Category Archives: Public history

Booming Fifties, Swinging Sixties. Exploring the British post-war popular culture of science

What was the popular culture of science like in Britain, in the fifties and sixties? The Science Museum has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to start exploring this question.

Sputnik 1 satellite, 1957

The 1950s and 1960s were years of technological expansion. In 1957, the space race started, with the USSR’s successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. In 1969, the USA put humans on the Moon. In 1954 the European organisation for nuclear research, CERN, which operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, was established. And throughout the two decades, civil uses of nuclear energy were being developed.

 These decades of post-war reconstruction, of decolonization and independence, were also when the world population began to boom. Industrial agricultural technologies, such as pesticides and nitrogen based synthetic fertilizers, started to spread outside industrialized nations, as part of what was called the Green Revolution.

Richard Dimbleby from the BBC Panorama programme during a live broadcast from the Science Museum, on 14 May 1962, for the exhibition of the US Mercury Capsule, Friendship 7. (credit: Science Museum)

The project, compares how space exploration, nuclear physics, agro-chemistry, and the history of science were put on display in exhibitions at the Science Museum, and on television in BBC programmes. We are looking at how the Museum’s displays and television programmes were organised – what was shown, how it was shown, what decisions led to elements being included and others left out. For example the American Mercury space capsule Friendship 7 was displayed at the Science Museum in May 1962, and it was shown on Panorama, in the same week. Did the two media – museum and television – take the same approach to it? Or were they subtly different? Our project is finding out.

If you remember a visit to the Science Museum during the fifties or sixties, for instance to see the space capsule Freedom 7 in 1965, please feel free to send us an email at

The Intermedial Science project has been made possible by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Call the Midwife

Like most curators, I’m always on the look-out for interesting stories and things that capture public interest. So it won’t be much of a surprise to find I’ve been watching and reading Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. Call the Midwife chronicles the work of the author as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s.

As you would expect we have a large collection of objects relating to midwifery and obstetrics. The piece of kit that caught my eye during the TV serialisation of the book is the foetal stethoscope.

Foetal stethoscope, 1870-1920 ( Science Museum, London )

Used to listen for a foetal heartbeat, this piece of equipment is a far cry from the electronic heartbeat monitoring that is sometimes used in hospitals today. Thank you to Charlotte Walker for pointing out that the Pinard stethoscope is still in use today. 

Electronic foetal monitoring system, 1980 ( Science Museum, London )

But how could midwives prepare themselves for the different birthing scenarios might arise? Obstetrical phantoms were one way and hands-on experience the other.

Obstetric phantom, Italy, 1701-1800 ( Science Museum, London )

When presented with a difficult birth, midwives dealing with home births in the 1950s often called in for the local doctor, but everything was done either through sound, touch or sight.

With the introduction of the ultrasound scanner, foetuses could be seen before birth. Originally ultrasound had been used for detecting submarines and checking for metal fatigue, before being adapted for medical use by Professor Ian Donald  in the late 1950s.

Ultrasound scanner, Scotland, 1961 ( Science Museum, London )

For women today, there is a wide variety of choices when it comes to childbirth – home delivery, water births or hospitals. There is also a choice for women as to what equipment is used. What would you collect now, to show the experience of childbirth today in 50 years time?

Help us create a gallery display about your ancestors

Later this year the Science Museum’s opening a temporary exhibition that will explore the relevance of our collections to family historians. We’re looking for people who could help us to develop it.


Miners taking a break, South Wales 1931 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

One part of the exhibition will focus on a number of different trades and professions. A theme that we are already looking at in an ongoing series of articles for Family Tree magazine.

Do you have an ancestor story to tell that relates to one of the areas to be featured? 

Factory workers

Workers making metal goods, Doncaster early 20th century (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

We want this part of the display to be a ‘co-creation’ with our collaborators playing a big part in developing the content of the case. 

This would mean contributing label text, helping select relevant objects from our collections, but also bringing to the display personal objects, images and anecdotes relating to your ancestor’s work to really bring their story to life.


Nurses, late 19th century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The trades and professions we are planning to feature are:

  • Scientists and research workers – perhaps a leading scientist or a humble laboratory worker.
  • Communications workers – a telegraphist, cable layer, messenger boy or postal worker etc. 
  • Medical workers – be they nurse, surgeon, midwife or hospital porter
  • Miners – Digging out coal or minerals.  
  • Manufacturing workers – skilled craftsmen or factory mass production line?
  • Textile workers – from the industrialised cotton mills to home-based dressmaking. 
  • Domestic servants – did they have to come to grips with the new ‘labour saving’ technologies? 
  • Transport workers – on water, on land and perhaps even the early days of air.  
  • Agriculture and food production workers – on the land or in the factory.

