Category Archives: Exhibitions

Noisy books

Recently, one of my colleagues sent me this link to a small synthesizer hidden in a book.

The synthesiser is a bought piece of equipment, but it’s designed to be hacked and modified by whoever uses it and this particular owner probably had a good reason to keep it hidden. Or he just thought it would be fun to stick a synth in an old book.

Either way, this quirky instrument instantly reminded me of one of the objects in our collection: the Shozyg, invented and built by electro-acoustic musician Hugh Davies.

Shozyg by Hugh Davies (© Science Museum, London)

It is one of many electronic instruments designed by Hugh and made with unconventional materials. He called these instruments Shozygs. This is one of the first Shozygs Hugh made and, like the tiny synthesiser, it is also hidden in a book. It is built into a volume of the New World Library Knowledge Encyclopaedia covering words starting with the letters Sho- to Zyg-, to be precise. It inspired Hugh to come up with the quirky name Shozyg for this instrument and those that were to follow.

I’m not an expert when it comes to identifying electronic parts, but a surprising number of them seem strangely familiar to me when I look at the Shozyg. Squares of foam that could have been part of a sofa, blades of a fretsaw, a spring that looks very similar to the kind you find inside some pens.

Like so many other instruments I came across when working on our exhibition about the history of electronic music, it doesn’t look much like an instrument at all.

Inside the Shozyg (© Science Museum, London)

This made me wonder, what would the Shozyg have sounded like? After a bit of digging around I found this video of Hugh playing the Shozyg before it became part of the Science Museum’s collection.

After Hugh passed away, many of his instruments were given to the Science Museum by his widow. Sound recordings of his work can be found in the British Library.

Some of the Hugh Davies Collection is currently on display in our exhibition Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music. I particularly like his toolbox. It reminds us that so many electronic musicians, past and present, use their creativity not only to play existing instruments, but also to imagine new ones. Whether you call it hacking or making do with what you’ve got, it’s certainly inspiring.

Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music can be found on the second floor of the Science Museum until December 2012.

Hugh Davies' toolbox (© Science Museum, London)

Einstein was right!

We sometimes find that objects in our collections suddenly become newsworthy because of events beyond the Museum. This beautiful, but small and unassuming, object on display in Cosmos & Culture is now one of them.

Small, but perfectly formed (Science Museum)

It’s a prototype gyroscope from the Gravity Probe B experiment, which has been testing predictions made by Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that a massive body such as the Earth should warp and twist the space-time around it.

Four spheres like this one – among the most perfect ever made – were set spinning on a spacecraft precisely pointed towards a guide star. Scientists spent several years ploughing through data to see if the angle of the spheres’ spin was altered by the warp and twist, and yesterday NASA announced the results. They’re just as Einstein predicted.

We acquired the gyroscope back in 2005, while the spacecraft was busy gathering data, and I was lucky enough to meet chief scientist Francis Everitt.

At the time he was non-commital about what the experiment might reveal: ‘There’s many reasons for thinking that as magnificent as the advance General Relativity gives, it’s not quite the final answer. Whether, for example, in our experiment or not one will find anything different from Einstein, I’ve no wish to make any prediction about. Our job is to do the experiment. But physics advances, science advances, by measuring things’.

The results are a huge vindication for the Gravity Probe B project - it was in the planning for over 40 years and the mission faced cancellation several times. But, as Everitt says, we still may not have the final answer.

General relativity is so complex that there are many other predictions of the theory which are yet to be confirmed, and other scientists are busy making their own measurements. Some of the experiments haven’t even started yet. This is a prototype part for Advanced LIGO, a ground-based experiment due to be completed in 2015.

Will Advanced LIGO also prove Einstein right? (Science Museum)

Here‘s how it works … and here‘s how we put it together for exhibition display (cue lots of head-scratching from our Workshops team). Some time after 2015, might this object also be hitting the headlines?

We have also sound-houses…

“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet…”

Daphne Oram, founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, returned time and again to this quotation from Francis Bacon’s 17th century fantasy, The New Atlantis.

Now, with help from our friends at Goldsmiths College, we have been able to acquire the machine that was fed by these fantasies, “The Oramics Machine”, as she called it.

