent riots, I sincerely doubt it is as simple and them and us. If it is, what the hell would that say about ‘us’?

Note: I haven’t given credits for any of the photos in this post, but they are all by me. They are also deliberately a bit disconnected, taken all around the city at different times. Click on them to see their flickr page with notes on location, etc.