It's a very good week to visit the Science Museum because all the schools have gone back but it's still too early for school trips.1 It's also a very good week to go because a new permanent gallery has just opened, all about the history of science in the capital,2 as the layout of the museum continues to evolve.
1 Actually there was one school party wandering around yesterday clutching worksheets, a class of extremely polite Year 4 children wearing felt hats and flannel caps, but I guess private schools are good at sorting out travel fares and permission slips in the second week of term. 2 It's not really about this, but that's what the pre-publicity led me to believe.
The new gallery is called Science City 1550–1800, its stated intent to "take visitors on a 250-year journey through London as the city became a globally-important hub of trade, exploration and scientific enquiry".3 It's also known as the Linbury Gallery.4 You'll find it on the second floor at the front of the museum,5 where the Energy gallery6 used to be.
3 I did not feel it achieved this aim, but we'll get to that. 4 The Linbury Trust is a philanthropic body founded in 1973 by Lord Sainsbury, and is one of 17 different independent grant-making trusts established by members of three generations of the family. 5 It's not very well signposted yet. In fact, it's barely signposted at all. 6Energy: Fuelling the Future opened on 23 July 2004 and closed7 on 2 September 2018. Its award-winning hands-on exhibits were aimed at helping children aged 7–14 to explore how energy powers every aspect of our lives. 7 The digital Energy Ring has also been removed, and more recently the glassbridge suspended across the Energy Hall, in readiness for "an exciting new gallery which will open in 2021".8 8 It has not yet been revealed what this new gallery will be.
Essentially the new gallery forms an L-shape around a balcony above a steam engine. It covers 650 m².9 The overall feel has been designed by artist Gitta Gschwendtner, who has created "an intriguing cityscape that will immerse visitors in historic London".10
9 It's actually mostly empty space. The general direction of travel at the Science Museum seems to be that galleries are increasingly empty space. 10 If you look carefully you'll see that the backs of some of the displays look like unlit terraced houses. Or you might miss that fact completely.
The first11 exhibit is a Dutch globe, as a reminder that London wasn't at the heart of scientific endeavour in the mid-16th century. That soon changed. A touchscreen electronic display then allows you to view a map of London12 at five stages in its expansion, the first from 1561, the last from 1799.
11 It's only the first exhibit if you walk in at the back end. If you enter from the front of the museum you get to discover London's scientific development in reverse chronological order. 12 You can only view the map at a dozen specified locations. Spitalfields in 1561 is quite fun because you get to watch an archer fire an arrow at a cow, repeatedly.13 13 The archer never hits the cow, so don't hang around watching.
The opening display cases feature quadrants, slide rules, clocks14 and other mathematical instruments, plus a variety of other precision tools. Also recreated is a small instrument-making workshop15 from the turn of the 17th century. Brief notes about each instrument are pasted up alongside, but for detail you need to use the touchscreen.16 Remember to scroll to the right several times because it's not all on page 1.
14 A clockmakers gallery already exists nextdoor, an exceptionally good one. It moved here from the Guildhall in 2014. 15 By this point you may have realised that Science City 1550–1800 is really a gallery of scientific instruments, not science per se. 16 I'm not a big fan of object description by touchscreen.17 It means only one person at a time can discover what's in the display case, and you're unlikely to have the patience to scroll down every branch of the information tree, whereas with printed text you can simply scan the bits you're interested in and ignore the rest. 17 Touchscreens are a big hit with kids, however, even if they only press them a lot and never read the text.18 18 Not that they'd have read the printed text either, obviously.
The history of the Royal Society19 is up next, including portraits of Robert Hooke20 and Isaac Newton, plus several vintage books in which their discoveries were first explained. Wheel-cutting is one of six modern trades featured in a video showreel21 acknowledging the precision that instrument-making requires.22 There is also an orrery.23
19 The Royal Society's collection is one of three used to fill the gallery, along with the King George III collection owned by King’s College London and the Science Museum Group Collection. 20 The fact that the Monument was designed as a experimental observatory is of course included, and this provides a good reason to introduce Sir Christopher Wren. 21 Bet you don't hang around to watch all six. 22 Here's where the visually impaired get a sundial, a telescope mirror and a cogwheel to feel. 23 There's always an orrery.
In the 18th century it became increasingly important to explain newly-discovered scientific discoveries to a wider audience, hence the need for demonstration models24 which helped explain newly-discovered scientific discoveries. George III even had a Philosophical Table25 for this very purpose. That's here, and so are bell jars and vacuum flasks, and more globes, and more clocks, and yet another orrery.23
24 I reckon the new gallery is less about scientific discoveries and more about showcasing whatever fascinating equipment the curators thought they could shoehorn in under the overall theme. 25 It reminded me of a young child's multi-activity frame, but large and wooden rather than small and plastic, and with wheels, tubes and springs rather than pushbuttons and squeezy bits.
I enjoyed the display which told the story of General Roy's pioneering triangulation on Hounslow Heath,26 including his actual telescope and a three-foot geodetic theodolite. I was prepared to be excited by the telescope William Herschel27 used to discover Uranus, but on closer inspection it was only a replica. Maritime navigation,28 although critical to Britain's scientific standing, thrilled me less.
26 Others walked straight past, possibly because the backdrop to the display case was so very grey, but more likely because there was nothing to push. 27 It turns out that the Herschel page on the Science Museum website has far more background information than the display itself, so you might as well just sit at home and read that. 28 Again, there's a much better set of marine chronometers in the clockmakers gallery on the other side of the atrium.
The gallery certainly features some exquisite artefacts, and is adeptly curated, but doesn't really showcase science as much as it showcases scientific instruments, and London's contribution feels very much an also-ran.29 It continues the Science Museum's shift towards presentation over content, with objects included as representatives of the collection rather than displaying the collection itself.30Science City 1550–1800 is open 1000-1800 daily, should you fancy a visit.31
29 It's badly titled, I think that's what I'm saying. 30 The new Mathematics gallery exemplifies this approach - gorgeous but sparse. I much preferred the less professional clutter of the previous incarnation. 31 Don't rush.32 I recommend coming back when the much larger Medicine Galleries open on 16th November. 32 You've probably got until 2035 before they wipe it away and replace it with something else.