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.
The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum in London (founded in 1753), represents an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosity. It is home to a large collection of curious objects, thanks to the Museum’s founder, Sir Hans Sloane (an Irish physician, natural philosopher and collector), whose bust stands proudly just inside one of the entrances of the Gallery. By the time of his death, he had collected 71,000 objects that were donated to the State and left for the public to enjoy, many of which can be found in The King’s Library.
As you walk through the permanent exhibition in the oldest room of the Museum, The King’s Library (constructed during 1823-1827, and formed by King George III), it is possible to imagine British explorers returning from far off lands with curious treasures to stimulate and titillate scientific minds. The time period it reflects is the Age of Reason (also known as the Enlightenment), a period of learning around 1680 to 1820, within which intellectuals sought to promote reason and advance knowledge in society. Philosophers such as Isaac Newton, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin were just a few of the big proponents of this cultural movement. This room demonstrates how British and European collectors, antiquaries and explorers, attempted to make sense of and classify their world at this time, using objects rather than texts. This was an important change in the way scholars investigated the natural world. The reliability of the written word was questioned during this period and so the study of objects and the collection and classification of specimens, along with the use of experimentation in science, became paramount to obtaining the truth about nature.
The Enlightenment Gallery boasts a variety of weird and wonderful objects to be admired, from natural to artificial rarities, from the beautiful to the bizarre. Several pointed flint hand axes, a wooden shoe, birds of paradise, fish skin gauntlets and the skull and crown of the Deal warrior, are just a few of the items that can be found amongst the thousands of objects on display. The collection also includes Sir Hans Sloane’s very own specimen tray: small compartments that contain botanical remedies ranging from a ground mummy’s finger (believed to cure bruises), a rhinoceros horn (used as an antidote for poison), and even hot chocolate (believed to help stomach problems). The King’s Library also possesses around sixty-thousand royal books. The broad spectrum of objects signifies Sloane’s and other collectors growing interest with natural philosophy in the eighteenth-century, and their growing desire to visualise and present their findings in an attempt to make knowledge about the natural world.
The Gallery is presented in seven sections, depicting the different aspects of eighteenth-century disciplines: religion and ritual, trade and discovery, the birth of archaeology, art history, classification, the decipherment of ancient scripts and natural history.
The beautiful archaic setting and architecture of the room creates a sense of time-travel: The King’s Library provides a dramatic contrast to the modern feel of the rest of the building, with its rich oak and mahogany floors and classical architectural features. Unlike modern museums there are no small, neat, tidy descriptions provided next to the objects in question, this adds to the charm and mystery of the Enlightenment Gallery. You can let your curiosity and imagination create explanations behind these wonders, which at a glance, appear to have no rhyme or reason; try to experience how collectors would have viewed objects that they had never observed before, and attempt to classify them.
Here, within the British Museum, it is possible to catch a small glimpse of the eighteenth-century scientific process of making knowledge; which involved observation and classification, elements of society that are arguably often taken for granted today. As a historian, I am wary to say that it is an absolute replica of a cabinet of curiosity, as this would be a hard challenge to achieve. However, to explore the objects that eighteenth-century contemporaries deemed worthy of study, and the way the Gallery deviates from modern expectations of a museum, creates the nearest possible experience to a cabinet of curiosity (the only other option is to create your own time machine!). As a result the Gallery has managed to capture a sense of mystery, imagination, knowledge and charm in a compact yet extra-ordinary room. Highly recommended.
Kim Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (British Museum, 2004)
The Natural History Museum and the Geological Museum used to be separate entities but are now combined. The main building is a fantastic architectural structure, well worth viewing for its own sake. The principal exhibits in the Natural History Museum include dinosaurs and their living relatives, man’s place in evolution, human biology, and living and fossil mammals. The museum has recently undergone a major administrative reorganization and now leans toward “trendy” presentations, ostensibly to lure an otherwise uninterested public.
The formerly separate Geological Museum has a good exhibit called Story of the Earth, but without names of people or any reference to the titanic struggles that often took place to establish individual chapters of the story. This is a pity because many of the controversies make fascinating stories. The exhibit does, however, accurately present the current views on the origin of sun, earth, and moon, describes the inner core of the earth, the surrounding mantle and the outer crust; it has up-to-date accounts of very modern topics, such as reversal of magnetic field and plate tectonics.
