The London science museum sucks (too mild for the pit)

I took the family up to London yesterday; we visited the Bethnal Green museum of childhood in the morning (very good), then in the afternoon, it was out intention to make a very brief stop at the museum of natural history (really just so the kids could see the famous Diplodocus skeleton), then spend most of the afternoon at the science museum.

Except it sucks now; or the bit we mistakenly wandered into did - my childhood memories of this place were of huge impressive industrial machines, artifacts from the history of science and invention and lucid, accessible explanations of how stuff works. Instead, we wandered about in a dimly-lit cacophonic mess of overlapping video projections and intermingled voiceovers, among a series of absurd ‘hands-on’ exhibits that just weren’t either very interesting or informative; the dim, deep-blue lighting scheme made it almost impossible to read the text accompanying the exhibits, or the legends on the various buttons/keyboards; it was impossible to differentiate the audio output of any exhibit from the babbling drone of all the others; we kept ascending staircases hoping that the next floor would hold something comprehensible, but were disappointed.

After an hour of having our senses blandly and fruitlessly assaulted, we walked out in disgust and returned to the museum of natural history, where we spent a very enjoyable 45 minutes in the ‘dinosaur walk’ - where there was an abundance of stimulating factual information and visual content; the kids were ‘wowed’ by all the things they should have been, they absorbed some real data about dinosaurs, they were awed at the size and age of the exhibits, the history of their discovery and the simple impressive nature of the beasts themselves - at the end of the ‘walk’ was an animatronic T Rex - I fully expected this to be disappointing and creaky, but it was in fact the most impressive example of the technology that I’ve ever seen - actually quite believable that we could have been standing in front of an enormous, living predator (except for the small fact of it not actually eating us). So… a big thumbs up to the natural history museum and a hearty ‘WTF?’ to the science museum, I think.

I’ve heard other people say similar things about it recently (including a heavily-critical article in a decent newspaper). I too have memories of it being actually about big steam engines, and space ships, and microscopic stuff, and aeroplanes, and medicine,… It’s a shame, it sounds that by going for the hands-on interactive stuff, they’ve lost their distinctive identity.

Have they changed it recently? I was last there in 2001 (but have been planning to go back), but I remember the big cross section of the 747, the red-painted engine etc.

Hey Mangetout, saw a glove you might like yesterday - black with fur cuff, on Finchley Road, #257. Was going to take a picture of it for you, but thought your Blog might be only for gloves you yourself saw.

It’s been fairly widely suggested that the Science Museum is in crisis and in ways that run deeper than what’s on show to the public.
The staff went on strike over pay earlier this year and there’s been a controversy about the director’s perks rumbling away. By all accounts they’re not retaining or hiring the specialist staff that are necessary to maintain it as a research institution. While the immediate threat has been postponed for the moment, the fate of the Library is still undecided.

Obviously, this is all tied up in the more general arguments about museum and gallery funding that have raged over the last few decades. Just from personal observation, most of the capital’s comparable institutions have either adapted to or thrived under the free entry scheme of recent years. The Science Museum doesn’t seem to have.
Much of this may be the legacy of long neglect. Walking round the obscurer corners of the building, what strikes me is that, rather than being too flashy and new, most of the exhibits obviously haven’t changed in decades. To take one example of personal interest, the gallery devoted to nuclear and particle physics is at least 15-20 years old. Given that this means that the nuclear sections are thus 1980s BNFL propaganda, this gives them a certain kitsch charm, but that’s about it. Occasionally you come across displays that are so dated that what was once intended as a display of contemporary technology has become of entirely historical interest. Still, many of the old displays were always intended to be purely historic and these are still fine - for some reason, the gallery devoted to cameras and projectors comes to mind.
The main policy seems to have been to avoid updating anything unless you can get a corporate sponsor to foot the bill. Hence the Wellcome Wing, which is what I suspect Mangetout and the kids were mainly subjected to. Personally, I don’t think the aesthetics of it work either, but the underlying emphasis on social issues and being able to keep it bang up to date are worthwhile. If not particularly of interest to kids; hiving this stuff off entirely into the Dana Centre may be a better solution.
Of course, their other ploy has been blockbuster exhibitions on “The Science of …” James Bond/Harry Potter/The Lord of the Rings/Hitchhickers Guide etc. etc. I’ve avoided all of these and have not been the target audience, so I can’t judge them. But comments have been made about them sacrificing their name and their mission in search of easy extra income.

