Category Archives: New acquisitions

Putting a piece of Cameroon in the Science Museum

Charlotte Connelly is a Content Developer on Information Age, a new exhibition opening in 2014. She works on stories about mobile phones, radio and television. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp are conservators based at the Science Museum’s stores at Wroughton.

This week I’ve headed up to Manchester to talk about a tiny part of Information Age at the biggest ever history of science conference. Together with some other people from the Information Age team I’m running a special session about communications technology in Africa, with a special focus on Cameroon.

Last year a small group of us were lucky enough to go to Cameroon on a field trip to collect a range of objects for the museum that show how mobile phones have affected peoples’ lives. Just like in Britain, the mobile phone means that people organise themselves differently now that they’re constantly connected.

But, in Cameroon telecommunication technology used to be very expensive and difficult to access for most people, and now many more people can own and use a mobile phone making communication much easier. Although we collected lots of different kinds of mobile phone technologies I want to tell you about just one of objects we collected.

Emmanuel’s call box in Bamenda, Cameroon (Source: Science Museum / Sjoerd Epe Sijsma)

Emmanuel Bongsunu lives and works in Bamenda, in the English speaking part of Cameroon. He set up his first call box business in the late 1990s, very soon after mobile phones were introduced into the country. His call box tells the story of how the business evolved over time. In the picture you can see the original part of the call box – the small yellow box at the front that he would have sat behind, probably under an umbrella. As the business grew so too did his call box until eventually it was big enough to stand in, and even had its own electricity supply. When we spoke to Emmanuel he offered to sell us his call box as it would allow him to get a brand new one made to meet his needs today. It was such a great example that we couldn’t resist – even though getting such a big object back to the UK was going to be tricky.

A local carpenter helped us by building enormous crates to put our objects in, and his team also helped us to dismantle this large item. It was difficult to watch it being taken to pieces, and I made endless notes and labelled each part carefully so we would know how to put it back together afterwards.

Our crates ready to be taken to the port and shipped to the UK (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

A few weeks ago I travelled to our stores at Wroughton to work with two of the Science Museum’s conservation team to finally bring the call box back to life. Diana McCormack and Esther Sharp have written about the part they played in reconstructing this rather dilapidated object. Here’s what they had to say:

When this item first arrived at Wroughton we froze it to eliminate any unwanted pest activity, after that it arrived in the conservation laboratory in its disassembled state. We decided to give the object a relatively light clean and to make only necessary repairs to the structure to allow it to be put back together in a stable condition.  Running repairs and rough edges were all part of the object’s history and we wanted to preserve this, making it look too clean or new would not give a true impression of its working life, or the piecemeal way in which it had been constructed.

We did a light surface clean to remove some insect debris and thick soiling that had built up during transportation. Original nails also had to be removed where they were sticking out from the timbers as they were usually bent and corroded and would get in the way of the reassembly, as well posing as a safety hazard to the team. We used modern fixings in the re-build instead, as this involved putting the timbers under less stress and also means in the future it will be obvious which bits are the original object, and which bits we added. Anything we added to the object has been carefully recorded.

Esther and Diana working on reconstructing Emmanuel’s call box (source: Charlotte Connelly / Science Museum)

Some timbers had to be repaired for the structural integrity of the object; in these cases the damage had been caused entirely through the deconstruction process.  The work included ‘consolidating’ the feet of the object to prevent any of the original wood being lost and to protect them during transport to the gallery. Working on the roof was quite challenging, and we built a special support so that it could be worked on upside-down. We haven’t put the roof back on yet because it’ll be easier to transport it back to London in two pieces ready for the display.

Keep your eyes peeled for future posts about how we’re working with Cameroonians based in London to decide together how the various objects we brought back should be displayed.

Collecting synthetic biology – an iGEM of an idea

Collecting stuff is generally the bit I like most about my job. That’s probably why I’ve got a bit over excited about the new acquisitions we’ve made related to synthetic biology – from no other than Tom Knight widely described as the “father” of the discipline.

Synthetic biology is research that combines biology and engineering. Sounds like genetic engineering by another name? Well yes, but it goes much further. It looks to create new biological functions not found in nature, designing them according to engineering principles.  Some see the field as the ultimate achievement of knowledge, citing the engineer-mantra of American physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Biofilm made by the UT Austin / UCSF team for the 2004 Synthetic Biology competition. From drugs to biofuels the potential applications are huge. (Image: WikiCommons)

Now like a lot of biotech, synthetic biology isn’t particularly easy to collect or represent through objects – as it’s the biology that’s interesting and most of the ‘stuff’ used in research is entirely indistinguishable from other biological equipment e.g. micropipettes and microwells.  

