Tag Archives: museums

Confiscation Cabinets at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

children's weaponsA Rubik’s cube remade as a weapon. This post first appeared on New Left Project.

Confiscation Cabinets – a new exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood by artist Guy Tarrant – shows a series of artefacts confiscated by the artist from schoolkids, while he was working as a teacher.

The objects include homemade games, toys, adornments, weapons and keepsakes from 150 different London primary and secondary schools amassed over the last three decades. A preview I’d seen of it suggested the exhibition was largely about old toys, a trip down memory lane sort of exhibit. But it’s far from that. You can see products like that in the main galleries anyway. What makes this exhibition different is that they are artefacts of confiscation; objects which show the bits of contemporary urban childhood which are much less marketable.

So, after the plastic spiders, friendship bracelets, yo-yos, hairbands, tennis ball and a headless Mr T doll were largely paper-based hand-made items which were in some ways deeply ephemeral but really brought out the sheer boredom of a lot of school. Paper planes, rubber-band balls, notes kids have passed each other (one heartbreakingly, “Sarah, do you like me? Yes or No” with the “No” box very clearly ticked), a magnificently chewed biro and an entire hand-drawn pack of cards.

And then we get to the weapons. Because childhood can be really, really shit and kids arm themselves, sometimes very resourcefully. There was a glue spreader impressively sharpened to a point, an axe made from a stick and a bit of flint, the old breath freshener and lighter turned flame thrower trick, some olbas oil that had been used in an eye attack (and caused a child to be hospitalised), some computer mouse balls stripped down to act as missiles and a toilet handle fashioned into a knuckle duster. Also ingeniously weaponised were also pieces of a shopping trolly, one of those hanging handgrips there used to be on tubes (with the ball at the end), a taped up table leg, a door knob and a fire extinguisher pull. And some bullets. The most inventive was probably the deconstructed Rubik’s cube which had been turned into a missile.

Overall the exhibition was quite unsettling. But in a realistic way. It’s not an image of London childhood I always like to remember, but it was one I still recognised.

Confiscation Cabinets. 9 November 2013 – 1 June 2014. Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA. 10.00 to 17.45 daily Closed 24-26 December and 1 January. Free.

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.

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).

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.


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


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?

Happy birthday Frank Oppenheimer!

The conservation of angular momentum at the Deutsches Museum

The conservation of angular momentum being demonstrated at the Deutsches Museum, 1926.

I’ve written about Frank Oppenheimer before, but as today marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, I thought he was worth mentioning again.

Frank Oppenheimer had a fascinating life. I highly recommend KC Cole’s biography of him. The short version is that he was born into a reasonably wealthy American family and followed big brother J Robert (of Manhattan Project fame) into physics. Frank stood next to Robert when the atom bomb was first tested. After the war, however, Frank ended up being black-balled from academic research due to his brief membership of the Communist Party in the 1930s. I’ve read rumours that this was because of how sensitive his brother’s work was to the energy industry but only rumours, I’ve never seen anything strong on that. So Frank sold an old painting of his Dad’s and ran a cattle ranch instead. How’s that for alternative postdoc careers? When a vacancy for a science teacher opened at the local high school a few years later, he tried his hand at education. He sounds like a fun teacher, starting lessons with trips to the local dump to collect bits of old machines to use in demonstrations of thermodynamics. He also developed a large library of teaching resources to share with other teachers or students. His reputation spread and he ended up being invited back to teach at the local university. In 1965, he secured a fellowship to do some research at UCL and, while he was there, visited several of the major European science museums. These inspired him to set up something similar, but more informal, when he got home. This became San Francisco’s Exploratorium, opened in 1969.

