Author Archives: Will Stanley, Science Museum Press Officer

Hooke’s illustration in Micrographia, 1665. © Science Museum/SSPL

The Micrographia Microscope

Jane Desborough, Associate Curator of Science explores our collection of Robert Hooke microscopes as we celebrate 350 years since the publication of a truly remarkable book. 

2015 is the 350th anniversary of the publication of Micrographia by Robert Hooke.  A contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, Hooke was Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society and Professor of Geometry at Gresham College. In January 1665, Samuel Pepys described Micrographia as “…the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life….”

Illustration of a flea in Micrographia by Robert Hooke. © Science Museum / SSPL

Illustration of a flea in Micrographia by Robert Hooke. © Science Museum / SSPL

Pepys’ enthusiasm was genuine. For many readers in the mid-seventeenth century this was the first time they had seen large-scale illustrations of tiny creatures from everyday life. These were beings such as fleas, mites and ants that appeared as specks to the naked eye, but were revealed by the microscope to be as intricate as larger animals.

Hooke’s illustration in Micrographia, 1665. © Science Museum/SSPL

Hooke’s illustration in Micrographia, 1665. © Science Museum/SSPL

One way of celebrating this anniversary is by presenting two modern copies of the microscope illustrated by Hooke in Micrographia. For me their existence represents our enduring fascination with both Hooke and the history of microscopy. The Science Museum’s Journeys of Invention app showcases a microscope believed to have belonged to Hooke in 1675, but this was not the one illustrated in Micrographia in 1665.

Microscope 1927-437 is part of the Science Museum’s permanent collection.  It was purchased in 1927 from Thomas Henry Court, who had a great interest in early scientific instruments and presented a large collection to the Museum in the 1930s.

Full-size reconstruction of Robert Hooke's compound microscope. © Science Museum/SSPL

Microscope 1927-437. A full-size reconstruction of Robert Hooke’s compound microscope. © Science Museum/SSPL

A memo written in May 1927 by a Curator at the Museum records a meeting with Court. In this document the microscope is described as a “…full-size copy of Robert Hooke’s original compound microscope as described in his ‘Micrographia’, 1665.”  According to Court, it was previously owned by Mayall.

We know that John Mayall made copies of seventeenth-century microscopes in the 1880s, which suggests that he may have made this one.  Mayall shared his deep interest in the history of the microscope in his Cantor Lectures (published in 1889).  Although a replica, this object is useful to us because, unlike the illustration, its three-dimensional form enables the viewer to rotate it and look at it from different angles.

Taken alongside Hooke’s words: “I make choice of some room that has only one window, on a table I place my microscope…”, we can imagine Hooke using it while making notes and illustrations of what he could see.

Microscope A601160 is part of the Wellcome collection and was made by W.G. Turner between 1901 and 1917, of whom no further information was found.  We do know that Turner, like Mayall, made a number of replicas of early microscopes.

Microscope A601160. © Science Museum

Microscope A601160. © Science Museum

Within the Wellcome collection are replicas of Campani’s microscope and two of Cherubin d’Orleans’ microscopes.  Although, not as ornate as microscope 1927-437, it is important as it represents a desire to understand Hooke’s work within the context of other seventeenth-century individuals such as Campani and Cherubin d’Orleans. It also suggests an attempt to compare the microscopes of England with those of Italy and France in the period.

For the authors of London’s Leonardo: The Life and Work of Robert Hooke, Bennett, Cooper, Hunter and Jardine, Hooke was immensely optimistic about the future and human capability. This was an important characteristic of the beginnings of modern science. I think it was this great enthusiasm and optimism, which later historians strove to get a glimpse of when they made and studied copies of Hooke’s microscopes. In this particular case replicas were not intended to deceive; they were made as an aid to thinking about early science.  

Inspiring the Next Generation

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group), Ian Blatchford (Director, Science Museum Group), Terry Morgan (Chairman, Crossrail) and Paul Kirkman (Director, National Railway Museum) © Science Museum

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group), Ian Blatchford (Director, Science Museum Group), Terry Morgan CBE (Chairman, Crossrail) and Paul Kirkman (Director, National Railway Museum) © Science Museum

“This agenda around skills is vital. We have to create a generation with the right skills to satisfy the economic need for great engineers and the Science Museum Group is playing a really important role in getting young people excited about science and engineering.”

