For my N post I mentioned a road in London, Exhibition Road, that has three national museums situated on it. Today, it is the turn of the Science Museum, which is half way down the street. This is probably my most personal post because many years ago as a student I spent a year working in the museum’s library, which was actually located in the neighbouring Imperial College. The library has gone, in 2014 it was moved to a facility in Swindon, a former RAF base. Storage is a big issue for museums.
The Science Museum’s collection began with the Great Exhibition. When it was dismantled, the left over objects formed the foundations of the museum in 1857, including an arts collection. The Museum of Patents had an extraordinary collection of objects too, and in 1883 this was moved to the South Kensington Museum (now the location of the V&A), and renamed the Science Museum. Eventually the arts part was split off and became the V&A.
After WW1 the museum was gradually opened to the public in its present building, including the innovative children’s gallery which opened in 1931 – lots of hands on fun. Finally arrived the Wellcome Gallery with its vast collection of medical objects which was accumulated by entrepreneur Henry Wellcome. At the time I worked in the museum less than 10% of the Wellcome’s collection was publicly exhibited.
In the main museum there are plenty of famous objects and new ones including a reconstruction of DNA, Apollo Ten’s command module, Charles Babbage’s difference engine (a reconstruction from his notes since it was actually never built), and the oldest surviving James Watt Beam engine. There’s a definite industrial theme to the Science Museum.
But that isn’t all of it. As museums have evolved, the balance between displaying artefacts and providing interactive dispalys for the visitors has shifted. The children’s galley has gone, but there is a Wonderlab instead. While I was at the museum, the astronomy instruments collection was removed and replaced with a largely hands on educational exhibition on food. Very few historical objects featured.
What happened to the displaced ones? They went in storage, along with thousands of other things hidden away. The Science Museum, British Museum and V&A for years used Blythe House, a former Post Office savings bank, to store its stuff. Many objects were left in crates, just like that final scene in the first Indiana Jones movie. Much of the Wellcome collection was housed there, and still largely unopened when I visited. I saw a room full of dental chairs, cupboards of pestle and mortars, box after box, laid out on carefully demarcated areas to avoid overburdening the floor capacity.
In use from 1979 to 2019, this facility, which was never intended to store museum objects, was finally abandoned and the objects were moved to the National Collections Centre in Swindon, joining the library books. 170,000 items are not on display. And this is just one national museum’s leftovers. It’s hoped that a display area will be created at this site, along with conservation labs and research facilities. I’ll never forget seeing at Blyth House room after room of crates. As for the astrolabes and astronomical equipment displaced by the food gallery, they were, at the time, put in a display cabinet in Blthye House, and if you were an expert in the field, you could request a private appointment to view them.
The debate continues about education and exhibiting. Should museums push more historical artefacts into storage and create interactive displays that interpret? More audiovisuals, 3-D exhibits, working models? Not an easy question to answer. I mean who would want to see a roomful of dental chairs?
Reflecting Britain’s longstanding involvement in science and industrial engineering, there are plenty of sciences museums across the country covering all kinds of specialisms too, from the National Space Centre, Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum, Catalyst Museum (chemical engineering), Jodrell Bank (astronomy), Glasgow Science Centre, and the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. So you don’t have to make that trip to Exhibition Road…