Science Tourist: Science Museum in London

Sorry for taking you to yet another museum (next week I’ll take you on a geology-themed hike) but I saw zombies at the Science Museum in London last week so we have to go there first.

Science Museum

There aren’t always zombies in the museum. It was part of a special event. The start of “Zombie Lab” was a room with agricultural dioramas (part of the permanent display, one presumes) between which zombies were being checked by doctors. It felt like we just walked onto the set of a very low budget movie. Where was the science?

Science Museum

Science MuseumFurther down the zombie-infested area – which really was just a cordoned off section of the museum with zombies walking around – we finally found some science: there were demonstrations about brain activity under anaesthesia, about horde behaviour, and a few other neuroscience topics that could be related to zombies one way or another. Some of the wandering zombies tried to scare us, but I discovered that having an undead teenager scream at me leaves me completely unphased. I should have gone into teaching.

The zombies weren’t what brought us to the Science Museum in the first place. We were actually there for the Turing exhibit, and I’m happy to report that that did NOT involve people dressed up as Alan Turing. There were enigma machines on display, a bottle of cyanide with the coroners report on his suicide, and explanatory plaques all around. There was a huge Vitamin B12 model, celebrating the work of Dorothy Hodgkin, which she was able to do thanks to the Pilot ACE computer (also on display) that Turing developed.

Science Museum

It was a small exhibit, and we were out pretty quickly, with time to explore the rest of the museum. That’s where we ran into the zombies, but we also saw a crowd of people dressed as beetles on the ground floor Making the Modern World gallery. This gallery is a showcase of items that played an important role in technological development: a DNA structure, a rocket, a steam engine, a plane, some cars, a particle accelerator. The floor is completely full.

Science Museum

Each item on its own is impressive, but as a collection it seems that the museum is just showing off all the things they have. I think I prefer the smaller, temporary, themed exhibitions within the museum, like the Turing one, or the Oramics exhibit about the history of electronic music – which I saw there on a previous visit. I think I’d probably also like the events for adults that they regularly host, but I’ve never been to one.

Besides the featured exhibits and the main galleries, there are also flashy new areas, with the requisite IMAX and lots of shiny things. You know the worldwide science museum formula by now, after we visited Paris and Seattle.

Science Museum

I read two different pieces about this particular museum recently, that each have a slightly different opinion, but I agree with both of them.

In The Geek Atlas (a book about science-themed travel!) John Graham-Cumming writes “Its collection of historical artifacts is simply outstanding” but later adds that “Unfortunately, the museum is not immune to the “Science is Fun!” wave, and has installed an IMAX 3D theater and various “rides” throughout the building”.

Alice Bell recently gave a talk called “The Science Museum is Pants” at Museum Showoff, which she summarized on her blog. She was quick to point out that it’s not an academic analysis, but “therapy for a misspent youth” after she spent six years working in the museum. Alice also likes the historical artefacts much more than the whizzy modern parts of the museum, but would rather see more of the forgotten technologies that didn’t quite make it. “I’d much rather museums of science and technology should show us roads not travelled, the paths of technological development not taken. It’s exciting to see THE actual Stephenson’s rocket but it’s also a bit of an anti-climax because we already know about it. The gas fridge in the basement, however, is a whole bit of technology many people didn’t even know existed”

So that’s the Science Museum. A lot of historic things, with the occasional zombies and IMAX thrown in, and some themed exhibits (which are my favourite).

If you’re visiting London and you’re in this part of town, you have several museums to choose from. The Natural History Museum is next door to the Science Museum, and the V&A is across the street. Literally. The NHM (which I’ll cover in a future post) is amazing if you like dinosaurs and other fauna, but if you’re more interested in the historical objects that made scientific discovery and technological progress possible, the Science Museum is the place to be.

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