London: “Top Secret” and “The Art of Innovation” @ the Science Museum

I was originally planning on treating these two temporary exhibitions at the Science Museum as two separate posts, but I was having such a difficult time getting started that I took it as a sign that I didn’t have enough to say about either individually, so it would make more sense to combine them. I was alerted to “The Art of Innovation” first, having been asked to do a social media post at work about it as they had an object from our collection on display, and then saw “Top Secret” on the Science Museum’s website as I was booking for the “Art of Innovation” and thought I might as well see them both. They are both free exhibitions, but you do need a timed ticket for entry. I actually booked my ticket for “Top Secret” on my phone just as I finished seeing “The Art of Innovation,” for the slot in 15 minutes’ time, which was just enough time for me to get there (the Science Museum is big, and “Top Secret” is in the basement gallery, which I had somehow never been to before, despite temping as FoH staff there for a couple weeks some years ago). I highly recommend doing the same if you dislike waiting around as much as I do.

 

I’ll start with “Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security”, which runs until February 2020. Like many kids, I think, I was quite into spy stuff, secret codes, etc when I was younger, even doing a project on secret codes for a math fair, so I thought this exhibition sounded promising. And it certainly looked good! Not only did actually finding it feel like you had cracked a code (because the basement gallery was so well hidden. I never knew the Science Museum had a whole display case full of antique toilets, amongst other wonders I uncovered in the permanent collections down there), but the design of the exhibition was quite fun, featuring a lot of little “buildings” you could enter, like a mock-up of a suburban Canadian home that housed some Soviet spies, a faux Bletchley Park hut; and bold graphics lining the walls of the rest of it. However, the content didn’t quite live up to the promise of the design.

 

I liked the WWI section, which was mostly about zeppelin attacks and what the British did to combat them, but the section on code breaking machines was just a bit too technical to hold my interest. The exhibition was also quite crowded in places, so having been to Bletchley Park itself, I couldn’t really be bothered to queue to look at what was on display in the hut, and gave that whole area a miss.

 

The final section was on GCHQ, the organisation so secret I’m not even sure what GCHQ stands for (oh wait, it’s Government Communications Headquarters). They are not so secretly celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, and there was a bit of information on their recruiting techniques, like leaving secret signs on the pavement that apparently only the right sort of person would notice; and some of the devices they use in their work. There was even a LEGO version of their headquarters (is that GCHQ HQ, or is that just a bit redundant?), but the very nature of their organisation meant I still left a little bit puzzled about what exactly they do. This exhibition was less interesting than I had hoped, but it was free, so all I wasted was time. 2/5. And on to “The Art of Innovation”, which I actually saw first.

As I mentioned at the start, this was also free but required pre-booking, though I would imagine if it’s not busy you can easily book a ticket there and then. This was much more my speed. The exhibitions in the second floor gallery tend to be a lot quieter, maybe because people don’t realise they exist, and this was no exception. This was basically what the title promised: artistic objects (or at least, aesthetically pleasing ones) and “the interaction between scientific progress and social change”. So there was plenty of art but also clothing, fabrics, machinery, etc. And some hilarious cartoons that mocked Humphrey Davy’s fascination with nitrous oxide by copious use of fart jokes. Obviously I loved those.

 

I discovered how much I liked Otto Dix at the Weimar art exhibition at the Tate Modern, so I was pleased to see one of his sketches here along with some examples of German prosthetics made for WWI veterans. Men who had lost limbs in the war were often then tied down to one specific job based on what their prosthetics were able to do, meaning they lacked social mobility, which is quite depressing, and Dix’s piece reflected the German ambivalence, bordering on cruelty, towards these men who had sacrificed so much.

I was also interested to see the results of mechanisation, like the puzzle board used by Rowntree’s to determine which workers were best suited to packaging chocolates (cue I Love Lucy-esque scenes of hilarity) and of course the train clock showing train time vs. local time before the clocks were standardised across Britain.

My favourite display was about the Science Museum’s part in the Festival of Britain, held in 1951. The museum had an entire new wing built just to showcase the Exhibition of Science, and the entrance apparently included five rooms where the things inside progressively got bigger as you moved through the rooms, so the visitors would feel like they were stepping under a microscope to explore the world of atoms. There were also fantastic textiles commissioned (above left) based on x-ray crystallography, each print showing different molecules. I would love a 1950s dress made from afwillite or orthoclase fabric, and I would like to wear it whilst exploring that historic exhibition. Don’t you wish we could travel back in time just for the sake of World’s Fair-type events like this?

 

This exhibition was not only interesting, it had some fabulous objects to look at too. I’d definitely recommend this over “Top Secret” if you only have time for one, though if you’re visiting with kids, I suspect “Top Secret” is probably more child friendly, as they had an actual interactive zone. 3.5/5 for “Art of Innovation.”

 

12 comments

  1. As much as I loved Harriet the Spy as a kid, the innovation exhibit looks more appealing to my adult self. I love those fabrics!! And that exhibit of antique toilets just put the science museum on my to do list for my next visit!

    1. I think it’s a must-visit anyway! I’m dying to visit their new medicine galleries (I tried so hard to get a job as assistant curator on them, but I didn’t have a chance in hell) but there’s a rail strike on all month and I can’t be bothered with the hassle, so any non-essential travel into town will have to wait until January!

  2. Yes, I think it would be way cool to go to those 19th century world fairs. My ggg-grandfather, Henry Z. Jenkins, went to the Crystal Palace at the WF in New York in 1853, but he wasn’t impressed – perhaps because it wasn’t Philadelphia! Or maybe it was just a letdown after all the crazy stuff in California.

    1. I didn’t know New York had a Crystal Palace too! Copycats! And theirs also burned down, which would make you think they would have been more careful with the one in London. But I would definitely have liked to visit any of the Crystal Palaces or big expositions. I want to see that upside down Victorian mansion that was at the Pan American Exposition!

  3. Love the Science Museum and those temporary exhibits can be brilliant. GCHQ and Bletchley are simply fascinating aren’t they? So much to read and learn. Bletchley is great day out in Buckinghamshire too.

  4. I feel like a dope admitting this but I’ve never seen that photo of young Einstein before. I think he’s quite sweet in it. Or, perhaps it’s just because he’s better coiffed than we’re used to seeing him.
    I’d love to see that train clock in person. Also, ditto on wanting to have a dress made from any of those fabrics.
    And your comment on Crystal Palaces above made me laugh. You should write a book on the doomed nature of them.

    1. I think Einstein was a bit of a misogynist, but I agree that he does sometimes seem cuddly, like in that movie where he’s portrayed by Walter Matthau, but that may just be because I have a soft spot for Walter Matthau.
      If you like train clocks, then you’d probably love the National Railway Museum, which I’ll be posting about shortly!

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