The Science Museum holds the national collections in science, technology, industry and medicine. The huge size and range of the collections is best illustrated by the Museum’s flagship Making the Modern World gallery on the ground floor, where Stephenson’s Rocket locomotive, Crick and Watson’s DNA model and the Apollo 10 command module (on loan from the Smithsonian) are amongst the parade of ‘icons’ in the central aisle. For a more rewarding gallery visit, veer off the beaten track and browse the hundreds of objects in the gallery’s side aisles, which cover historical series and technology in everyday life.
Most visitors to the Museum, unsure where to start in such a large building, tend to congregate on the ground floor. It’s easy to spend an entire visit here, taking in the Energy Hall’s steam engines and James Watt’s workshop, and the Exploring Space gallery, featuring Britain’s Black Arrow launcher and a sample of moon rock. But there is much more to be found on the quieter upper floors. Amongst the hundreds of timepieces in Measuring Time (first floor) are fragments of a Byzantine sundial-calendar – the second-oldest surviving gearing known after the Antikythera Mechanism – and the Wells Cathedral Clock, still running after more than 600 years. On the second floor, History of Computing boasts part of Charles Babbage’s brain alongside the Museum’s reconstruction of his Difference Engine No. 2. On the third floor, highlights of the Flight gallery include Amy Johnson’s Jason 1 Gypsy Moth and Alcock and Brown’s Vickers Vimy, while Science in the 18th Century showcases King George III’s magnificent collection of scientific instruments and demonstration apparatus, next door to today’s scientific demonstrations in the ever-popular Launchpad. The fourth and fifth floors are dedicated to the Wellcome Museum of the History of Medicine and contain thousands of objects. (Note: the Wellcome Collection now has its own premises on Euston Road, but the collection remains in the care of the Science Museum by long-standing loan. It is so large and varied that there are more than enough objects to display at both venues).
It has often been said that the Science Museum serves a second function, as a museum of museology. Display styles span a range of museological trends, from the 1950s dioramas in the Agriculture gallery (first floor) via the 1980s tableaux of Glimpses of Medical History (fourth floor), to the recently-updated exhibitions on contemporary science in the Wellcome Wing, featuring extensive new media interpretation of genetics, climate change and the latest science news. The Museum is embarking on a new masterplan to redevelop the whole South Kensington site, so catch the older galleries while you still can. While the masterplan is being developed, permanent displays of the physical sciences are rather sparse, with those collections largely moved to storage. They can be viewed by appointment.
As with most large national museums, fewer than 10% of the Museum’s collections are on display at any given time, and the reserve collections are displayed in turn via a series of special exhibitions. As of 2012 these include exhibitions on Alan Turing (entrance hall mezzanine), alchemy (second floor), and astronomy (first floor). A series of interventions throughout the Museum re-examines the displays through the lens of climate change, and a regular programme of contemporary art exhibitions and events provide alternative takes on the themes explored by the main collections.
Peter J.T. Morris (ed.), Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
There are no “two cultures” in this place of national remembrance-scientists and other celebrities are memorialised side-by-side. Isaac Newton’s tomb is one of the grandest in the Abbey. Lord Kelvin is buried at his side and also has a huge window in his honour. Altogether about 30 scientists are represented. Some, like Newton and Kelvin, were actually buried here; others have memorials in the Abbey but are buried elsewhere. One scientist, geologist William Buckland (memorial in the South Aisle), was actually Dean of Westminster from 1845 to 1856. Few of the memorials attempt an account of the basis for honourable recognition. James Prescorr Joule is an exception, described as “establishing the Law of the Conservation of Energy,” and Charles Lyell is another, cited for “deciphering the fragmentary records of the earth’s history.”