Input device for Oramics machine, before conservation (credit: Tim Boon)

Listen! That’s Daphne herself showing off just some of the sounds that this extraordinary beast could produce.  

Oramics Machine sound generator cabinet (credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

People like to say that things are unique. This one really is - there was only ever one. Daphne operated it by painting on the ten synchronised strips of 35mm film that used to run across the top of the machine. Via light-dependent transistors this produced voltages that controlled the sound generators in the white cabinet. These too were based on hand-painted waveforms:

Two waveform slides hand-painted by Daphne Oram, from her Oramics Machine (Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society)

We have big plans for this unique machine.

We can report that it has been very carefully conserved by our experts and it’s going to go on display in the Museum later this year, surrounded by other gems from the Museum’s music and sound collections.

Nick Street has posted a video of the machine’s arrival in this country: Oramics by Nick Street. If you’d like to hear more about the project, keep an eye on this blog or e-mail us at:

Living Medical Traditions

Our fifth floor gallery, The Science and Art of Medicine, touches on issues as emotive as abortion and third world health – so it is no surprise that it has been the subject of comment over the years.

A recent blog post and subsequent comments on Twitter have breathed life into an old debate about the presence of content relating to living medical traditions in the gallery.

First some basic scene setting for those who haven’t visited the gallery – it is made up of three sections – 2 large areas called Modern Medicine and Before Modern Medicine and a smaller area called Living Medical Traditions which was updated in 2006. Within this section there is a small area devoted to ‘Personal Stories’ which show how people choose to use medical treatments from different traditions.

Personal stories explanatory text

Explanatory text from the gallery

On this subject we have an official statement from the Museum:

In our ‘Living Medical Traditions’ section of the Science and Art of Medicine Gallery we take an anthropological and sociological perspective on medical practices. We reflect patient experience in a global setting. We do not evaluate different medical systems, but demonstrate the diversity of medical practices and theoretical frameworks currently thriving across the world.

Our message in this display is that these traditions are not ‘alternative’ systems in most parts of the world. Instead they currently offer the majority of the global population their predominant, sometimes only, choice of medical care. We do not make any claims for the validity of the traditions we present. For example, we include the use of acupuncture but do not say that acupuncture ‘works’. We consider that these ‘alternative’ medical practices are of considerable cultural significance. We also recognise that some may consider the inclusion of these practices in the Science Museum controversial.

As with all Science Museum galleries independent experts were consulted when developing this gallery. In this instance advice was sought from leading academics in the history of non-western medical traditions as well as practitioners and users of these traditions. We maintained editorial control throughout and resisted equating local medical practices with the western medical tradition.

And now some comments from a curator who worked on the exhibit:

In the Personal Stories section of ‘Living Medical Traditions’ we chose to present the patient / practitioner perspective and describe their experiences. With this approach, we felt it would be clear that it was the patients and practitioners who had confidence in the efficacy of these other traditions, rather than the Science Museum. We certainly did not feel that by displaying such things in the Museum we were endorsing them. For example, another controversial exhibit – the Euthanasia Machine – is on display on our ground floor, but by displaying it we are not advocating assisted suicide. We appreciate that our visitors will have their own views.

In the same way that the gallery presents the medicine that the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Renaissance physicians and so on and so on believed in and practised, we are doing a similar thing for TCM, Ayurveda etc which happen to still be practised today.

On the specific subject of homeopathy, we felt that the approach was very careful in explaining that the belief was with the users, but not us.

There’s a snapshot of the display here.

One final, rather cheeky point – critics of homeopathy are keen to point out that ‘Anecdotes are not data’. Quite right – and on that note we’d would love to encourage people who haven’t actually visited the gallery to come and see it for themselves. It’s free and if it stimulates this kind of debate then it can’t be all bad…

Psychoanalysis: the unconscious in everyday life

For the past six months, I’ve been working on an exhibition Psychoanalysis: The unconscious in everyday life which opened in the middle of October.

Curated by Dr Caterina Albano, from Artark at Central St Martins and sponsored by the Institute of Psychoanalysis, the exhibition looks at the workings of the unconscious mind through historical and contemporary artefacts.

As well as drawing on contemporary art by artists such as Grayson Perry, Tim Noble and Sue Webster and Mona Hatoum, some of our objects are on display for the first time. They have also been interpreted by leading psychoanalysts, whose voices you can hear on the gallery.