As the Exploratorium website puts it, they broke the science museum mold. It was more science by way of the local dump than the rarified archive of the Patent Museum and Great Exhibition which set the basis of the London Science Museum collection. Many exhibits were put together from old bits of scientific equipment Oppenheimer had talked contacts at NASA and Stanford into donating. There is a lovely story that someone spotted new traffic lights in the street outside, so they asked the company that manufactured the lights to donate the old ones and that became an early optics exhibit. From the start, the Exploratorium was built on a very scientific commitment to the sharing of knowledge and continuous development as well as reasonably artistic sense of playful reinterpretation. As their website puts it, the exhibits are never “done”. Maybe I’ve read too much sociology, but this image of slightly messy, opportunistic, networked and tinkered-with science seems like quite an appropriate exposition of 20th century research. There was also a strong commitment to openness. Their workshops were set in the centre of the museum, with windows so visitors could see the exhibits being developed and fixed. Most importantly, perhaps, they shared instructions of how to make their exhibits with other institutions through training networks and a set of “Cookbooks“. It’s all a bit open source.

Their ideas spread far and wide, and Exploratorium exhibits have been made and remade around the world. I once stumbled across a sort of pop up Exploratorium in a subway tunnel in Brussels which included exhibits made by schoolchildren. Exhibitions have been developed and localised as they moved. I remember a “thong-a-phone” exhibit from a science museum in Brisbane I worked in for a bit in 2001, which I’m guessing would have a different name in the UK or USA (it was a musical instrument you played by hitting pipes with what Australians call thongs but I’d call a flip-flop). They all also drew on a longer history than just the Exploratorium. The Science Museum’s Children’s Galleries, opened in 1931, sits firmly in this history, as do books and shows by characters such as John Henry Pepper.  The picture at the top of this post is of staff at the Deutsches Museum in 1926 demonstrating an exhibit which looks very like a common Cookbook exhibit on the conservation of anular momentum. I think the idea for “Explainers” to staff the gallies came from France, but today there are a huge range of different Explainer-like programmes all over the world.

In terms of the UK, it’s worth stressing the role of Anthony Wilson in the early development of the Launch Pad gallery in London’s Science Museum and Richard Gregory in Bristol as well as some of the hands-on exhibits at the Natural History Museum. Those are just a couple of names I could mention though, lots of other people have had a role all over the place, as the field has grown with a culture of continuous development which was facilitated by, but not in any way limited to or even originated with, the Exploratorium approach. Moreover, whatever the hardware, these exhibits would be constantly re-interpreted by staff and visitors. If I learnt anything from my time as an Explainer, it was that you couldn’t know how someone would interpret an exhibit. Reading kids’ letters to the Explainers was especially illuminating (sometimes outright puzzling). Science centres are about interaction, and are themselves a consequence of such interaction too.

So, Happy Birthday Frank Oppenheimer! You old (sorta) commie, you helped make something lovely. The power of the Exploratorium has arguably been due to communication between people and things, not individuals. Still, Dr O had key role. As his museum readies itself for a move next Spring, I hope the story of Frank’s interesting scientific career keeps on being told and his legacy continues to be redeveloped and remade across the world.

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.

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road…

There’s a nuclear missile on the roof above a vintage clothes shop on the Holloway Road. You have to look carefully, but it’s there. It’s that egg-like object in the photo above. Or at least that’s the top of it, the red thing next to it is the base.

No, it’s nothing to do with our upcoming sports extravaganza. It’s been there for years. It’s also bloody heavy, though it’s well over a decade since I handled the thing. It’s not a real nuclear missile. It’s a model. It belongs to CND, whose offices are also above said vintage clothes shop. They have an inflatable one these days, but the “missile” used to tour round the country every summer as a way of taking military technology to the people. Or at least it took a talking point for discussing such objects, in absence of the real thing. It’s not like the MoD are going to let CND play with an actual one.

The Holloway Road missile is only one in a cast of mockups of technological or natural objects used by campaigners. There was the whale the World Wildlife Fund drove down the Thames in February, or Greenpeace’s “polar bears” that sprung up in cities across the world last week. I walked by some orangoutangs outside on Tottenham Court Rd a few weeks ago too, protesting about deforestation. Environmental activist orangoutangs, it turns out, wear sandals (it was really hot that day). My favourite is probably Water Aid’s giant river crafted from 100s of blue squares posted by an international network of knitters; a wooly petition which ended up draped over the National Theatre.