What we’ve acquired are a number of iGEM kits – hardware consisting of standardised biological components known as BioBricks™ . Students competing in iGEM are sent these kits to engineer new applications. Check out some of the former winner’s projects: Arsenic Biodetector, Bactoblood, E. Chromi.

Biological lego – parts that have particular functions and can be readily assembled. The kits document a fascinating ten year period in the discipline of synthetic biology – starting from this basic aliquot kit sent out when iGEM first launched c.2002. (Image: Science Museum)

The origin of these objects and the idea for BioBricks™ is rather curious. They didn’t emerge from biology – but from computer science. Tom Knight was a senior researcher at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Tom became interested in the potential for using biochemistry to overcome the impending limitations of computer transistors.

Knight Lab: Tom set up a biology lab in his computer science department and began to explore whether simple biological systems could be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. That led to setting up iGEM.

From aliquots to paper based DNA to microwells – the kits show the technological change and sheer complexity of distributing biological components to teams competing around the globe.

In 2008 - the kits trialled paper embedded DNA via these folders - but it didn't quite work out. The kits do, however, represent an important ethic - that of open-sourcing in science. Students collaborate and contribute to adding new biological parts. (Image: Science Museum)

Suggestions for other synthetic biology stuff we could collect gratefully received!

Remembering the Devonport Incident – 50 years on

One bottle is a killer. The other is entirely safe. They’re identical in every other way – indeed from the same manufacturing batch. This new acquisition was donated by Professor Barry Cookson, former Director of the Laboratory of Healthcare Associated Infection, HPA. But what happened to make one so deadly and the other not?

These are the first bottles of dextrose solution to be published ( Science Museum, London )

These bottles of dextrose are sad reminders of the life and death hunt for 500 similar bottles in March 1972. Five patients died at the Devonport Hospital in Plymouth having received fluid from the same batch as these. The fluid was found to be heavily contaminated with bacteria.  A landmark inquiry was launched to discover what went wrong and to ensure it wouldn’t happen again.

Sterilisation is a key story in the advancement of modern medicine. It’s critical to everyday hospital practice. Largely a practical matter of engineering and systematic checks, sterilisation isn’t glamorous but it’s critical for patient safety – as the Devonport Incident illustrated.

An autoclave is a machine that sterilizes equipment by subjecting them to high pressure steam ( Science Museum, London )

In 1971, these two bottles were autoclaved at the same time. A fault on the machine resulted in only the bottles on the top two shelves being sterilised properly. Those on the lower shelf were not. There were quality control checks – but the assessed bottles were only taken from the top shelf so the failure wasn’t detected and the whole batch was issued for use.

Eleven months later the bottles from the lower shelf reached Devonport hospital. During that time, surviving bacteria multiplied in the solution and produced a toxic fluid with deadly consequences.  There are only slight differences between the bottles – the aluminium cap on the contaminated bottle was still shiny as it hadn’t been sufficiently heated to go dull like the bottle that was sterilised

Image credit: Barry Cookson

 What’s sad is that it often takes tragic incidents like this to identify what’s going wrong with a system, and then implement new standards and checks. The inquiry identified numerous ways safety could be improved from manufacturer to hospital – thankfully those measures are still implemented today and the lessons from this incident are still taught to hundreds of healthcare workers every year.

Curatorial collecting – new radioactive tracer machine

One of the best parts of a curator’s job is collecting new objects. It can sometimes feel like a daunting task but occasionally serendipitous circumstances lead to a great acquisition.

A member of staff from GE Healthcare was visiting the Science and Art of Medicine gallery of the 5th floor of the museum and noticed that their company had recently developed a new updated version of a piece of kit. Fortunately for us, they offered us a model for the Museum’s collections.

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare (© GE Healthcare)

The generator produces a radioactive version of the element Technetium-99, used as a tracer in the body. Radioactive tracers are used in nuclear medicine. This is the use of radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat illness. The radioactive element is injected, swallowed or inhaled and the progress is tracked using a gamma camera or a PET scanner. The radiation received from a tracer is comparable to that of an X-ray.

PET Scanner ( Wellcome Images )

Non-radioactive tracers have also been used to image the body. Early versions of tracers include a barium meal drink used with X-rays to show up the guts.