Votive face, Roman, 200 BCE-200 CE (A634923 Science Museum, London)

As well as some of our famous tattoos, a range of votives are on display. Votive offerings were made at the temple of a healing god such as Asklepios, the Greco-Roman god of healing and medicine. They were made in the hope of receiving a cure or as thanks for one.

For the exhibition the votives have been interpreted as an example of wish-fulfilment. Wish fulfilment is a technical term for a particular state of mind in which our unconscious wishes are fulfilled in our fantasies. Freud came to the view that dreams have in them the fulfilment of secret wishes that would be unacceptable to our waking conscious mind. For me, it is amazing to get a different perspective on our objects.

Play is another theme explored in the exhibition. Using the Margaret Lowenfeld toys currently in the Science Museum’s collection, dream-like scenarios have been set out for the visitor to interpret. Play is an important tool in analysis as it allows children to express their thoughts and feelings in a non-verbal way. 

Lowenfeld toys – zoo sign and tree scene

Lowenfeld toys – zoo sign and tree scene (Science Museum)

Visit Beyond the Couch for an in-depth digital catalogue or come to the Museum to see the real thing.

Great Men and gruesome mementos

A few weeks ago, Stewart talked about relics in our collections – often mundane objects that have gained mystique through association with famous historical characters. Recently, I got a close-up look at what’s possibly the ultimate scientific museum relic: Galileo’s body parts.

The middle finger of Galileo’s right hand has been on display at Florence’s history of science museum for many years. The museum’s recently been refurbished and (in what’s possibly a cunning marketing tool to entice visitors from the Uffizi around the corner) renamed the Museo Galileo. A gallery which contains the only surviving instruments made by Galileo himself has the finger in pride of place – and also another finger, thumb and tooth that were recently found.

Galileo's fingers on display (Alison Boyle).

The display stands, made in the 18th and 19th centuries, reinforce the idea of saintly reliquaries. It’s questionable whether these remains can tell us much about Galileo and his work – certainly less than studying the instruments he made, or his books and papers in the Museo’s archives. But during my visit they were by far the most popular objects in the gallery.

There’s an enduring fascination with the relics of ‘Great Men’.

Several apple trees around the country are claimed to be descended from Newton’s inspiration for the laws of gravitation, despite the story being almost certainly apocryphal: he only related the tale of watching an apple drop a few years before his death (possibly with a view to furthering his posthumous fame) and the story only gained wider currency centuries later.

It’s now unstoppable – a fragment of ‘that tree’ has even been taken into space. But if you prefer something a bit closer to the man himself, a number of Newton’s death masks survive.

An engraving based on Newton's death mask (Science Museum).

Almost anything associated with Einstein is highly collectible – his brain, removed during autopsy, had its own adventure, including a road trip across the US in the boot of a rental car. You can read more about the strange story of Einstein’s brain on our Ingenious website, or in Carolyn Abrahams’ book Possessing Genius.

We seem to crave such relics of genius – and the more gruesome the better.

Could studying Einstein's brain ever reveal his reasoning? (Associated Press / Science & Society)

Why did James Watt own a saw with no teeth?

Preparing the contents of an 18th century workshop for display is a complicated and fascinating thing to do. And when it belongs to the engineering icon, James Watt, it’s even more challenging.

Watt was a Scottish engineer, born in 1736. His fame stems from a stupendously clever improvement to the steam engine, the separate condenser. He and his other contemporaries kick-started what we now sometimes call the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1815

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1815 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve got the garret workshop from his retirement home at Heathfield near Birmingham. It contains over 2400 items – tools, machines, instruments, bits and pieces he worked on, pots containing chemicals and all sorts of wonderful stuff from various times in his life.

James Watt's garret workshop, 1790-1819.

James Watt's garret workshop, 1790-1819. Science Museum / Science & Society

One of the chests of drawers contained a saw that looked a bit odd.

A saw with no teeth

A saw with no teeth! Found in James Watt’s workshop. (Science Museum)

No teeth! Now, this was in fact the standard bit of kit for cutting stone – you chiselled a groove where you wanted to cut, poured emery dust or some other abrasive material into the crack, and then used the saw to make the final cut.