Some Abbey funerals are noteworthy. Irish Archbishop James Ussher, not a scientist by modern standards, perhaps, but judged to be one in his time, was buried here in 1656 (in the Chapel of St. Paul). It was the time of the Puritan Commonwealth, but Oliver Cromwell ordered that the Anglican funeral service, then normally forbidden, should be used in deference to Ussher’s status. Newton’s funeral in 1727 was attended by Voltaire and has been described by him-the body lay in state in the Jerusalem Chamber (public access through the Deanery) and was followed to its grave by all of the Fellows of the Royal Society. The 1912 funeral service for surgeon Lord Lister (memorial in the North Choir aisle) has been described by Sir William Osler-the Abbey was packed to the door with nurses, students, and doctors, and there were reserved seats for representatives from all over Europe. We know of no scientist who was refused admission, as Lord Byron was when his funeral cortège reached the door in 1824-poetic genius eventually won out over moral objections, and a memorial was erected for him in 1969.
The Royal Institution is famous for its unique public lectures, its chemical and physical researches, and, above all, as the home and laboratory of Michael Faraday. The Faraday Museum (in the basement) includes Faraday’s magnetic laboratory, restored to its original size and condition, and all manner of Faraday apparatus. Especially prominent is the giant electromagnet that Faraday built to demonstrate the weak diamagnetism of substances previously thought to be non-magnetic. An upstairs gallery displays equipment used by other institute scientists, such as Humphry Davy. The lecture hall and paintings of famous lecturers in action are regrettably in parts of the institute not open to the public.
Statue of Michael Faraday at Royal Institution, by Michael Barton. Image used with author's permission.
A statue of Faraday stands in the entrance vestibule, at the foot of the staircase. It was commissioned by a group of public-spirited citizens (chaired by the Prince of Wales), who wanted to erect a suitable memorial in Westminster Abbey. But the family was adamant that no statue should exist in a church that Faraday would never have entered himself, and so it came to rest here at the Royal Institution. A small plaque was eventually placed in Westminster Abbey in 1931.
The creation of this society in 1807 was controversial, perceived by many as unwarranted intrusion on traditional turf of the Royal Society. It has an intriguing meeting room with opposing benches, as in the House of Commons, rather than the standard auditorium structure – quite appropriate in view of the many huge professional arguments that have taken place here. There is a bust of Charles Lyell in the library and pictures of other famous geologists hang on the walls. One painting on the staircase is a depiction of some of the principal figures in the Piltdown case in the process of examining the famous skull. This building is not open to the general public, but anyone with even a remote professional interest can walk in and at least see the library.
The original meeting place for the Royal Society was at Gresham College (destroyed in the great fire of 1666). It has, subsequently, had a number of homes: Arundel House in the Strand, a building on Crane Court (off Fleet Street), then Burlington House off Piccadilly, and now on Carlton House Terrace, above “The Mall” leading out from Buckingham Palace. The Crane Court house was used during Newton’s presidency. On May 2,1715, Newton, Halley, and other notable figures observed a total eclipse of the sun from the roof of the building. The time of the eclipse had been accurately predicted by Halley. (Crane Court today is lined by law offices, but it retains the narrow seclusion of the days of yore. There is no plaque.)
This is one of greatest museums of the world, but mainly dedicated to the arts and civilizations of past ages.
One science-related item is the Rosetta stone, displayed in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery on the ground floor. It contains the trilingual text – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek – of a decree issued on the first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V, King of Egypt. The text, finely chiselled on a slab of black basalt, is still clearly legible except where the surface itself has been damaged. Posters mounted beside the stone give an account of its history and the Angle-French rivalry that was part of it. Officers of the French army made the discovery and recognized its importance, but the stone came to England as one of the spoils of war. Thomas Young, the great polymath of British science around 1800, vied with the Frenchman Jean Champollion in the decipherment of the hieroglyphics. Young was the first to recognize that some hieroglyphics were alphabetical characters in spite of their pictorial appearance. He published all his evidence for this conclusion, but Champollion stuck for some time with the more conventional view that they were all pictographs. Young, in turn, was wrong in many of his specific assignments and Champollion, eventually won over to the alphabetical theory, is credited with the definitive transliteration of the text. (However, it took a new bilingual text, discovered later in another place, to convince Champollion and set him off in the right direction-he never acknowledged Young’s priority for the basic underlying idea.)
Somewhat late in the summer of 1784, James Smithson embarked on his first scientific expedition. This “expedition” might have seemed a bit odd to a modern viewer—as it consisted of four gentlemen, with their servants, driving north from London in carriages—but in the 18th century science was often a gentleman’s pursuit and this was how gentlemen traveled.