Those are all clear, explicit fakes. They’re not mermen. They’re not designed to con. They are not even trick-then-reveal projects like the Yes Men Arctic Ready site or the OFT fat melting pads. Such overt fabrications are openly designed to expose those bits of the world which are too far away, too dangerous, too secret or too unruly to be experienced directly by most of us. They’re a moment of spectacular, a slight subversion of the world designed to draw attention and inspire learning or action. They are falsehoods in a way, but there to express something people feel very strongly is important and true. They bring a bit of reality to us by being unreal.

It’s not just activists who engage in such subverted realism. It’s a quite routine part of the public communication of science, technology and the environment. Metaphor or analogy in text, CGI or filming “under controlled conditions” for a documentary. I think museums provide the best examples though. Museums of science and technology often have to find inventive ways to fit the large, dangerous or simply abstract things they curate into a glass case: Einstein’s chalkboard, Galileo’s finger, Florence Nightengale’s moccasins, models of boats, a bowl from Hiroshima. My favourite example of this has to be the Science Museum’s DNA model. They wanted to display the model from the iconic 1953 Watson and Crick picture. Except the people in the lab had taken the model apart to reuse after the photo was staged. The museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a mockup, albeit an official one, unveiled by Watson himself, but a mockup nonetheless.

When it comes to the bits of the world natural history museums want to encase, once living things are often pickled, stuffed or rebuilt from fossils (though they model too, from the Crystal Palace dinosaurs to modern animatronic models or IMAX movies) . With the recent death of “Lonesome George” the Galapagos giant tortoise, there’s been some interesting debate over what to do with his body. Henry Nicholls argues we shouldn’t stuff George, writing a thoughtful piece about the politics of preserving other iconic animals (though I wondered why he didn’t mention Jeremy Bentham). In contrast, Paolo Viscardi stresses museums’ role as research institutions as well as public communication, saying George should be preserved for science. Both pieces are worth reading. Incidentally, Viscardi works at the Horinman, which is where the merman I linked to earlier resides, and also contains the most amazing inaccurately overstuffed Walrus (one of the many museum exhibits which tweet a form of post-mortem anthropomorphic existence). I can also recommend this piece by Phillip Hoare on how to remember the whale that died in the Thames a few years ago, or the Brown Dog statue in Battersea‘s worth a visit.

I’m rambling. My point is that we all do a lot of fictional work to have non-fictional discussion and fabricate things in order to debate things we hold as truths. It’s normal, it’s necessary and to think otherwise is just a bit limiting. The trick is to consider which bit of reality we want to communicate, and stay as true to that as you can.

If anyone has any other examples of fabricated, refashioned or reconstructed aspects of science, technology or the natural world used for public communication, I’d love to hear them. Bet there’s loads of ageing science props hidden in store cupboards of museums, NGOs, schools and film studios the world over.

“Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

The Big Bang Fair, a big science and engineering event for schoolkids was held in Birmingham last month. Led by Engineering UK and supported by various government departments, charities, learned societies and businesses, it’s an annual event that’s been going for a while. They seem to have taken down the list of 2012 sponsors, but you can see a list of the 2011 ones in this leaflet (pdf), which included BAE Systems, Shell, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.

Seeing as some of these firms are perhaps only too expert in making extremely big bangs, it’s upset a few people. Check out the BAE wikipedia entry, ‘products’ subheading if you don’t get why.

Anne Schulthess from CND happened to be at another education show in Birmingham that week and spotting the Big Bang, dropped in. She shared some photos, noting “basically it’s the arms fair for children. With a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. Back in 2009, Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade condemned BAE’s role in the event (SGR/CAAT press release, reproduced on my old blog). I’d be tempted to suggest one of these groups try to set up a stall at the fair next year but even if Engineering UK let them, the £20,000 to £100,000 pricetag might well be out of the budget of a small NGO.

Industrial involvement in science education is nothing new. Take, for example, these adverts I found in some old copies of the National Association for Environmental Education’s magazine (c. 1978):

The Science Museum have a fair bit of history here: from the BNFL sponsored atomic gallery in the 1980s to Shell sponsorship of their climate gallery in 2010 (see also this 2008 freedom of information request on Shell and BP funding). I used to work on their Energy gallery, and it’d be depressing to watch visitors clock the BP logo, laugh and walk away.