On a more positive note, there are some excellent exceptions. The King George III collection of historic instruments is beautifully displayed in a relatively new gallery. Though almost impossible to get on, the tours of the stores are reputedly great.
There’s also a major project to completely overhaul the main halls - which is all the steam engines and the Apollo module etc. (This was announced within the last year, but I don’t see any details online.) This could be a disaster or a successful relaunch of the core.

Indeed they have. From what I saw, it now seems mainly aimed at kids, so everything (where stuff is up to date) is really dumbed down, with no really good explanations any more. And, like Bonzer said, a lot of stuff is realy out of date. The astronomy section is getting on for 25-30 years old; there’s no mention of recent developments, but the stuff that’s on display is presented as if it is cutting edge. As someone who’s rather interested in science outreach, and communicating science to the public, this is really not a good thing, it makes astronomy/nuclear physics/particle physics look like a really outdated, out of touch field, which it is not. This makes me mad (as anyone who’s heard me ranting about this knows!)

The tours of the stores looks really good though. Looks like I’ll have to wait till their next season though. :frowning:

Oh, I wish you had! - I definitely want to get reader submissions.

Since you appear to be from Birmingham, I’ll add that one of the saddest stories of this type is the loss of Birmingham’s museum of science and industry. Some of it (precious little) has been moved to the discovery centre or some similarly-named palace. This is expensive, consists largely of second-hand experiences (“hands on”, aka “broken”) with all too few THINGS.

Please tell me that the Science Museum still has the aeroengines in the roof! I spent hours there as a kid.

I take it you’re thinking of the ThinkTank at Millennium Point? I never saw the engines etc in situ at the old science and industry museum, but I didn’t think that the displays at the ThinkTank (of that particular section) were that bad. Yes, some things were broken, but I didn’t think there was a lack of stuff per say.

Now, the actual science stuff, that got on my tits. It was all very much kiddie based hands on stuff, and mainly biology, with not too much background. But, they are getting better at it, and I liked the fact that particularly in the medicine gallery, they challenged your sense of ethics etc. A lot of exhibits are being updated, and they’re opening a state of the art planetarium in December that I’m tangentially involved with, as well as new interactive exhibits on things like the future of space travel and the search for extra-terrestrial life, where they’ve actually got scientists from fields such as extragalactic astrophysics, astrobiology (Monica Grady), and other related fields to voice their own opinions, based on their scientific knowledge, of where they think these areas are going, and what they think the future will hold. I think that these have the potential to be very very good.

Have to head down there again tomorrow, will keep an eye out for it.

Thanks! - if you manage to get a glove picture, the address for submissions is

Well, I was just there in March with my day (I was 29 at the time) and I adored it. However I went direct to the working Difference Engine (where they were also building another one in full view of patrons) and thence to the historic aircraft section and from there to the very cool history of medical instruments on the tippy-top floor.

There was some silly stuff as well but I knew what I wanted to see and enjoyed all of it.

I’m sure the new planetarium will be spiffing!

I think that the think tank tries to do a different job: maybe it even does it well.But it doesn’t record heritage in the way that the old museum did. That’s what I miss - bottle-making machines and so on.

Indeed it should. And knowing the people involved, they’re very dedicated people who want to inspire people. It should be good, its unfortunate that my constraints are such that I can’t do much work with them on it, but it’ll be great nonetheless.

I think you’re right there. The ThinkTank aims to be a science discovery centre, rather than a museum, and I think that they do this very well.

I think the Science Museum in London is trying to be both a museum and a discovery centre. Unfortunately, I believe its failing in the latter, and does the former reasonably well in some areas, but not in others.

I… I… I think I love you.