That’s Terry Morgan CBE, Chairman of Crossrail, speaking at the Science Museum Group Annual General Meeting in York last week.

Held in the conference centre at the National Railway Museum, the meeting gave Science Museum Group staff an opportunity to share the ambitious strategic plans being shaped at the Group’s sites around the country and, in Terry Morgan’s presentation, to hear how Europe’s largest construction project is being kept on time and on budget.

Alongside Mr Morgan, the other highlight of the day was the formal introduction to the Group of our new Chairman, Dame Mary Archer.

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group) © Science Museum

Dame Mary Archer (Chairman, Science Museum Group) © Science Museum

In conversation with Roger Highfield, the Group’s Director of External Affairs, Dame Mary gave a fascinating account of her route into science and governance within large and ambitious organisations.

This ranged from her long experience as a chemist in academia, notably in Oxbridge and the Royal Institution, London, to being on the Board of Cambridge University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust for two decades, and Chairman for the last 10 years.

The Group’s Director, Ian Blatchford, also held a question and answer session in which he addressed the opportunities and challenges facing our museums, which have seen a cut in Government support of more than 30 per cent in real terms since 2010.

He left the audience of more than 140 people from across the Group in no doubt that our approach to the challenging financial climate would continue to be characterised by audacity and not retrenchment.

Fitting then that the meeting’s final keynote speaker, Terry Morgan, is guiding a project that currently employs over 10,000 people and aims to transform rail transport in London.

Terry Morgan CBE (Chairman, Crossrail) © Science Museum

Terry Morgan CBE (Chairman, Crossrail) © Science Museum

Mr Morgan offered an inspiring insight into the logistical challenges of keeping a £14.8bn project on track, the engineering challenges of the project’s eight huge boring machines, while outlining some of the more extraordinary opportunities for archaeology and the creation of Europe’s largest artificial coastal reserve.

He also stressed the challenges of finding sufficient skilled engineers to deliver the project and underlined his personal commitment to both sustainability and the workforce legacy that will be delivered by Crossrail’s apprentice scheme.

Ian Blatchford commented: “There’s much that we, as the world’s leading group of science museums, can learn from Crossrail’s approach as we continue to transform our sites through ambitious permanent galleries, inspiring temporary exhibitions and impactful live programming. We’re also playing a critical role in inspiring the next generation of engineers who will work on the major projects that follow Crossrail.”

Around 600,000 young people in educational groups visit our museums in London, Manchester, York, Bradford and Shildon each year.

Join our Eclipse Twitter Tour

On Friday 20 March 2015, a solar eclipse will be visible across the UK (and Europe, parts of Asia and Africa). It’s the last chance to see a major solar eclipse event in the UK until 2026.

Photograph of an eclipse taken from Skylab in 1973.

Photograph of an eclipse taken from Skylab in 1973. Credit: SSPL / NASA

To celebrate the solar eclipse, curator Ali Boyle selected her favourite objects from our collection and shared them in a Twitter tour. Ali picked out key objects and images to show how the UK has celebrated eclipses in the past. You can read the tour below.

In the UK, the eclipse began at approximately 8.30 GMT, reaching its maximum obscuration at 9.30 GMT (although the times will vary slightly across the UK). Remember it is vital to protect your eyes when watching the eclipse, and there is more advice on how to see the eclipse safely here.

A view of the cravings exhibition

Cravings: Can Your Food Control You?

What’s driving your food obsession? Is it the colour of your spoon, the food your mum ate while pregnant, the trillions of bacteria that dine with you, or the little known ‘second brain’ in your gut?

The answers to these questions and more can be found in Cravings: Can Your Food Control You?, a new exhibition which looks at how your appetite is shaped by food, from the flavours you learned to love in the womb to the very next bite you take.

Cravings exhibition at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Cravings exhibition at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

In the exhibition you can discover how scientists and chefs are manipulating our senses to make food seem healthier and tastier. Quirky dining utensils that use colour, material and shape to trick our sense of taste are on display (see them in action here), alongside art-inspired food such as ‘Salad with a Taste of Kandinsky’, created by scientists and chefs to help understand how the brain creates the perception of taste and flavour.

