There’s a new gallery at the Science Museum that shows off an awful lot of wood, brass and books.
It’s the Science City, a journey through a stylized London streetscape that explores how London’s scientists transformed our understanding of the world between 1550 and 1800.
The display can be seen as thin, in that it’s a number of objects in glass cases spread out quite generously over a lot of space. Which does however mean that there’s plenty of space to look at the objects, something some museums forget about.
It’s a display that can appeal to two audiences, one being adults looking at important things, but I suspect, and hope that the real audience will be children.
To my mind, today science is very small, it’s the study of the microscopic and while obviously important and appeals to many, when I was young it was the big and bold that excited me. I loved the sight of globes, of telescopes, of big machines where it was not just grandly impressive, but where it was possible to work out how the thing actually worked. You saw science in motion.
Here’s a space that’s got a lot of the brass on show — and a review could go into detail about the objects – that it includes a copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Robert Hooke’s microscope, Queen Anne’s clock, Stephen Demainbray engineering models, and so on.
But that’s just a collection of objects, when in fact this is a gallery that tries to fire up the imagination about the mysteries of the universe and getting close to those famous names we read about in books.
It tells a story, but more importantly I feel, it’s tangible and easier to get excited about discoveries when the objects of discovery look so magnificent. Who wouldn’t prefer looking through a brass telescope over staring at an astronomy phone app? Playing with huge glass bottles filled with exotic “airs”, or watching the planets rotate in their mysterious journey on steampunkesque Orrery.
If the gallery can encourage people to start that long journey to becoming a scientist, then a visit to the gallery it’s a trip worth making.
My only gripe being that a space that needs to fire up the imagination is itself rather spartan and while there’s a stylistic street with houses in black steel, part of what got me excited as a child was also where the drawings of the rooms that scientists worked in — all leather chairs and wooden benches. That was an important aspect of the magic of science, that it took place in magical places right out of a Dickens novel.
A new book, Science City: Craft, Commerce and Curiosity in London, 1550–1800 edited by curators Alexandra Rose and Jane Desborough accompanies the gallery and will be released in January.
The gallery, Science City 1550–1800: The Linbury Gallery is on the 2nd floor of the Science Museum.