diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 18, 2024

As science evolves, so does the Science Museum.

But to open new galleries they have to close old ones, and next for the chop is The Secret Life of the Home.

This much-loved corner of the basement, where the life of the domestic appliance is quirkily celebrated, closes forever on Sunday 2nd June. I went for a last look round with a wall-to-wall smile, and if you want to do the same you have three weekends left.

The basement has long been a child-friendly part of the museum, somewhere that button-pushing and lever-pulling has always been encouraged. The first Children's Gallery opened in 1931, revamped in 1969 with more interactive exhibits including a Van de Graaf generator, multiple pulleys and a small gold ball you could never grab. In 1986 this was augmented by a more wideranging and resilient attraction upstairs (Launchpad, now Wonderlab, entrance fee £12) before finally being replaced by the gallery we're mourning today.

The Secret Life of the Home opened in 1995 as an evolution of the former domestic appliance gallery. The mastermind behind the transformation was the cartoonist/engineer Tim Hunkin, he of the amazing arcade machines under Southwold Pier and at Novelty Automation. He'd recently made a series 'The Secret Life of Machines' for Channel 4 so the Science Museum took him on to refurbish the old gallery and then extend it along a corridor, preferably as cheaply as possible. Tim wanted to get away from nebulous themed displays and rediscover the joys of glass cases overstuffed with objects and cryptic labels, and built up the new interactive gallery one case at a time over the course of a two year period. You can read a fascinating 10,000 word account of how he did it, battling conservation guidelines, fire regulations and over-energetic foreign students, here on Tim's reassuringly old-school website.

The first case you see on entering is full of toilets, which is quite the curtain raiser. One's sliced in half so you can see how the cistern works, and it was once possible to spin a wheel and send a model turd around the U-bend. Close by is the Home Security room with its passive infra-red alarm system to defeat, and alongside is the red Automatic Door that's been delighting children at the museum since 1933. A photo shows its 13½ millionth opening in 1967, and I added two more before it closes for good. The all-pervading electronic beeps you can hear are from a game of Pong, the original two-bat video game from 1978 which astonishingly is still the most popular exhibit in the gallery - every passing child wants to stop and twiddle. A Commodore Vic 20, a Victorian Singer sewing machine, a yellow Hoover upright, a modern Bosch power drill, a wide-ranging selection of light switches and a set of five motorised hot water bottles... they're all here.

Turn right and it's mostly kitchen appliances and boilers.

Cooking: Enjoy a complete wallful from iron ranges to microwave ovens, the latter fully documented because they were cutting edge in 1995. I particularly liked the evolution of toasters, the dollop of baked beans on a postwar electric hob and the modern plastic kettle some jobsworth's had to stick an 'Unsafe' sticker on.
Tea & Coffee: Many thanks to Mr and Mrs Davey of Warminster for donating their 1966 Goblin Teasmade.
Food Preparation: Oh gosh, we had a Kenwood foodmixer exactly like that when I was a child, just not sliced in half so you could see its innards.
Irons: A particularly Tim Hunkin touch is that one of the irons is a half-melted gooey mess, this to demonstrate the importance of not removing the safety thermal link.
Refrigerators: I confess I wasn't so much looking at the fridges, more at the 1990s packaging inside... four McCain Deep Crust Pizza Slices, four Iceland Chargrilled Quarter Pounders, two Heinz Weight Watchers low fat Dessert Bombes and a pack of twelve St Ivel Shape fruit yoghurts.
Washing: Gasp at the size of a labour-saving blanket bath, or turn the four wheels in the right order to see how the mechanics of a washing machine do their thing.
Heating: Where else in London are you going to see a comprehensive display of Imitation Coal Effects, or indeed an advert asserting that 'Modern Folk use Hard Coke for comfort in the home'?

Or turn left up the home entertainment corridor.

TV: Follow the evolution of screen size from pre-war miniature to still-not-enormous Sony Trinitron. There's also a functioning cathode ray tube to twiddle with.
Radio: As expected, huge wooden cabinets with Hilversum on the display, handbag sized transistor radios and something tiny Sinclair once sold.
Hi-Fi: "Mummy, why does the old Grammo phone have a brass trumpet, why is there an entire case of reel-to-reels and why do I need to know how a CD player works?"
On The Move: Before the Walkman and the Handycam there was the solid state Super 8 automotive tape player.
Valves: This cabinet also includes a record press, stereo cartridges, crystal pickups and a selection of gramophone needles. Look carefully and there's a label in the corner which is the best label in any museum anywhere, not just the basement of the Science Museum...

Tim's gallery is marvellous stuff, playfully displayed, and intensely nostalgic for anyone over 40. But what was once cutting edge is now wildly out of date and entire chapters are missing, the youngest appliances now being three decades old. The Secret Life of the Home is alas no longer How Things Work but more How Things Worked, so you can see why the Science Museum might be mothballing it. They promise to add the items to their online collection, for what it's worth, but will then despatch the entire exhibit to the museum's Science and Innovation Park for storage. This amazing warehouse will finally be opening for public tours later this year, but even if you can be arsed to go to a field south of Swindon don't expect the opportunity to play with all of The Secret Life of The Home ever again.

We don't yet know what'll fill the space left by this basement gallery, only that its long-term future is still "being considered by teams across the museum". But you don't have to go far around the museum to find multiple examples of something modern replacing something old. I found a 2013 map of the Science Museum online and used it to walk round and see what's disappeared over the last decade. It's a lot.
5th floor: Medicine (entire floor closed to the public in 2015)
4th floor: Medicine (entire floor closed to the public in 2015)
3rd floor: Flight, Science in the 18th century (became Wonderlab in 2016)
2nd floor: Shipping (became The Information Age in 2014), Mathematics and Computing (became Mathematics in 2016), Energy (replaced by the Clockmakers Museum in 2015), Public History (became Science City 1550-1800 in 2019)
1st floor: Cosmos & Culture, Time, Agriculture (all became Medicine in 2019), Materials (became Engineers/Technicians in 2023)
Ground floor: Energy Hall, Exploring Space, Making The Modern World
Much of this makes perfect sense. It's quite frankly astonishing that the Agriculture gallery with its tractory dioramas lingered until 2017, and the Computing gallery didn't really need an intricate explanation of how punched cards worked. But a lot of really fabulous exhibits disappeared from view when these old galleries closed, their replacements much sparser in content and increasingly focused on 'themes'. We're not yet at the stage where screens and images outnumber actual physical artefacts, but the direction of travel seems inexorably towards displays you could instead experience sitting at home online.

And which gallery's closing next? Amazingly it's this one.

The Exploring Space gallery, the long dark room with the dangling Soyuz rockets, is scheduled to be emptied and replaced by the Horizons Gallery, "the Science Museum’s new landmark gallery exploring how today's scientific discoveries are shaping our future". We're told "it will be the destination for our audiences to discover and learn about the most exciting and impactful science stories transforming lives today and extending what we know about ourselves, our planet and our universe", indeed we were first told this a year ago today so don't act surprised. Expect permanent displays of iconic objects and a programme of regularly changing exhibits telling stories through innovative digital displays and other media, with a particular focus on the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. It should be better than it sounds.

And don't worry, space travel will be finding a new home in the West Hall of the millennial Wellcome Wing, most likely on the ground floor where the Covid vaccine story is currently being cleared out. But I bet there'll be less of it, the rest pensioned off to a shed in Wiltshire you'll likely never visit, as the museum looks more to the future than the past. If you like stuff, especially household appliances in cases with quirky labels, come sooner rather than later.

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