Salad with a taste of Kandinsky. Credit Bottletop / Science Museum.

Salad with a taste of Kandinsky. Credit Bottletop / Science Museum.

Are squares spicier than circles? Can music make a dish taste better? By answering these questions in a unique online science experiment in the exhibition you can help chef Heston Blumenthal and Prof Charles Spence at Oxford University understand how our senses influence food cravings (click here to take part).

As Heston explains, “Think about the most memorable meal you’ve ever had. It’s not just the food you remember. Eating is a multi-sensory experience that can shape your appetite for life.”

Guests at the Cravings press preview watched as BBC Breakfast broadcast live from the Cravings exhibition to 7 million viewers, with stories from the exhibition featured in the GuardianNewsweekThe IndependentRadio 4’s Today programme and on BBC News.

BBC Breakfast broadcasting live from the Cravings exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

BBC Breakfast broadcasting live from the Cravings exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

Jean M. Franczyk, the Science Museum’s Deputy Director, welcomed guests to the press preview, remarking that, ‘You don’t need me to tell you that food has an increasing grip on the nation – whether it’s eating out at trendy restaurants, staying in to watch Great British Bake Off on TV or public discourse about obesity. Yet little is known about our cravings. What drives us to take that extra bite, or reach for another helping of breakfast? Our fabulous Cravings exhibition brings together the latest scientific research on food and appetite with personal stories and fascinating objects to explore these questions and many more.’

Chef Heston Blumenthal made a special appearance at the press preview via video and the exhibition was officially opened by Prof Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, who said, ‘I think this exhibition shows the relationship with our weight and food wonderfully. What Ling has managed to do with her colleagues is bring new science and technology together, revealing how the food we all eat shapes our appetite throughout life, from the very beginnings as an embryo.’

Ling Lee, Project leader for the Cravings exhibition, explained more, ‘Everything you’ve ever eaten, and will eat, leaves a stamp on you. Through the latest scientific research on appetite, Cravings reveals the inner workings of our brain, gut brain and gut bacteria and – more importantly – how all three work together to regulate our eating habits.’

An artificial gut developed by scientists at the University of Reading. Credit: Science Museum.

An artificial gut developed by scientists at the University of Reading. Credit: Science Museum.

When you eat, 100 trillion gut bacteria dine with you, and their response to food has a big effect on your appetite. Cravings delves inside the hidden world of these gut bacteria and your second ‘gut’ brain – millions of nerve cells embedded in the gut wall – which can make you feel hungry, full or even crave certain foods. In the exhibition you can see an artificial gut used by scientists to study gut bacteria and discover how NASA are studying how gut bacteria behave in space and on Earth thanks to astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly.

Cravings: Can Your Food Control You? is generously supported by GSK (Major Sponsor) and Danone (Associate Sponsor), with additional support from the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council. The exhibition is free and is open until January 2016. For more information visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/cravings.

Science Museum IMAX plays host to Christopher Nolan and his Interstellar team

World-renowned director and blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan visited the Science Museum last night for a special screening of his latest acclaimed feature, Interstellar, in our IMAX Theatre.

He was joined by the film’s editor Lee Smith, visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema for an exclusive Q&A with BAFTA members hosted by writer and journalist Mark Salisbury.

Mark Salisbury, Christopher Nolan, Lee Smith, Paul Franklin and Hoyte van Hoytema at the Science Museum IMAX for a screening of Interstellar © Katherine Leedale

Mark Salisbury, Christopher Nolan, Lee Smith, Paul Franklin and Hoyte van Hoytema at the Science Museum IMAX for a screening of Interstellar © Katherine Leedale

The Science Museum IMAX is one of only four screens in the UK to show Interstellar in Nolan’s intended 70mm IMAX format, with one of the other three at our sister museum, Bradford’s National Media Museum. Presented in the highest quality resolution and combined with specially made IMAX sound, the experience is the most immersive presentation of Nolan’s most ambitious film to date.

On making his films a spectacular experience for audiences, Nolan has said: “IMAX is the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.”

Christopher Nolan during the making of Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan during the making of Interstellar.