I worry when I see reports that the Smithsonian were so pleased to have secured a sponsor that was ok with the idea of evolution that they let a bit of not very scientific attitude to climate change in (e.g. see ThinkProgress, 2010). I also worry when I hear about teaching resources designed to stress the uncertainty of climate change (e.g. see Guardian, 2012). I can see why groups like Liberate Tate focus on the corporate sponsorship of art and Greenpeace scale the National Gallery, but I worry slightly more about the involvement of the oil industry in exhibitions where their work is an actual topic in the content.

We should be careful of simply assuming corporate sponsorship means they have influence on content. Science Museum staff claim editorial independence from any of their sponsors. Just as, I noticed, the Guardian stresses Greenpeace had no say over editorial content of John Vidal’s report on industrial fishing in West Africa, even though the NGO paid his travel costs to Senegal. We should also recognise that there is a lot of scientific expertise in industry, just as Greenpeace give Vidal access to places he wouldn’t otherwise see. Science isn’t just a matter of what goes on in ivory towers, so perhaps it’s only right that such groups involved. Plus, seeing as people don’t seem to want to pay fees or taxes for publicly funded science communication, maybe it’s only sensible the Science Museum et al ask groups who’ve made a lot of money out of science and technology give something back. We can’t just rely on moneybags of the Wellcome Trust (which has its own complex economic history anyway).

As I’ve argued before, if businesses are going to have involvement in science education, I want to see what they think, warts and all. If groups like the Science Museum really have editorial control, they should take industrial sponsorship only if the company involved will also (a) give them their expertise, and (b) be happy for said expertise to be put under some scrutiny. Rather than retreat behind claims to scientific objectivity, science communication should wear it’s political fights on its sleeve, show science’s various institutional connections for what they really are. These sorts of debates are part of science in society and should be offered up and opened up for broader public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny.

I’ve worked with a load of instituions in science communication, from Girl Guiding UK to the Royal Society, with a fair bit of industrial sponsorship thrown in at times too. This included stints at CND, Mind and the Science Museum while I was still in my teens. For that reason, I don’t think we should be scared about opening up debate on the politics of science at educational events aimed at schoolkids like the Big Bang Fair. I coped with these issues and think others can too. We should show them BAE, but make sure they get a group like SGR along to help offer other sides too. We should trust young people more when it comes to the messiness of science in society.


As it’s Easter Sunday and friends and family are at Church, I dug out a piece on the idea of an atheist temple I wrote it for Comment Is Free belief a few months back (but got bumped by coverage of women Bishops). The photos are of the Occupy Camp by St Pauls before it was disbanded earlier this year.

Several eyes rolled at Alain de Botton’s suggestion of a ‘temple to atheism’. For me, it was the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of a church near where the temple might be built, who put her finger on the problem. Rumens worries that the sense of awe de Botton wants to invoke is not enough. Indeed, it might alienate people, make them feel insignificant even. A temple needs to be welcoming.

This is a concern we can apply to de Botton’s temple, but could be extended to anything trying to invoke a bit of awe: be it a popular science book, painting, train station or shopping centre. The politics depend on what you are asked to be in awe of. A God or a Bishop is different from a galaxy, a glacier, a spaceship or a giant tree. Awe of scientists, engineers or explorers who make and uncover our world is different again. There is always a politics though. Awe can make people feel slightly rubbish in comparison, and I don’t think that’s a nice thing to do to someone.

London’s Natural History Museum – an iconic “Cathedral to Nature” established in 1881 – provides a neat case study. Being in awe of nature itself is, perhaps, no bad thing. Perhaps we should feel an emotional connection with nature. Especially in the context of climate change, maybe we should appreciate nature’s beauty more and feel increasingly scared by it too. But the NHM doesn’t just showcase nature; it is a celebration of human understanding too, from statues of dead scientists to the fishbowl-like Darwin Centre, where glass walled laboratories mean you can watch live ones going about their work. These people, what they know and continue to reveal about our world, impress me. But I don’t want to be cowed by them.

