history of science

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.



Cambridge: The Whipple Museum of the History of Science

Though I’m really more of a fan of medical history, I also try to show an interest in the history of science from time to time (admittedly not enough of an interest to do that Ph.D I was planning on when I realised there’d be only history of science and no history of medicine classes available for my first year, but still, an interest), so I definitely wanted to see the Whipple Museum of the History of Science whilst we were in Cambridge.


We were a little confused by the entrance; because the museum is located inside the Physical Chemistry building, we thought maybe the main entrance was for students only, and we were meant to use the back entrance for the museum (incidentally, I still don’t really understand how the whole Oxbridge system works. I thought students joined a college, and only took classes within that college, but it appears they just have some normal university buildings as well. I guess it’s one of those weird upper class British things I’ll never wrap my head around. Like their fondness for horse racing. Or fox hunting). So we walked all the way around, passing the Museum of Zoology on the way (which had an excellent whale skeleton that we could see from the outside, but it’s under construction so not open to the public at the moment), and ended up having to ring a doorbell for access, only to be gently chided by a somewhat annoyed man who obviously had to run from somewhere upstairs to answer the door. So learn from our mistake, and just go in the main entrance, unless you need step-free or group access. Then you still have to go around to the back.


Due to what was apparently our foolish misstep, we had to walk through the whole museum to get to the room where we were meant to start, though honestly I don’t think it mattered that much, because lots of the collection was just miscellaneous crap, with no real narrative (also, the museum’s not that big). And I’m not just using “crap” here to be pejorative; the museum itself admitted that some of its collections were junk.  Like a display of shitty plastic protractors that got taken off the market after a teacher realised they were basically worthless, and were screwing up students’ measurements.  Apparently they have a policy of collecting all things relating to the history of science, whether valuable or not, and even proudly displayed an old Telegraph column written by shaggy-haired douche canoe Boris Johnson, criticising their collecting policy. I can’t help but feel that if BoJo thinks it’s a bad idea, then it probably isn’t.


But amongst the junk, there were also some beautiful and historically important artefacts. Like one of Herschel’s telescopes (I went to his house, remember?). Or the grand orrery (a moving model of the motions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun) which is the dome-shaped thing on the right side of the first picture in this post. They also have a whole collection of frog-related things, which obviously I loved.  And I was really taken with the case of anatomical models, shown above, made by the Frenchman Dr. Auzoux in the 19th century to combat the shortage of bodies for medical dissection.  In retrospect, they were probably my favourite things in the museum.


I also really liked the labels in the first room, because they explained in detail why every object had been selected for display, and they had sound reasoning for every choice, even the “junk” (although with the museum being British, I feel like they didn’t actually say “junk.” Rubbish, maybe?). Take that BoJo!


Unfortunately, for me anyway, the second gallery wasn’t as successful as the first. It was eye-catching, but it was divided by different branches of science, with loads of the same sort of objects from each branch, and I’m just not enough of a sciencey person to have really understood what they were and given them the appreciation they deserved. I did find a pretty cool anatomical illustration in one of the drawers though.


I have to admit, I saw the sign for the “Victorian Parlour” when we walked in (since we came the wrong way), and I was pretty much just biding my time until I could get upstairs and check it out. It promised to be a room where you could interact with everything, and whilst that wasn’t quite true (there were signs on a few things saying not to touch them), they did have a whole chest of drawers full of games + hats to try on, which is always a bonus.  I do think it was aimed at a younger audience than me, because it wasn’t quite as much fun as I was hoping, but I still did try out most of the games, as did an older lady who was there at the same time as me.


The Globes Gallery was to the rear of the Victorian Parlour, and it was fine if you like globes. I mean, I like old globes where the countries are all wack, and “here be dragons” and that kind of thing (which I think is actually a modern conceit, but you know what I mean), but most of these were astronomical globes, which don’t do that much for me. I took Astronomy in high school and everything, but I’ve never been that into space, save for a fondness for the moon that probably dates back to my brief Wiccan phase (OK, I have moon sheets on my bed right now, and my favourite commercial when I was a kid was that creepy McDonalds’s moon one (funny because I hated McDonald’s food, even back then), and I even have a small moon tattoo, so I guess I REALLY like the moon, but that still doesn’t mean I’m thrilled by celestial globes).


Honestly, aside from the Polar Museum, this was the Cambridge Museum I was most excited about, but unlike the Polar Museum, it didn’t really deliver. I liked the first gallery a lot, but everything else was downhill from there, and it’s probably telling that my favourite objects in here had to do with medical history, because I will always love that more than the history of science. But I could definitely see science enthusiasts enjoying this museum more than I did; it wasn’t bad, it just didn’t thrill me like I was hoping it would. I think it would definitely be improved if instead of the “more is more” approach of the second gallery, they followed the example of the first, and put fewer things out, but with better and more explanatory labels, so that visitors of a less scientific inclination understand what they’re looking at. 3/5.

Don’t stand there confused like I was…this IS the correct entrance.