Oxford: Museum of the History of Science

The second museum we visited in Oxford was the Museum of the History of Science. To be honest, after the less-thrilling-than-hoped-for Whipple Museum in Cambridge, I was prepared to give this one a miss too (I know, I’m being ruthless, but I wanted to save plenty of time for the Pitt Rivers), but we passed it anyway en route to the Weston Library, and a sign outside advertising Anna Dumitriu’s “BioArt and Bacteria” exhibition drew me in (it ended 18 March, so unfortunately, you won’t be able to see it).

  

The museum is housed in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building, and it’s free to visit, so I suppose it was worth popping in for that alone, though to be honest, the big stone heads outside the museum were my favourite part. But I’ll say no more about those (because really, there’s no point in my rambling on about them when all you have to do is look at them, and you’ll see that they’re hilarious) and move on to discussing the museum, which was completed in 1683 to hold the original incarnation of the Ashmolean. So it was pretty obvious that the Ashmolean started out as a much smaller institution, because whilst this was a decently sized building, spread out over three floors, it was way smaller than the Ashmolean now, which was fine with me, since I didn’t want to spend loads of time here anyway.

  

We started with the entrance gallery, which was small and spread out around the (tiny) shop, and provided an introduction to the collection. I’m not entirely sure what the little carved skeletons have to do with the history of science, other than being skeletons, but I’m not complaining.

  

We then headed upstairs, which meant climbing a whole lot of wooden steps. I’m only in my early 30s, but I swear my knees are starting to go, because they were aching by the time I got to the top. The upstairs gallery houses the mathematical instruments, which fortunately for me included things like globes, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time walking up there only to be bored senseless by the collection. And a lot of the instruments up here (even the boring ones) were owned by famous scientists, which is interesting in itself. I have to say that my favourite artefact up here wasn’t even in the gallery, but was a pastel drawing of the moon from 1795 which was hung up next to the stairs. The level of detail was quite impressive, and I’m a sucker for lunar things anyway.

   

The temporary exhibition, which is the whole reason I went into the museum, was downstairs, but before going in there, I got sidetracked by the donation box, which was an orrery that rotated when you put money in it (I only paid for half a revolution, as a whole year cost £2 and I’m cheap, but I got to see it in action anyway, and honestly, it wasn’t that thrilling, so half a year was plenty. The carnival style sign on it was better than the orrery itself).  The medical collection was also kept downstairs, and though it was smaller than I was hoping, there were still some cool artefacts, like that model of a nervy head (the hair was the best/creepiest touch).

  

Actually, there was lots of neat stuff down here (even the gallery itself looked awesomely old fashioned, as you can probably tell). Early Marconi radios, a microphone that Dame Nellie Melba used to perform the first radio concert in 1920 (and subsequently signed), cameras owned by Lewis Carroll and T.E. Lawrence (of course), and a blackboard Albert Einstein wrote on when he was delivering a lecture at Oxford in 1931. Really cool, although I didn’t understand a damn thing on it!

  

Finally, I made it into the “BioArt” exhibition, which I really enjoyed (I was less keen on the steward who kept following me around the rather narrow gallery, but I’m sure he was just doing his job). There were dresses woven from fabric patterned with TB and streptococcus (I would wear the streptococcus one, below), old blue TB sputum collecting cups, which were strangely lovely (and safely behind glass, since I’m not sure if they were actually used or not), and (this kind of even grossed me out) an artificially grown tooth that was really big and deformed, set in a necklace of real teeth (the artificial tooth was by far the grossest part because it was so misshapen, so of course I’m including a picture. I feel a little sick just thinking about it, which is rare for me with medical stuff, since usually the grosser the better as far as I’m concerned). I was glad I came in to see it (the exhibition, not the tooth, which I could have done without), because it was interesting stuff (or “infectiously good” as Marcus cleverly put it in the guidebook), though I had a bit of a sore throat later that week and was just a teeny bit worried that something in there was actually infectious (I’m sure it wasn’t, and I’m fine now, but it did make me wonder).

   

On the whole, I think I enjoyed this more than the Whipple Museum (yet have still given it the same score), because it was the same sort of stuff (scientific instruments), simply displayed, which is not inherently that thrilling, but the fact that almost everything here was owned by somebody famous upped the interest level, and the temporary exhibition was good. I do wish that these history of science museums were more interactive (more like the Science Museum in London I suppose) or dynamic, but maybe that’s just the nature of this kind of museum (although history of medicine museums tend to be WAY more exciting to me than this, but that could just be because I know way more about the history of medicine. Maybe if I was a science nerd, I’d be really into history of science museums too). Worth seeing because it’s free, but you won’t need to spend a ton of time here, because the signage isn’t always the best (very matter of fact for the most part) and there isn’t a lot of explanation of how things are used for those of us who aren’t scientists, which is a shame, because I think I could take more of an interest if I understood exactly what I was looking at. 3/5.

  

9 comments

    1. The real teeth don’t bother me, only the lab-grown deformed one. I asked to keep my wisdom teeth after I had them pulled, and wanted to make some sort of gruesome jewellery with them, but they had to crack a couple of them in half to get them out (they were a sideways, bony impaction) so I couldn’t do anything with them. They’re still in a little paper bag at my parents’ house though…come to think of it, maybe my baby teeth are too, unless the “tooth fairy” disposed of them somehow. Sorry if that creeps you out even more!

  1. I’m so glad you mentioned those stone heads – they caught my eye right off and would definitely have been the highlight for me too. The one in the center of the second photo is particularly thick and silly looking.
    But wow, you’re not kidding about that moon! I had to give it a second look because I doubted it could’ve been drawn. This will make me sound quite thick myself, but I didn’t realize they could see those details in 1795.
    I’m really sorry to hear the Orrery was a let-down – I had high hopes for it based on the neato sign alone. And I see what you mean about the hair on the head/nerve model – it looks real and the choppiness is somehow unsettling (as if all the nerves weren’t already.)
    Man, if I’d have come down with a sore throat after seeing all that germy sputum stuff, I’d have been more than a teeny bit worried I’d been infected. But yeah, I’d totally wear the streptococcus dress too.
    That giant tooth is the worst thing. I can’t even click on the picture for fear of seeing it enlarged.

    1. Haha, I lol’ed a lot at your giant tooth comment. Yeah, I wouldn’t enlarge it. I probably shouldn’t have even included it, but I had to look at it, so I thought others should have to suffer as well.
      The sore throat never turned into anything. It was just sore for like three days, with no other symptoms, and then I was fine, so I still don’t know what was going on. I can only hope it wasn’t the primary stage of something that’s going to incubate and then turn into something horrible later on. It’s times like these I think I know too much about awful diseases for my own good.
      The doofy head is my favourite too.

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