There’s a difference between a temple that invites you to gasp open-mouthed, and one that invites you in for a cup of tea. I was talking to a friend recently about how the Occupy camp has changed the way we feel about St Paul’s. It used to be just another posh building on the skyline. Now it feels newly iconic in a way we feel a connection to. It’s not just for people in history books, or those with the religion or cash we lack. Now we feel we can drop by the space around the Cathedral, if not the site itself, for a chat. The first time I ever understood why people construct large religious buildings was a schooltrip to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. It’s a space of such grand, eye-watering beauty it’s hard not to feel humbled. It is also, importantly, a very welcoming and human space, perhaps because it was built by the local community and a sense of personal connection is so clear.

At its best, the NHM asks the public not just to be entranced and educated, but join in. It invites us to gawp at our world and gain perspective by tracing both the Earth’s history and our scientific understanding of it, but it also invites us to join an ongoing social activity of learning more. The NHM, for all its impressive halls and awesome dinosaurs, can also be humble and listen. Projects like Open Air Laboratories offer science to be part of.

If de Botton wants to build a temple to atheism, good luck to him. I just hope it’s a place where a diversity of people feel able to work together to discuss options for a shared future, not simply sit in awe of a world they’ve been given. At their best, religious sites provide this. I’d hope any atheist one would too.

Sue the TRex lipbalm

This was originally posted on our student blog, Refractive Index.

This is a picture of some Sue the TRex lipbalm, on sale at the gift shop at the Chicago’s Field Museum. Behind it is the eponymous Sue: the largest, most complete, best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world.

lipbalm: Sue

If you look carefully, you’ll see a sign saying the museum’s purchase of the fossil was made possible by a donation from McDonald’s. Disney helped too with the $8.36 million it cost (great book on this). I’m posting it because I think that the lipbalm and Sue itself are nice examples of the ways in which museum exhibits are more than just exhibits in a museum, but belong to a broader set of intersecting cultures, including consumer culture, and the ways in which we construct as well as reconstruct them.

Putting dinosaurs aside for a moment, I’ve always found the idea of a science museum a bit weird, especially when you try to display the physical sciences and technology. What makes a lot of science amazing enough to want to display is often what also makes it either hard or simply plain boring to put in a glass case. Newton’s 3rd law of motion is so exciting because it is so applicable. Material cultures are part of a story of Newton, but they aren’t necessarily the top-line. Similarly, the chemistry and engineering of a ball point pen is pretty interesting, as is the personal history of the Biro brothers, but what makes the humble biro quite so iconic is how humble it is. We don’t have to go to Exhibition Road to see one, we already have one in our pocket. As a consequence, museums of science and industry often have to find ways to manufacture their exhibits, or at least add a sense of theatre to them. It’s the push button side of the science museum experience, and part of the long-standing role artists, designers, writers, film-makers and game-producers have had in the production of exhibits, not just displaying of them.

Museum-made exhibits like these have been around a while now, and I love the way in which these models have become part of the history of science. The Science Museum has a fair number of its old models in store, I remember stumbling across a load when I got to on a tour of Blythe House (a study of them would make a great PhD). My favourite example of this is the push-button door in the Science Museum‘s basement. I’ve seen lovely pictures of kids from the 1950s starring in amazement at this door which OPENED FOR YOU IF YOU PRESS A BUTTON. Today, kids walk up to it expectantly, amazed when they realise they AND YOU HAVE TO PRESS A BUTTON?! The exhibit has never moved physically, but the world around it shifted so it’s gone from being one of the museum’s “geez whizz look at the future” pieces to historical artifact.

