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London, City of Science 1550-1800, the new gallery at the Science Museum. This is a guest review by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon.

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From Holland Park to Tower Hamlets you cannot go far in London without crossing the path of a notable scientist or passing a place where an important innovation or experiment was made. The Science Museum in South Kensington has long been full of Londony objects, although even London Historians might be forgiven for not realising that.

When I visited recently, the Museum plans, signage and maps had yet to catch up with the opening of the new permanent addition, the ‘Science City 1550-1800’ gallery which is all about London. The new gallery, opposite the not-quite-so-new Clockmakers’ Museum (which relocated here from the Guildhall if you have not kept up with things) is on the second floor. It is, in part, a new and roomier setting for an old friend, the George III collection of scientific instruments, which has returned after a world tour of a couple of years or more. It is supplemented by some of the objects previously secreted in the archive of the Royal Society, rescued from the overflow store, or loaned from elsewhere.

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Astrolabe, check. Mural arc, check. Sextant, check. Orrery, check. The gallery has all the beautiful brass, copper, wood, enamel and (probably) ebony artifacts that you would expect. Though, if you are a stranger to the astrolabe, you are unlikely to appreciate more than its engraving, after a visit here. And I’m afraid I cannot do much to enlighten you either. (I once asked at the Oxford science museum how an astrolabe worked, and I clearly did not look intelligent enough to be granted an answer – though they were quite nice about it.) Now, I am not normally a fan of videos in museums. But here is one that is absolutely appropriate, and worth your time. It shows for a few minutes some of the craft that goes (went) into making these things – gears, mirrors, glass vessels and globes. (By the way, one of the segments was filmed at the Clockworks, West Norwood which is often a participant in Open House in September.)

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In the near future the Science Museum is going to open a temporary exhibition on The Art of Innovation. But it has always been quite possible to treat the Science Museum as a refreshingly different and eclectic art gallery. City of Science continues that strand. There is a portrait of Georgian aeronaut Mrs Letitia Sage, and a view of old Westminster Bridge being constructed with the aid of pile driver developed by (Huguenot?) James Valoue. Bibliophiles will be pleased to glimpse early editions of great works by John Evelyn and Robert Hooke.

And now, welcome to geeks corner. With the opening of this gallery, the Science Museum can boast two different dividing engines on display in different rooms! Just so you know, it’s a kitchen range sized rotating table for marking an accurate scale on a sextant or theodolite. (The one by Troughton long displayed downstairs is the one to see.) However, it was seeing a surveying chain made by celebrated instrument maker Jesse Ramsden and a piece of St Paul’s Cathedral’s original lightning conductor where I found my goosepimples pleasurably elevated. But that might not be the effect on everyone!

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What is in the gallery is admirable. But ‘science’ is a misnomer, and an oversimplification. This is a physical science and technology museum. This gallery offers an informative but blinkered view of science over the period in question. Here, you would not guess that there were advances during this period by Londoners unconnected with, or even disdained by, the Royal Society. Also, physiology (William Harvey?) and natural history (Hans Sloane?) are scarcely represented but for Robert Hooke’s magnified louse and other drawings. But the Natural History Museum is next door.

The unfortunate thing about the Science Museum (and any science museum) is that exhibits which are not pure art may be difficult to enjoy from a standing start. In this case, it may be worth glancing at Wikipedia to refresh your memory on the subject of the Royal Society and its early great names before you visit. Even when such care has been taken over the captions, it would aid understanding to have someone next to you getting excited at times, or making a connection with something more familiar – I think. Science City 1550-1800 is an attractive gallery. I hope it may whet the appetite of history enthusiasts to see more of the Science Museum, but note that it probably will not wow the average child for more than about a second.


Laurence Scales is a guide specialising in the history of science and technology in London, and a volunteer in the archives of both the Royal Institution and Royal Society of Arts. His tours cover the period from about 1550 to recent times.

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