Science Museum – the problem of storage

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…

14 comments

  1. I think there is a place for both historical objects and hands on exhibits. The best hands on exhibits are certainly very educational. Sometimes though it is good to look at an original object and contemplate the state of science at the time. A procession of dentist chairs is probably not inspiring.

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    1. It is a balancing act between objects and education, and I suspect museums will be criticised whichever way they go.
      The dental chairs were not inspiring. One was sufficient!

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  2. I first met automatic taps at the Science Museum. It ‘s surprising how many people are still flummoxed by them at motorway services!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find myself waving my hands around in hope of triggering something. It’s the ones that drain into trough that I find strange, like I’m a farm animal!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve always loved the Science Museum. It’s almost like an educational toy shop for kids and grown-ups alike!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re allowed to be a kid again when you visit a science museum.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I can fully recommend the Glasgow Science Centre (just across the way from my work) – a great and educational day out!

    THE STATE TRILOGY A-Z GUIDE: S

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  5. Wendy Janes · · Reply

    Used to love visiting the Science Museum with my sons when they were little. They particularly enjoyed the interactive bit for kids. I think it was called Launchpad at that time. Elsewhere in the agriculture section we’d stand for ages in front of a glass cabinet that had a plough going round and round making different patterns in sand.

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    1. I remember the launch pad and the original children’s gallery, but I don’t think I’ve seen the wonderlab. I must go back and take my kids, show them where I worked. There’s so much new to see.

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  6. Ideally the exhibits are revolved showing everything. My preference would be separate buildings for the hands-on activities, where patrons can do one, the other, or both. If they have so many of these things, like libraries have inter-library loans, maybe they could have a collaborative loaning program?

    My “S” Jethro Tull song for the day:

    A2Z 2021 Jethro Tull Songs Day 19 Steel Monkey, from Crest of a Knave (1987)

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    1. It used to be the hands on areas were hidden in the basement of buildings, where the kids could be all noisy and the adults quietly viewing the objects upstairs. Now days the whole museum is about entertaining the kids. I do miss the quiet contemplation of just viewing objects.

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      1. I can see where you’re coming from on this. The kids don’t care where they have their fun, and the adults need the space for the quiet contemplation.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Hands-on and interactive stuff can be great, but I hate it when museums have rooms full of screens showing videos or computer “games.” After all, they could post those to a web site and people could do them from anywhere. When I go to a museum I want to see the unique original things, in person, that cannot be seen anywhere else.
    Black and White: S for Shangri-La

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    1. A bit of hands on is useful here and there to distract the kids while grown ups look at the real objects.

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