As one of James Watt’s final inventions was a method of copying sculpture, which involved cutting the copies out of blanks, the saw must have been used for producing the little ingots to go in his copying machines.

So the saw makes sense of some other mysteries - like the presence of lots of powdered emery and those rather impressive busts.

How we got the planes in: part two

A couple of weeks ago I talked about how we got the aircraft into our Flight gallery, in response to a Twitter question. I said I’d been to our photo archive to see if we had any pictures of the 1960s aircraft installation, and I turned up lots of great images.

Well, the scans have just arrived, so for those interested in how to get a Supermarine S6B world-speed-record-breaking aeroplane into a third-floor gallery in central London in 1961, here goes…

Supermarine S6B in mid-lift (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B in the air (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B perched on a ledge (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B ready to go in (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B on final approach (Science Museum)

Supermarine S6B has landed! The wings go on later (Science Museum)

And their suits are all still pristine!

James Watt, RIP

James Watt died 191 years ago today. He was considered one of the most important engineers in the country, and after his death he was turned into a national hero. The result was a slew of statues, memorials and paintings – some of which will go on show in a new exhibition opening in spring 2011. More details to follow…

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792.

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

When Watt was 59, his friend and partner Matthew Boulton introduced him to Carl von Breda, who painted the earliest portrait that that Watt was known to sit for. At the time, 1792, he was fighting to save their steam engine business from legal challenges, but was wealthy enough to have built his house Heathfield near Birmingham to suit his growing family.

James Watt from painting by Lawrence, 1813 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1815, he was more relaxed, and more prepared to have his portrait painted. This one, by Thomas Lawrence, was much liked by the artist, who thought it was the finest he had ever painted, but the family – James Watt, and his eldest son James Watt Jnr – didn’t really care for it.

James Watt, Scottish engineer (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Another highly regarded artist, Sir Francis Chantrey, produced a marble bust for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1815. Watt was swathed in a toga-like cloak as a 19th century conceit to show he was a true philosopher.

The bust was much copied, and even Watt had a go, using the bust to test his sculpture-copying machines. He wrote to a friend “I do not think myself of importance enough to fill up so much of my friends’ houses as the original bust does”.

James Watt, British engineer, as a young man, c 1769 painted 1860. Science Museum / Science & Society

This was painted after Watt’s death, but he is shown as a young man studying a mal-functioning model of a Newcomen steam engine. The challenge of trying to get it to work put Watt on the road to perfecting full-size engines.

Bizarrely there was even a Japanese woodcut, prepared in the 1880s for primary school children, showing him testing the steam from a boiling kettle in his aunt’s house.

Winding the Wells

One of the highlights of a visit to Wells Cathedral is seeing the oldest surviving clock face in the world, in the north transept. Above the face, jousting knights on horseback do battle, with one unfortunate being knocked over. Looking on, a figure called Jack Blandifer chimes bells each quarter-hour. Originally the knights charged every hour, but due to tourist demand the display was modified in the 1960s to allow a shorter joust to happen every 15 minutes. The knights switched from horsepower to electric power. Here’s a video.

A 1961 travel advertisement for Wells (NRM / Science & Society)

Other parts of the clock remained hand-wound, carrying on a tradition of over 600 years. It’s a time-consuming job and the clock is now going to be wound automatically.

However, the original medieval clock from Wells Cathedral is still wound by hand. The mechanism, which was installed in the cathedral in 1392, was replaced in 1837. It came to the Patent Museum in 1871, and has been part of the Science Museum’s collections since 1884. Currently on display in our Measuring Time gallery, it’s the second-oldest working mechanical clock in England, after the one in Salisbury Cathedral (although that is not regularly run).

A detail of the Wells clock (Science Museum).

The daily job of winding the clock is done by Richard from our Conservation team. Each morning, he winds the clock’s three gear trains (one would have controlled the interior and exterior clock faces, one the hour actions and one the quarter-hour actions). The whole process can take up to half an hour and Richard says it’s a very good workout! Read an interview with him here.

Fast hands: Richard winds the Wells (Alison Boyle).

The clock keeps very good time, only losing a few seconds per day. And our Conservation team keeps other clocks in the gallery running too – more about that in a future blog.