A fascinating organization in the museum’s “back rooms” is the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, the body responsible for keeping track of the scientific names of all species of the animal kingdom (fossils as well as alive) and for assigning names to new species – 15,000 new species names are added to the zoological literature each year! The commission’s quarters are not open to the public, but visitors with any legitimate interest are warmly received. (The “back rooms” of the museum have recently been subjected to controversial administrative changes with the objective of diminishing scholarly activities. The future is somewhat uncertain.)
A statue commemorating Richard Owen, founder of the museum but also resolute opponent of Darwinism, stands impressively on the staircase.
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.
I then bequeath the whole of my property…to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge…
Portrait of James Smithson. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)
In 1826, James Smithson (1765-1829) wrote his last will and testament with the above statement included in case his nephew died without an heir, as he did in 1835. While his motivations have been lost to history, this will by a man who never visited the United States resulted in the creation of an educational, research, and preservation organization whose main public face is the largest museum complex in the world.
In 1826, when the will was written, there was no way that James Smithson could imagine the organization that would bear his name. In 1836, President Andrew Jackson announced the gift to Congress and on 1 July 1836 Congress accepted it. They pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust that would be founded with Smithson’s fortune. Two years later in September 1838, the legacy of over 100,000 gold sovereigns arrived at the Philadelphia mint where it was recoined into over $500,000. It would take another eight years for Congress to decide how to use the money!
The Castle from the National Mall. (Photo by Thad Parsons)
On 10 August 1846, President James K. Polk established the Smithsonian Institution as a charitable trust administered by a Board of Regents and overseen by the Secretary of the Smithsonian. In late 1846, Joseph Henry (1797-1878) was named the first Secretary. During his tenure, he focused on increasing and disseminating knowledge but was reluctant to establish a National Museum. The first collections had arrived with Richard Rush, the lawyer that had successfully sued on the United State’s behalf for Smithson’s fortune in the British Chancery Court, and included his library and mineralogical collection. Further objects were added in 1848 when Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania gifted scientific instruments and other donations were regularly made to the young Institute. In 1855, the Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the Castle, was completed as the administrative home of the Smithsonian. It served as the home for Henry and his family, the main office, and from 1858 until the 1960s as an exhibition space. Today, it still houses some administrative offices, is the home of the Smithsonian Information Center, contains Smithson’s crypt, holds special exhibitions, and has guided tours of the Institute’s and Castle’s history.
The interior of the new United States National Museum building, now the Arts and Industries Building, decorated for President James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur's Inaugural Ball, March 4, 1881. This was the first event held in the building. Electric lights were strung along the ceiling and the statue of America in the rotunda held an electric lamp in her hand. Buntings and flags decorated the walls and a wooden floor was laid for the event. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)
While Henry actively discouraged collecting, including transferring portions of the collections to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress in 1865 and ’66, his successor focused on creating a great National Museum. Spencer Fullerton Baird was Secretary from 1878 to 1887 and had been Henry’s assistant since 1850. Baird’s goal was a comprehensive collection of the continent’s natural resources at the United States National Museum. While working as Henry’s assistant, Baird was involved in several important national events. In 1867, his testimony about the natural resources of Alaska helped to convince Congress to purchase the territory. In the preparations for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Baird planned all of the government’s exhibitions and won the Smithsonian international visibility. Additionally, he greatly expanded the Smithsonian’s collections by convincing exhibitors to donate the majority of their displays and he then convinced Congress to construct a new National Museum Building, today known as the Arts and Industries Building.
Samuel P. Langley's Aerodrome Shop in the South Shed in the South Yard of the Smithsonian Institution Building on 31 January 1900. Langley was the third Secretary of the Smithsonian and attempted to build the first manned flying machine. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)
Opened on 4 March 1881 for Garfield’s inauguration, the building came to house exhibits on history and natural history when it was opened to the public in October of that year. It remained the main exhibition space for the Smithsonian until 1911 when the new U.S. National Museum Building, now known as the Natural History Building, opened. With the opening of the new space and the removal of the natural history across the Mall, it was renamed the Arts and Industries Building and became home to many of the Institution’s most visited displays. These included the First Ladies Gowns (a collection started in 1912 by Mrs. Howard Taft), military artifacts, and a variety of new technologies – such as photography, telegraphy, the telephone, the automobile, and aeronautics (especially “The Spirit of St. Louis” which went on display in 1928). Since 2004, the building has been undergoing restoration and is likely to be reopened in 2014.
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
National Zoo (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
Natural History Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
Postal Museum (2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C.)
(Links to articles on the Travel Guide will be updated as they are completed.)
For more on the history of the Smithsonian, it maintains a number of useful resources on the history of itself and its various subsidiaries. The majority of them can be accessed from the official Smithsonian History website.