Their goal was to explore the remote island of Staffa, off the Northwest coast of Scotland. Staffa had recently been visited by Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society in London, and his description of the island’s distinctive basalt columns and remarkable marine caves had captured both the popular and scientific imaginations of the time. In the 19th century Staffa would become a major tourist destination, but in 1784 Smithson’s party would have been one of the first scientific groups – and certainly the first mineralogists – to attempt the rigorous overland journey to see it.
The island of Staffa. In Smithson's time there was great disagreement about how an island like this could have been formed. Staffa has also inspired a range of artistic works over the years.
Smithson would later become famous for leaving his fortune to found the Smithsonian Institution in the United States. But at this time he was only 19 years old and fresh from his studies at Oxford. The driving force behind the expedition was Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond, a French geologist and mineralogist who planned to use the trip as field-work for a book on Scottish volcanoes. Smithson only learned about the expedition at the last minute from one of his professors, who urged him to join and provided letters of introduction. Smithson dropped everything and rushed to London, arriving just a few days before it departed.
The route Smithson’s group took to Staffa. Today's highways take essentially the same path.
The events he witnessed, the places he visited and the ideas he encountered propelled Smithson’s early scientific career and influenced much of his later scientific work. As a Smithsonian curator researching the science of James Smithson, I’ve spent much of the last year trying to unravel the story of what Smithson saw on this trip and what it would have meant to him. So much of the story is connected to the specific geology of Scotland and to Enlightenment-era Edinburgh that I came to realize the importance of seeing these places in person. And when I mentioned this idea to my intrepid volunteers Jeff Gorman and Frank Cole, it was not long before we all found ourselves on a unique vacation: following in the footsteps of James Smithson.
Averaging less than 20 miles a day, it took the expedition several weeks to reach Edinburgh (more than 300 miles from London), and for me this was their first important destination. This is where Smithson encountered the remarkable intellectual flowering now known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
We know that Smithson carried letters of introduction and that he met and later corresponded with the famous chemist Joseph Black. Black was noted for his use of the chemical balance and at the National Museum of Scotland we were able to see some of his actual instruments. Smithson wrote about carrying a balance “of Black’s design” when he traveled in Europe.
The Scottish National Museum's galleries about 18th century life provided a glimpse into the world Smithson explored.
Smithson arrived in Edinburgh at a very interesting time. The city was home to some of the most brilliant men in Europe and they all seem to have been close friends. Smithson was able to meet many of them and although the expedition could not linger more than a few days, he seems to have been strongly affected by the experience and returned for a second visit on his way back to London.
In particular he seems to have been impressed by James Hutton, now known as the father of geology. At the time of Smithson’s visit Hutton would have been just developing his revolutionary theories about underground heat and pressure, and we know that he was recruiting visiting scientists to send him rock samples. Hutton seems to have recruited our hero as well, as Smithson later tried to send him fossils. If Hutton spent any time with Smithson, one of the places he would have taken him was “Salisbury Crags” – an ancient lava flow that literally loomed over the back yard of his house.
The Salisbury Crags, near Hutton's home
This image was taken just a short distance from where Hutton lived, and it’s easy to see why his attention was drawn to this formation. In his time the hard basaltic stone at the top was being excavated for use as paving stones. As new material was exposed Hutton would study it for evidence of structures that could only have been formed by underground lava. To help us understand the unique geology of Edinburgh we arranged a geologic tour of the city, and this turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The Edinburgh area was shaped by ancient volcanoes and in Holyrood Park, in the center of the city, we were able to see some of the same formations that Hutton would have studied—and presumably shown Smithson.
On Salisbury Crags, in Holyrood Park, our geology guide Angus Miller points out what Hutton would have called an "unconformity" - a layer of sedimentary rock that has been injected with unground lava.