Barium 'Shadow Meal', 1981-595/1 (Science Museum, London)

One of the most commonly used tracers is Technetium-99. One of the problems is that Technetium-99 has a half-life of only 6 hours. So it is transported with a longer lasting isotope Molybdenum-99. Once at the hospital, the isotopes can be separated. This is done by injecting a saline or salt solution which leaves the molybdenum absorbed on the aluminium columns inside.

The designers at GE Healthcare worked in collaboration with hospital staff including radiographers to find out their needs and come up with a design solution. The model has won design awards from the Design Business Association and has also reduced its carbon footprint in the process.

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: publichistory@sciencemuseum.org.uk.

Recording science and medicine

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the items in our collections used to record the thoughts and ideas of practitioners of science and medicine.

We have a great number of inkwells, pens and pencils belonging to scientists and doctors, some famous, like Louis Pasteur and others less so.

Louis Pasteur's inkstand, 1800s ( Science Museum, London )

Some of these items have almost a relic status about them having been owned by scientists and doctors who made a great impact on the history of science and medicine. Knowing who owned an item, to me, entirely changes how I look at it.

Pen owned by Alfred Chune Fletcher (Science Museum, London)

But why collect this item, a pen from a Mr. Alfred Chune Fletcher? Mr. Fletcher (1865-1913) was a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England and a Senior House Surgeon at St Bartholemew’s Hospital. Pens like this are often everyday tools of doctors, capturing their normal working lives rather than landmarks in the history of medicine.

Laboratory books have also been a common theme in the collections, especially when they detail important discoveries.

'Mouse Book, Factor IX', 1980-1985 ( Science Museum, London )

These laboratory books detail the experiments for the discovery of  a monoclonal antibody to Factor IX. Monoclonal antibodies are identical antibodies cloned from a single cell. Factor IX is one of the factors involved in blood clotting. Its absence causes a type of haemophilia.

In the electronic age should we be collecting email correspondence and scientists’ hard drives to represent the working lives of doctors and scientists? With rapidly decreasing storage space, deciding what objects to acquire is going to be a challenge for us and future generations of curators.

Collecting the uncollectable?

There are some stories you read in the press that you immediately react to as a curator. For me recently it was reading about the first UK Service of Dedication for lives lost to eating disorders that took place at Southwark Cathedral.

Sensing an acquisition in sight, I contacted b-eat - a UK charity for people with eating disorders – to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service.

Recent acquisition. Order of Service from Southwark Cathedral dedicated to lives lost to eating disorders (Credit: Science Museum).

Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa are such prevalent mental health problems – affecting 1.6 million people in the UK alone – yet such experiences are barely documented through material culture at all.

Part of the problem is that there might not be any objects to collect. Can we document mental health experiences (depression for example) when they seemingly aren’t embodied in objects or expressed through stuff?

Why collect objects to represent such illnesses anyway?

With an anthropological hat on, documenting experiences and reactions to eating disorders reveals a lot about us as a society –  the significance of food and health, perceptions of beauty, and how our bodies respond to stress.

Historically, how societies have treated self-starvation is fascinating. Apollonia Schreier, a German woman, was credited with almost mystical abilities after refusing food for 11 months.

Engraving of Apollonia Schreier by Paullus Lentillus after her alleged fast of 11 months, at Galz, near Berne, 1604. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Of course we can’t treat such experiences as ‘Anorexia’ – the condition didn’t medically exist until the late nineteenth century. But by documenting historical and contemporary experiences through material culture, we can perhaps understand a little better why we treat illnesses today as we do.

A relatively recent mental health phenomenon? As this Lancet case report shows, doctors began to diagnose cases of self-starvation as Anorexia Nervosa towards the end of the nineteenth century. (Source: Wellcome Library)

Perhaps not all human experiences can be told through objects. Yet, I’d argue that material culture has a unique ability to connect you to stories and experiences even at a glance – so I think it’s worth a bit of lateral thinking.

Anyway, here’s a few other objects we could collect on the topic: size zero clothing, the personal effects of an individual who’s experienced an eating disorder (perhaps their weighing scale or diary for instance), self-help manuals, health education material etc. Other thoughts, suggestions or insights most welcome.

X-rated collecting: Part-1

The Science Museum might not be the first place you think of when you hear the word sex, but we’ve got lots of artefacts from all over the world designed both to titillate and to treat sexual dysfunction and infertility. Some even claim to cast a love spell (Brian Cox watch out – I have the power…).

