Category Archives: Your questions

Numbering objects

Have you ever noticed on exhibition labels, the small, sometimes non-sensical number that follows the blurb about an object? These numbers are vital to help us find out what the object is and locate it on our database. With a collection of over 200,000 objects, on three different sites and around 95% in storage we certainly need all the help we can get.

Blythe House storage ( © Science Museum / Science & Society )

When objects arrive at the museum they are  assigned a temporary number. Many different systems have been used over the years using an assortment of numbers and letters. Once all of the paperwork has been done and dusted and the object is formally acquired it gets its own unique number. An example is the best way to demonstrate.

Tomograph, 1950-1959 ( Science Museum, London )

This tomograph is 1998-15 – it was acquired in 1998 and was the 15th object that year to be acquired.

All new acquisitions are now photographed on arrival, so there is a permanent record which can be used for reference later on or for use in exhibitions or catalogues. With our digitisation projects such as Ingenious and Brought to Life we are trying to get as much of our collections photographed so we can share the brilliant stuff that is in our stores.

The whole collections database is now available online.

Before the digital age, all acquisition records were paper based. The earliest inventory number in the Science Museum’s collections is 1857-3 – a 1:4 model of James Nasmyth’s direct-action steam hammer. Information was catalogued on Form 100 cards that looked like this:

Form 100 for James Nasmyth’s model of a steam action hammer

Form 100 for James Nasmyth’s model of a steam action hammer

From time to time, objects do get de-accessioned and go through a rigorous process to ensure the objects go to good homes. Each object is debated, condition checked and when approved its transferred, sometimes to another museum. Most recently a series of tractors were transferred to Bassetlaw Museum in Nottinghamshire.

A tractor that has recently been transferred to Bassetlow Museum

A tractor that has recently been transferred to Bassetlow Museum

Thanks to Chris Jones for inspiring this post!

Ask a Curator – Artificial arms

As a warm up for Ask a Curator day tomorrow, I thought I would give you an in-depth look at one of our objects that has been generating a lot of comments on Twitter.

Artificial arm, 1850-1910 (A602817, Science Museum, London)

You may remember a post by my colleague, Stewart, on Arms, legs and ex-Servicemen showing our 20th century collection of prosthetic limbs. The history of artificial limbs is inseparable from the history of amputations and closely linked to warfare. 

This artificial arm was made for someone who had their left arm amputated above the elbow. Many people have commented on how sinister and robotic the arm looks. This is probably because you can see all of the joints in each of the fingers and the wrist. Unlike some modern prosthetics no attempt has been made to replicate the appearance of a hand, just its function - each of the fingers have some movement, the wrist and elbow rotate and move up and down.

A great deal of craftsmanship has gone into the arm. By the beginning of the 1800s, specialist prosthetic makers took over the jobs of making them from carpenters, blacksmiths and armour makers. Some prosthetic limb makers originating in the 1850s such as Hanger and Chas A. Blatchford are still in business today.

Aritfical arm by Chas A Blatchford, 1943 (1999-547, Science Museum, London)

If you want to see the sinister looking arm, it is on display at Medicine Man at the Wellcome Trust. There are also a number on display in our Science and Art of Medicine gallery.

And feel free to ask for more details on Twitter using the #askacurator hashtag, or by posting a question in the comments below.

Ask a curator day

Is there a burning question that you’d like to ask a curator? Maybe what’s your favourite object? What’s the tiniest object in your collection? How do you go to the loo in space?

Early Space Shuttle ejection escape suit, 1979.

??! (NASA / Science & Society)

Well now’s your chance, because 1 September is ‘Ask a Curator Day’ – a unique worldwide Q&A session which lets you put questions to museums.

Ask a Curator logo

A crack team of Science Museum curators and other staff members will be standing by – so start thinking now.

All you have to do is tweet your question on Twitter using the #askacurator hashtag. If you don’t have a Twitter account, or your question just won’t fit into 140 characters you can also leave it as a comment below.

We’ll either tweet the answers or reply to your comments on this post. Particularly juicy questions that we want to answer at length might become the basis of future posts.

We’ll do our best to answer your questions, although some might take us a little while and we can’t guarantee to answer every single one.

Check out the two responses that our Transport Curator David made to this question that we were asked on Twitter: How did you get the planes into the Flight Gallery?

We’ve been setting the agenda on this blog for too long now – it’s over to you!

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!

How did we get the planes in?

Last week one of our visitors asked us a question via Twitter while looking round our third-floor Flight gallery:

Help me settle a debate @sciencemuseum, how did you get the planes in the flight exhibit into the building?

Good question. First opened in 1963, the gallery was refurbished in the 1990s when a couple of new planes (including our Hawker jump-jet and a Hawker Siddeley executive jet) were added.

HS.125 executive jet, 1965 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

To get the aircraft into the gallery, we took some windows out, built a platform out above the service road that runs alongside the building, and craned the aircraft up and inside. Most were dismantled before transportation – the wings were removed, for instance – and then they were rebuilt inside the gallery before being hung up.

We’ve got planes in other galleries, too. If you made it to the Making the Modern World gallery during your visit, you’ll have found a gorgeous Lockheed ‘Electra’ airliner swooping down on you, as well as an Avro 504K biplane, a Rolls-Royce vertical-take-off test rig and a Short SC 1 aircraft.

Short SC 1 aircraft and Rolls-Royce test rig, 1950s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

As this gallery is on the ground floor, life was a bit easier. The aircraft were brought in to the gallery on low-loaders, reassembled on the gallery floor, then hung up by a team of rigging contractors. This was done before the smaller exhibits were installed, but it was still a real 3D jigsaw for the project managers to work it out.

Lockheed 'Electra' airliner (Science Museum / Science & Society)

I’ve found some lovely photos of the early-1960s aircraft installation. I’m getting them scanned, and I’ll post them here in a couple of weeks. Watch this space…

‘Where are the shrunken heads?’

We curators field lots of questions from the public about the Museum collections. One of the most common ones is when visitors remember seeing something when they came as a child, and now, back with their children, or grandchildren, want to know why they can’t find it again.

Sometimes the answer is simple (the dinosaurs are next door!). At other times, galleries have closed, or objects been taken off display – and this is the fate of our shrunken heads, or tsantsas.

Traditionally, these were made by the Jivaro tribes, based in the Amazon, in areas which are now part of Ecuador and Peru. Shrunken heads were made as part of elaborate rituals, to celebrate victory over a slain enemy. You can find out more here and here.

Ours came off display because they were in an inaccessible part of the museum. If they had not, we would still have needed to reconsider their display in response to new guidelines about how human remains are displayed in museums.

The next question I usually get is: ‘ Would you put them back on display?’. The answer to this is a - qualified – yes.  But it would have to be in the appropriate circumstances.  What would these be?  An exhibition looking at traditional cultures in the Amazon perhaps.  But it’s properly not an exhibition I will be asked to curate any time soon.

So for those still looking for shrunken heads, the best place to go is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, or the Wellcome Collection in London. Or for anyone in Philadelphia, the very fabulous Mutter Museum is preparing a large exhibition of tsantsas to open soon.

If there are any questions you would like to ask a curator please leave them as comments below…

Ask a curator

What have you always wanted to ask a curator?

You might have a question about the Science Museum’s exhibitions or galleries, about our collections, library and archives, or more general questions about life in a museum.

Leave a comment and we’ll try to find the answer for you.