Edinburgh was the intellectual center of 18th century Scotland, but the expedition encountered a different side of the Enlightenment at the next place it lingered – Inveraray Castle. This was, and still is, the home of the Duke of Argyll, and Smithson’s group reached it only after a long, difficult journey up the west side of Loch Lomand and then overland to Loch Fyne. A modern highway now follows this same route and as we drove we were able to enjoy the rugged beauty of mountains and lochs. But we could imagine the challenge of getting carriages over muddy mountain roads and of finding food and lodging in the rain and dark. We could also imagine the joy of Smithson’s group when they finally reached the Castle.
With large windows and a decorative moat, this castle was never intended for military use, but served as an example of enlightened ideals and manners for this part of Scotland.
Located on the shore of Loch Fyne and situated at the base of a low mountain, the Castle remains today much as Smithson would have seen it. Much more a home than a fortress, the Castle was just being finished when they arrived. The Duke and Duchess were famous for their hospitality and refinement, and Faujas later reported that French was spoken at dinner and that French wines, tableware and manners were at all times employed.
Continuing the tradition of hospitality that Smithson experienced, the Duke of Argyll graciously welcomed us to his home.
For me, Inveraray Castle presents the romantic side of the Enlightenment. The artwork and tapestries, the elaborate gardens and hothouses, even the design of the Castle itself all express something of the idealization of nature and reason that characterized Smithson’s time. And there is also an underlying belief in progress and human improvement, which is an interesting connection to Smithson’s later founding of the Smithsonian.
Sculpture of Perseus and Andromeda by the Flemish sculptor Michael Van Der Voort, 1713.
Smithson almost certainly saw this work and one wonders how he would have understood it. Did he see, as many in his time would have, a metaphor of nature and the power of reason?
The expedition could only linger three days at Inveraray, although the Duke urged them to stay longer. They must have looked back fondly to this time during the subsequent days, because they now began the most difficult part of their journey.
The expedition now headed northwest to the fishing village of Oban, from which they would sail to the island of Mull and, from there, to Staffa. The road was the worst they had yet encountered and they were exhausted by the time they reached Oban.
Our own drive to Oban was much more pleasant and took only a few hours. We arrived in time to visit the local historical society and learn a bit about its’ history. Oban would have been a small fishing village when Smithson saw it, with a population of only about 600. It began to grow in the 1790s – partly due to interest in Staffa – and today is a pleasant community of about 8,500.
The launching point on Mull to Staffa
Today it’s an easy ferry ride from Oban to Mull, although for Smithson the 33 mile trip could have been daunting – it was the beginning of the stormy season. Once on Mull, Smithson’s group crossed to the west side of the island and the embarkation point for Staffa. They stayed at Torloisk, an estate the Duke had recommended, and from which (on a clear day) they could see Staffa. It took several days before the seas were calm enough to attempt to reach Staffa and even then Smithson reported a harrowing trip. He spent the night on the island, returning the next day with a cache of mineral samples and a genuine sense of accomplishment.
Our own expedition to Staffa was less successful. Modern tour boats leave Mull from the same spot that Smithson used, but on the days we were there the seas were too rough to venture out. The seas around Staffa are notoriously unpredictable—Smithson had to wait almost a week for good weather—but having gotten so close made me determined to come back and try again during another trip.
The Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead. The mine Smithson visited is now closed, but this one is in the same area and dates from the same period.
At the museum in Wanlockhead we were able go a short way into one of the original lead mines, which was an interesting experience. I was intrigued to learn that this area had both lead and zinc mines. Smithson wrote about the chemistry of both minerals and the zinc ore Smithsonite is named after him. Did his interest in these ores begin during this visit?
Smithson’s last stop before returning to London was to visit a salt mine in the Northwich area, southwest of Manchester. The underground salt deposits in Northwich have been worked since Roman times and the extraction of salt has led to a series of subsidences (or “fells”) throughout the area. Many of the lakes in Northwich are actually old salt mines that collapsed after the salt was removed.
The Trent and Mersey Canal. Finished in 1777, the canal was one of the first in England.
This was also our last stop, although the mine Smithson visited no longer exists. Instead we visited the Lion Salt Works in Marston which is one of the few remaining 19th century salt mines. It closed in the 1970s and is now in the process of being restored as an industrial museum. It used a “brine” method of extraction, which is different than the mine Smithson visited, but the site is adjacent to the Trent and Mersey Canal, which was completed just a few years before Smithson’s visit. The canal was built to facilitate shipping salt and, like so much of what Smithson saw on his trip, was what we now think of as the beginning of the British industrial revolution.
