Friday, 3 November 2017

Science Museum. Part 3

Thursday 2 November 2017

We had last visited this enormous Museum almost a year ago, to enjoy the impressive Mathematics Gallery.  This time, we thought we would have the general look that we had failed to achieve in January.  Having been so impressed last time, I should say at the start that we were underwhelmed on this trip. In our methodical way, we thought we would start at the top and work down.  The lifts signposted to 'Flight' were out of order, so we walked up to the third floor, and then made our way through the paying attraction which seemed to be fairground rides simulating the experience of the Red Arrows.

Since we were also passing the entry to Wonderlab, there were many excited children. Arriving in the galleries devoted to the history of Flight, we enjoyed pictures of Daedalus and Icarus, angels and some Leonardo drawings.  It was interesting to note how long the wish to imitate birds lasted, with several (failed) ornithopters with their flapping wings on display. Marey's detailed sequence photos of birds flying reminded us that this dream lasted into modern times. The captioning was often interesting, but hard to read.  We were not clear why the lighting had to be so dim. Perhaps the museum is so concerned with attracting youth, who do not read captions, to bother about accessibility for the more mature visitor.

the 18th century saw a new and successful development, with the Montgolfiers' highly successful and fashionable hot air balloons. We admired the souvenir ceramics, snuff boxes and other souvenirs, but would have liked a bit more about - well - the science of balloon flight.

Looking for inspiration from other flying objects, and from other technological developments, Hiram Maxim developed a steam flying machine which, unsurprisingly, did not work.  We wondered who he was:  is he the Maxim gun man?  But we could find no information about his life. 

Then there were gliders, Cody's 1902 Man Lifting War Kite (!) pedalled machines and eventually the Wright brothers, Bleriot, and so on.

A number of cases contained model aeroplanes, from the earliest types to Concorde. More interesting than these was the amazingly florid Schneider Trophy.

Models of airships were also displayed including a photo of the inside of the Hindenburg, with its aluminium grand piano

A considerable space was taken up with examples of and information about war planes, but the captions were small and dense.  The same applies to the information about navigation and radio communications for pilots

The area about passenger flight entertained Linda who remembers clearly flying Caledonia, with the brightly tartan-clad cabin crew.

Above our heads were more aeroplanes, which seemed robust enough to withstand a little more light than was supplied.  We ignored the large area occupied by unadorned aero-engines, and moved on. After our enjoyment of the Maths Gallery last time, we both felt we should have liked more about how planes are designed, what makes them stay in the air and so on.

One floor down is what is grandly called 'The Information Age'. There seemed to be some sort of art work at the start, but since the interactive wasn't working, we remained baffled.  A list of types of meat from pork loin to chorizo? Why? Later we met some charming young men in t-shirts that said 'gallery technical support' but they said this wasn't their area.  Why museums waste money on computer driven stuff and then fail to maintain it is a complete puzzle.  

Having walked round the raised walkway, passing the Eurostar satellite, we headed down into the display area, which was again rather dark.  Clearly we needed the app to make sense of it all. We failed to manage a chronological tour, but we saw some information about Tim Berners-Lee and the Web (though the interactive was not working) and a number of old computers.  Aah, the nostalgia of seeing a BBC-B!

Because Joe Lyons, of the Lyons Corner Houses, used very early computer technology for stock control, there was a case of Lyons comestible tins. On the other hand, a case containing a child's plate and a standard 1950s mixing bowl had no explanation at all. There were numbers by the objects but no key.  I waylaid a staff member as he emerged from some offices to ask what the mixing bowl was for, and he told me there should be a key and he would report the fact that there wasn't.  So it was not only the interactives which were not working....

There was a section about radio, and the Rugby radio station, illustrated by the induction coils which were copper in a wooden frame, which came to the museum in 2003. But what an induction coil is, why copper, what 'very low frequency'  means - all this was left unexplained.

The same applies to a display of thermionic valves, though thank to Tim Berners-Lee we were able to find out what they are when we got home.  And when we came to Marconi, the metal coils and glass thingies were displayed but not explained.  .

Once we got to radios and TVs we were happier in a little nostalgic haze. (we are the generation who first saw TV on 2 June 1953) but would have appreciated a bit of explanation about the science behind these things.

Next we went down to the basement to enjoy the science of the Home. This are was big on objects though short on scientific explanation. But there!  What's not to like about old clock alarms, hair-dryers, gramophones, TVs and so on.

Highlights were the early sewing machines, and some amazing vacuum cleaners, including one that was pedal operated and one that required a second person walking behind working the bellows.  But we noted that the display had not been updated recently: the only Dyson was a very old and heavy one


We saw kettles of all kinds, our favourite being one with a little spirit lamp; washing machines from tub-and-dolly, through washboard to twin tub and beyond; cookers from range to microwave; refrigerators you could customise with a fabric door; strange home medical devices like a belly warmer.


We did learn how a CD player works, with lasers rather than a needle, but otherwise explanations were few and far between. It's a splendid collection of objects, but we thought lacked what should surely be the Science Museum's usp:  explaining how things work.


  1. I agree with you. When I was young I only visited a few times because we lived so far away, but I was fascinated and learned a lot of science that way. Now the displays are almost all lacking in scientific background and explanation of the principles behind them. Such a missed opportunity.

    1. You could try the Geology bit of the NHM next door (see next post!) which we found extremely interesting and well explained