Museums of science also find odd ways to turn abstract ideas into something to display in a classic glass case. Einstein’s chalkboard at the Museum for the History of Science in Oxford is a lovely example, as is the relic-like display of Galileo’s finger in Florence, but my favourite is London’s DNA model. You know, that iconic picture of Watson and Crick with their model of DNA? The Science Museum wanted to put the model on display. Except the people in Watson and Crick’s lab had, quite understandably, taken the model apart to reuse not longer after the photo was staged. So, the museum dug out the old pieces from the back of a cupboard, dusted them down and rebuilt the model. It is a reconstruction. The museum are honest about this (if you read the sign), for all that they also nod to a sense of authenticity with a sign saying Watson unveiled it and it was made from the same pieces as the one in the picture.

The Diplodocus in the main hall at the London Natural History Museum is a reconstruction too. The original is in Pittsburgh. It has a fascinating history in itself  though, I don’t think that because it’s a cast it’s any less interesting, just differently so. On the subject of iconic exhibits at the NHM, there’s also the lovely story about the distillery built inside the giant whale, which I guess says something more about the role and use of these exhibits within specific cultures. I think it’s an urban myth, though wikipedia says there is a trap door inside it the workmen used for fag breaks (you have to buy me a drink before I tell any more stories of museum staff ‘tinkering’ with exhibits).

Back to the TRex lipbalm: I find the manufacture of science not only for display on gallery, but then for sale in the museum shop fascinating too. It reflects not only the cultural appeal of scientific ideas and work, but also the ways iconic science museum exhibits have their own cultural currency.  Books, toys, postcards, pencils, glow in the dark periodic table tshirts, dinosaur soft toys, science themed ties… The Mütter Museum sells conjoined twin gingerbread men cookie cutters and the Franklin Institute have Ben Franklin ‘original nerd’ spectacles. Some of these products sell a nod to the collection of the museum (postcards, logos on a pencil) some sell a promise of connection with the scientific profession (how to kits, books). I bet the the Science Museum has an archive of its shop somewhere, which’d be another treasure trove of material for a PhD.

science ties

Science and craft

Mendel's peas
Mendel’s pea, by some of last year’s science communication MSc students

There seems to be more and more events happening which I can only describe as science-craft. I thought I’d write about it, and did a post for the Guardian Science blog.

There are overlaps here with sci-art projects, just as there are overlaps (sometimes problematic ones) between arts and crafts more generally. However, I think science craft events have the potential to involve new and different communities which sci-art doesn’t necessary reach, and to be more participatory in their whole project set up too.

There is the question of what you participate for exactly: what are you making? At danger of repeating myself, science communication isn’t all about baking a cake shaped like a neuron. In particular, I worry that the fluffier ends of sci-craft might act as a distraction from the production of more politically controversial outcomes.

Still, we shouldn’t loose sight of the use of these more playful products too. Or rather, we shouldn’t ignore the power of the social interactions which surround their production. My knitting friends often laugh at me for being a ‘process knitter’. I’ll happily take a piece apart and re-knit it, several times. Finishing is nice. But, for me, the fun’s in the doing. Similarly, I suspect much of the worth of public engagement happens in the process rather than the outcome. The various collaborative processes often involved in crafting can provide a space for people to talk through and think through ideas together. As I end the piece for the Guardian:

At a knitting evening held at Hunterian Museum a few years back, I ended up sitting next to a homeopath. As well as swapping tips on the best way to bind off for socks, we discussed our own research projects, including the ways in which they might be seen to clash, and some of the items of the history of surgery that surrounded us. Other people listened and joined in, before we all moved on to complaining about estate agents. It was polite, humorous and thoughtful. It was also pleasingly mundane; something that we’d all do well to remember a lot of science is.

To give another example, I spotted this video of a neuroscientist, Zarinah Agnew,  making a giant sandcastle. She told me she wants to do it again, but as a workshop rather than a film. I like this idea, because the time spent making the sandcastle allows space for social interaction which simply watching the film might inspire, but won’t necessarily do in itself.

Not all public engagement can or should have an obvious political or scientific outcome. Whether you want to open up the governance of science or increase the public understanding of science, you are unlikely to get anywhere without quite a bit of cultural change first. Playing with a bit of yarn might seem unambitious, but arguably the social interaction and reflection that comes with it can help us get there. Or this social interaction might lead us somewhere else entirely.