Smithson returned to London just over three months after he had left. His newfound reputation as an explorer opened doors for him, as did the large cache of mineral samples he brought back. Just 3 years later, in 1787, he was elected to the prestigious Royal Society, becoming its’ youngest member. Smithson’s scientific career had started.
Historians are more commonly found in libraries and archives than on road-trips, and I must admit to being a bit uncertain about how useful this trip would actually be. But having seen the places Smithson visited and having, in some ways, shared his experiences has proved immensely helpful as I try to piece his story together. In particular, the depth of his interest in geology has been a revelation and my research since returning has been largely devoted to exploring that topic.
Steven Turner is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Science. He’d like to express his appreciation for his “support group” on this trip: Jeff Gorman, Ginni Gorman, Frank Cole and Mary Lou Cole; with a special thanks to Frank, who took on the daunting task of planning this trip and without whom it certainly wouldn’t have happened.
You don’t have to venture far out of central London to find your own Jurassic Park. In fact, the Victorians were over 100 years ahead of Hollywood. Today, in Crystal Palace Park you can come face-to-face with a nineteenth-century vision of the dinosaurs. On top of a small mound, complete with prehistoric foliage, sit two life-size Iguanodon, whilst in the murky depths of the lake you’ll need to be on the lookout for a family of Ichthyosaurus.
These sculptures are a lasting monument to the exhibitions of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Although small exhibitions existed before, it was the Great Exhibition of 1851 which really set the trend. Located in Hyde Park in London, this mammoth event attracted over six million visitors and included exhibits from both Britain and the Empire. Inside the gargantuan steel and glass structure, visitors could see the world’s biggest diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, before heading off to learn about the mechanics of industry. (The Victorian public with an apparent interest in steam engines found only today amongst railway anoraks).
In 1854, the Great Exhibition, then run by a commercial company, was looking to go one better. The newly revamped spectacle was relocated to Sydenham in south London to the grounds of what is now Crystal Palace Park.
As part of a meandering complex of outdoor exhibits, the Crystal Palace Company commissioned sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to build a set of life-size models of various extinct animals, including the dinosaurs. Hawkins was paired with comparative anatomist Richard Owen (the man who coined the term “dinosaur”, meaning “terrible lizard”). Today, you can see the fruits of their discussions and disagreements.
One particularly famous inaccuracy is the Iguanodon’s horn. Hawkins’ sculpture is of an animal with a large horn standing on all-fours, much like a reptilian rhinoceros. Today, we know that the horn was in fact a thumb spike and that the Iguanodon was much less chunky. However, not all inaccuracies were down to a lack of knowledge. In some cases Hawkins indulged in a bit of artistic licence. (And why not? The results are certainly a sight to behold). For instance, he added a great hump to the Megalosaurus, one that Owen and other natural historians disputed. In fact, at the time, the Curator of Natural History Specimens at the British Museum went as far as to describe the sculptures as “gross delusions” appealing to the “curiosity of the less informed”.
Perhaps to dampen some of the academic criticism, the Crystal Palace Company organised a stunt most PR companies would be envious of even today. On New Year’s Eve 1853, a group of prominent natural historians were invited to enjoy fine dining inside one of the Iguanodon sculptures. The only way to really do justice to this is to turn to the London Illustrated News with its iconic depiction of William Buckland and Richard Owen crammed in the back of an Iguanodon. You just can’t make this stuff up.
Dining in the Iguanodon by The London Illustrated News. Image in the Public Domain.
When you visit the dinosaurs today, you might not be able to eat your packed lunch inside an Iguanodon, but do take the time to consider their strange place in the history of science. On the one hand the product of a commercial venture (think a nineteenth-century version of Thorpe Park), yet on the other hand a serious educational tool (hence the academic criticism). All this is encapsulated in that concept which parents fear the most: the gift shop. Yes, in 1854, you could buy your very own miniature Megalosaurus. Maybe to learn from, but more likely to run around the kitchen screeching “ROAR!”