To add to this collection we’ve been working with Jonathan Roberts, lecturer at Mount Saint Vincent University, to make some new acquisitions. Jonathan’s been out collecting love, sex and fertility medicines for us in the markets of Accra, Ghana’s capital.

The first thing you notice about stalls selling sex medicines, Jonathan says, is the immense diversity of treatments that both male and female patients can choose from.

Alongside traditional West African treatments, vendors are selling Christian and Islamic faith medicines, as well as pharmaceuticals like real Pfizer Viagra and fake Chinese “Vigra”.

The stalls are like display cases for many different medical cultures. (Credit: Jonathan Roberts).

West African medical systems tend to be pluralistic. Practices and treatments encountered from different cultures are selectively absorbed, and re-invented in parallel with traditional African practises to meet the specific health needs of African communities.

Jonathan adds, this fusion of medical cultures reflects to a great extent the power of African patients. Patients to an extent self-diagnose their problem in order to make choices about which medical system is most appropriate to them or which treatment they believe will be most effective.

Comfort Owusu, the trader the medicines were purchased from (Jonathan Roberts).

Researchers like Jonathan are investigating how patients are making such choices – which has profound implications for improving health services.

Of course collecting these medicines poses some difficult issues for us Curators. Explicit imagery on the boxes, for example, makes real or virtual display problematic (even these photos needed lots of editing to be usable!).

But without preserving these items, evidence documenting this fascinating period of cultural and medical hybridisation in West Africa will disappear.

So what gets in?

Having blogged about our tamiflu discussions (we medical curators have exciting lives), I thought might be a good idea to talk about the kind of things we have acquired in the last year or so.

Resuscitator for reviving "persons apparently dead"

Resuscitator for reviving "persons apparently dead"

One of my favourites is our new smoking collection. Smoking, and tobacco, have a long and not always negative association with medicine. So we already have a perhaps surprising number of objects related to tobacco, from smoking paraphernalia to the rather fabulous Resuscitator for reviving “persons apparently dead” (aka tobacco enema). This scary contraption used tobacco’s properties as a stimulant to try and revive unconcious individuals – through the mouth or rectum.

Branded ashtrays

Branded ashtrays

When the smoking ban came into effect in England on July 1, 2007, our public health curator had already identified a whole set of objects which might not exist in the future. We collected ‘no smoking’ signs, branded ashtrays, and complimentary matches given out by restaurants; all rescued from the bars and clubs of London (it’s a tough job…)

Time to collect tamiflu?

Working at a Museum doesn’t just mean thinking about the past, often it involves a bit of dabbling in futurology as well. We are lucky enough to have a very rich medical collection at the Science Museum, centred on objects collected by Henry Wellcome. However, his collection ends in 1936, when he died. So, in order to keep up to date, we are always thinking about the kind of objects that we need to acquire for the collection.

With medical technology changing so rapidly, we could easily run out of space unless we collect carefully. One of our criteria is to collect things which represent a real shift in medical practice, or the way the public understand and use a particular medicine.

With ‘swine’ flu (H1N1) having been declared a pandemic, my colleagues and I have been discussing whether or not it is time to collect tamiflu. I’m not so sure it is… Why not? While the word ‘pandemic’ sounds very extreme, it actually means that an infectious disease that can be found globally. The ‘ Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed over 20 million people, and was thought to have infected half the world’s population. But not all pandemics have such high infection or mortality rates. And the use of an anti-viral treatment such as tamiflu isn’t a new idea.

Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT)  -

Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) - the first antiviral approved for treating HIV

We do have antivirals in the collection already, for instance AZT, the first successful anti-viral able to treat HIV/AIDS. This was such a major shift in the treatment of HIV/AIDs, we felt we should acquire some. But while it went on the market in 1987, we didn’t acquire any until 1994 – perhaps for ethical reasons, as it is difficult to justify collecting a treatment which is in high demand and short supply.

As for the tamiflu – one of my colleagues thinks the current pandemic, and the media and public responses to it, justify us looking at acquiring some. Her suggestion? She has been offered a half finished packet, which someone she knows stopped taking due to the side-effects. Not only does this remove any ethical issues (the medicine can’t be re-prescribed to someone else), there’s also another interesting story to be told, about patient compliance.

What are your thoughts? Should we take on tamiflu?