The Science Museum as an institution has been in existence for about a century and a half. It has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in Hyde Park in the huge glass building known as the Crystal Palace. The popularity of the exhibition ensured a large financial surplus, which its patron Prince Albert suggested should be used to found a number of educational establishments on the land available nearby. The first of these was the South Kensington Museum, opened in 1857 on land which is now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The Science Museum has over 300,000 objects in its care, with particular strengths in the history of western science, technology and medicine since 1700.
It has been uniquely placed to acquire objects recording the Industrial Revolution, and now holds unrivalled collections in this area. Medical artefacts from all periods and cultures also form an important part of its holdings.
Located on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, alongside the National History Museumand the V&A, the ScienceMuseum is filled with objects that show the depths of human knowledge and scientific progress. Compared to the more grandiose style of the other museums on Exhibition Road, the Science Museum is very modern; models of planes and cars hang from the ceilings while the building recalls a giant exhibition hall. When you first enter the museum you will come upon the East Hall, where you will find 3 floors of steam engines and other objects that tell the story of Britain's industrial revolution.
Amongst a gallery of iconic steam engines, one that really stands out is one of the earliest known beam engines, Old Bess. Old Bess was constructed in 1777 and used until 1848. It is the earliest known surviving Watt steam engine, and it is important for its role in the eventual development of the steam engine. The floor holds other notable examples of steam engines, and the museum does a good job of showing the progression of the steam engine technology, one that eventually became the main source of power for industry and transport by the end of the 19thcentury. Speaking of transport, I'd recommend that you see the early locomotives the museum holds as well. The museum does a fine job of separating its varied objects into themed categories, and you can find Stephenson's Rocket (an early steam locomotive) over in the Making the Modern World Gallery.
Stephenson's Rocket, constructed in 1829, was incredibly innovative in its design for the time, and it came to be the template for most steam engines in the next century. Stephenson designed his locomotive to have two large driving wheels in the front and two smaller trailing wheels in the back. The lack of any leading wheels made the wheel design 0-2-2. Other innovations in Stephenson's design include the blastpipe and the use of multiple boiler fire-tubes. The other early locomotive you should see is called Puffing Billy. Currently the world's oldest surviving steam locomotive, Puffing Billy was in use from 1814 to 1862, when it was sold to the Science Museum where it still remains today. Also worth seeing is the Apollo 10 module, which serves to show how far human technology regarding travel has come.
One of the other interesting galleries to see is the Flight Gallery on the third floor. Here, you will find several full sized airplanes and helicopters, as well as numerous aero-engines. You will find lots of information about the history of flying, and once again the museum does an excellent job at showing the progress humans have made in aviation from the early days of flight to now. Some of the notable aircrafts include the Vickers Vimy, the WWII fighter planes Spitfire andHurricane, and the full-size slice of a Boeing 747. The Vickers Vimy was the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean nonstop, and the actual plane flown by Alcock and Brown in June 1919 is preserved here.
One of the most popular exhibits also resides on the third floor, and it is one that really gets at the “science” of the Science Museum. Launchpad is a gallery that features over fifty interactive exhibits including live shows and experiments put on by the staff in red shirts, who are more than pleased to answer any of your questions regarding the exhibits. Launchpad focuses on the physical sciences, and the exhibits are designed to show you how things work. For example, the exhibit Grain Pit features plenty of simple machines, from levers to pulleys to axles, and they are all there for you to pull and play with and see how it all works. Although this gallery is very popular with kids and student groups, don't let that put you off from having some fun here if you are older. This is one of the museum's most popular galleries and for good reason.
The Science Museum is both a traditional museum and one that offers a lot of interactive learning opportunities for those interested in the physical sciences. If you have an interest in understanding the way the world works, then you can come here with a pen and paper and learn a lot. Alternately, if you just wish to enjoy a day in a museum you can come here and check out famous objects from the scientific world and spend some time tinkering with the museum's many interactive exhibits. This is a museum that has much to offer to its visitors.
-By Phillip Storm, Arts Correspondent, VisitMuseums.com
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