If you think you have an ancestor story that could be displayed please contact us at with details.

Help us unpack the stories from this doctor’s bag

Behind every Museum object there can be dozens of stories about the people who made and used it, or are otherwise linked to it.

In an upcoming exhibition about the relevance of our collections to family historians we’re going to use one object to illustrate that fact – and we’re hoping that you might be able to help us out.

Doctor's bag

A bag full of names (Science Museum)

We’re going to take this doctor’s bag and unpack some of the personal histories that are connected to it.

It was once the property of John Hill Abram (1863-1933), a physician based in Liverpool who was latterly a Professor of Medicine at the local University. We’ll be teasing out all other the names – and therefore people and places – connected with it, to uncover different faces, stories and events to create a web of connections.

We’re keen to gather images as well as anecdotes, stories and more general information that relate not simply to Prof Abram, but to the many companies and individuals mentioned in his bag – check out the list below.

The bag and its contents are dated 1890-1930 and this is the period we would like to focus on. Images and information that relates to individuals and companies may well fall outside 1890-1930 period, but ideally we’d like to keep the broader social content roughly within these dates. 

So, do you have photographs of a works outing in the 1920s? Did any of the companies below raise a brigade in WW1?  What did their factory look like in Edwardian times?

The people and companies with connections to the bag and its contents are:

John Hill Abram Professor & MD – Owner

Finnigan’s Ltd – Bag makers

White & Wright – Surgical instrument makers, Liverpool

Thomas Spencer Wells – Victorian physician and artery forceps designer

Alexander and Fowler – Surgical instrument makers, Liverpool

Curry & Paxton – Optical instrument makers

Grundy’s – cigarette manufacturers

John Player & Sons – ditto (clearly Dr Abram liked to smoke!).

Henry De Zeng – US instrument optical maker and patentee

Sir William Fergusson – stethoscope designer

Bazzi and Bianchi – Instrument designers based in Rome.

Park, Davis & Co – Drug manufacturers, London

Burroughs, Wellcome & Co – Drug manufacturers, London

Clay & Abraham Ltd – Chemists

Johnson & Johnson – New Brunswick, US branch

Ever Ready – Yes, there is a battery!

If you can help, please contact us via

The bag will also feature in August’s edition of Family Tree, the UK’s leading magazine for family historians, in which we have been helping to develop a number of monthly features on trades and professions.

Revealing our ancestors’ lives

One way or another we are a nation obsessed with history – be it through the books we read, the TV we watch, our hobbies or the historic houses we visit. 

Here at the Science Museum, we’re actively pursuing closer engagements with people who ‘do history for fun’.  One area of this public history that I’m especially interested in is family history. 

The internet has revolutionised access to genealogical data – once the preserve of those able to spend days trawling through paper records. Beyond the raw data of births and deaths, objects can provide much colour, context and sometimes strong emotional connections to lives long gone – themes that I have touched on in previous posts.

Workers in clothing department

Working lives - women garment workers in 1925 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

Our object collections, images and paper archives – and those of our sister museums at York and Bradford – can provide evocative insights into our ancestors’ lives, helping us imagine lost environments and shedding light onto professions, workplaces and everyday routines. 

File-cutters tools

Tools of the trade - late 1800s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

These crude tools would once have been very familiar to the many workers who hand cut metal files – one of the most hazardous trades of the 19th century. Despite mechanisation, Victorian Britain’s industrial wealth relied on a huge population of manual workers, often labouring in terrible conditions.

Trolley vacuum cleaner

A familiar object in an unfamiliar form (Science Museum / Science & Society)

More upper class ancestors – or those in domestic service – may have appreciated this cutting edge technology. This trolley vacuum cleaner dates from 1906. These novel devices were so popular that society hostesses would hold parties to demonstrate their new gadget.

'Good night' angel

'Good night' angel - 19th century (National Media Museum / Science & Society)

And finally, just because there was no TV, radio or web didn’t mean our ancestors lacked entertainment. This slightly risqué glass projection slide would have signalled the end of a magic lantern show. Now lost to time, our collections can allow us glimpses of this once common leisure pursuit as well as of many other facets of our ancestor’s lives.