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  • Writer's pictureSara-Jane Armstrong, MA

A Brief History of the Science Museum in London

What is the Science Museum?

The Science museum is a museum dedicated to science, technology and innovation, originally formed in the mid-19th century as a combination of the South Kensington Museum and the Patent Office Museum collection.

Shadowssettle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

History of London’s Science Museum

In the mid-19th century, the Scientific and Educational Department of the South Kensington Museum (now known as the V&A) merged with the Patent Office Museum collection to form what would become known as the Science Museum. It served a mishmash of purposes. Conceived as a dedication to the Patent Office and to industrial innovation and design, it also had displays of animal products, food, and construction materials. In the wake of the Great Exhibition in 1851, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were establishing museums all over West London, dedicated to the arts, history, and to the natural world. From the outset, the founders of the Science Museum wanted to challenge the dominance of art and culture, to display celebratory symbols of Britain’s booming industry and the innovation it inspired. Yet it was more than a decade before its identity really started to emerge.

Edging tentatively towards cohesion in its displays, the museum started to collect more and more items connoting the rapid expansion of Britain’s mass transportation industries. Enormous marine engines and finely detailed model ships created a burgeoning sense of continuity for what had been a chaotic collection. Its dedicated focus on the sciences was established by the popularity of an 1876 exhibition, named the ‘Special Loan Collection of Scientific Instruments’, after which point the association of Norman Lockyer (the founder-editor of the journal Nature) with the collections brought a renewed sense of energy to the project. His consistent lobbying for the dedication of the museum strictly to the sciences led to the accumulation of thousands of scientific instruments from around the world, and in 1909 the Science and Engineering collections of the South Kensington Museum were officially given the name by which we now know them today.

The site, as you now see it, was built in stages throughout the 20th century. In the 1920s, just before the first part of the new site was fully opened, Sir Henry Lyons, then Director of the museum, argued that the displays ought to meet the needs of the ‘ordinary visitor’ ahead of the specialists. So, in 1931, Lyons opened the Children’s Gallery which went on to pave the way for some of the most exciting and interactive elements of the modern museum.

Forming part of Prince Albert’s plan for widely available education facilities, the museum has always been free and has an enduring popularity in London. The 1986 introduction of Launch Pad, a hands-on exhibit where visitors (especially children) could discover exactly how technologies worked for themselves by interacting with the display, firmly established the Science Museum’s popularity among generations of would-be engineers and technicians. Launch Pad was expanded several times, and in 2016 was replaced with the £6 million Wonderlab gallery.

Over the past 150 years, the Science Museum has proved itself an establishment of continual change. Its galleries are rarely static for long, keeping pace with the exponential shifts of science, technology, industry, and medicine over the last century. Matching the inventors whose work it commemorates for restless innovation and progress, the museum has developed tactile and interactive learning experiences.

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