Featuring an outstanding cast led by Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, Interstellar draws on the scientific research of eminent physicist Kip Thorne whose theories centre here on traversable wormholes through space and time.

Screenings of Interstellar in IMAX 70mm continue at the Science Museum until Sunday 14 December. For tickets click here.

Best Festival Ever

David Finnigan from Australian science-theatre company Boho, explains what goes into making the Best Festival Ever

My name is David and soon I’ll find out whether audiences at the Science Museum can catch a stage-diving Dolly Parton. Since September, we’ve been in residence at the Science Museum preparing for the premiere of our interactive theatre work Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster.

In 2011, the University College London Environment Institute gave us the challenge of creating a theatre show looking at concepts from climate and systems science. Over the last three years we’ve created a work in which a playing audience seated around a table take control of managing their own complex system: a music festival.

A music festival is an excellent example of a complex system. In a lot of ways, a festival is like a temporary city, with tens of thousands of people coming together for a few days on a patch of land. Over the course of the show we examine some of the interesting ways in which systems behave and ask ourselves: how can we recognise and better think about the systems we’re part of?

I don’t want to give away too much about the show, but I thought I might share some of what audiences have to do to put on the best festival ever.

1. Programming the lineup

Obviously you want the best possible artists to play your festival: Do you take the 9-piece reggae collective over the teenage Youtube sensation? The folk ensemble or the glitchy electronica artist? But you’ll need to find sponsors to pay for them. As always in complex systems, there are trade-offs. Some sponsors may offer more, but may also be ethically… interesting. Whatever you decide, you’ll have to live with.

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

2. Building a festival site

Putting on a festival sometimes means constructing, inhabiting and packing down an entire temporary city. You’ll be in charge of organising the layout of your festival – placing gates, stages, food stalls and face-painting stalls – and then making everything both quickly and beautifully. Of course, when everything is connected, decisions made in one place will have consequences throughout the festival, often in unexpected ways.

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

Best Festival Ever. Credit: BOHO

3. Electricity

Festivals usually don’t run off the main grid. You’ll have to take control of the generators, ensuring that power goes to where it’s most needed. Managing this common-pool resource will involve prioritising: amazing laser light show on stage two vs turning on the water filters to stop sewage leaking into the river that flows into the nearby village.

4. Concerts

The most crucial part of any music festival, and also the hardest to manage. Can your security guards prevent fights from breaking out in the moshpit? Can you get the band onstage and hitting all the right solos? And are you ready if Justin Timberlake decides to jump right into the moshpit?

We’ll be presenting these shows at the Science Museum on 17-19 November, along with climate and systems scientists talking about the ways in which this show intersects with their own work. Book your tickets here

Stuff Matters Wins Science Book Prize

Materials scientist, author and TV presenter Professor Mark Miodownik has won the most prestigious science book prize in the world, with his personal journey through our material world.

Professor Mark Miodownik winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Credit: Royal Society

Professor Mark Miodownik winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. Credit: Royal Society

Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World, was yesterday (10 November) named the winner of the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books at the Royal Society in London.

The £25,000 prize was awarded to the University College London professor by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize-winning President of the Royal Society, with anatomist, author and broadcaster Professor Alice Roberts hosting the event.

Speaking at the awards ceremony, Miodownik told the BBC, “This stuff around us is speaking through me. Materials are not inert things, I hope I have given them a voice in this book. I think it’s an important story.”

Materials House by Thomas Heatherwick. Credit: Science Museum

Materials House by Thomas Heatherwick. Credit: Science Museum

The Science Museum’s Challenge of Materials gallery explores the changing use of materials, from Egyptian glass to a steel wedding dress. Perhaps the most striking features are a magnificent glass bridge spanning the main hall and Materials House, the first publicly commissioned work from designer Thomas Heatherwick. This enormous sculpture, made from 213 different materials, invites visitors to reflect on how materials are used in everyday life.

The six shortlisted books include The Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson, The Perfect Theory by Pedro G. Ferreira, Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, Serving the Reich by Philip Ball, Seven Elements That Have Changed The World by John Browne and Gulp by Mary Roach. Each of the shortlisted authors received £2,500 and interviews with the authors can be seen here. Last year’s winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books was best-selling author James Gleick, who recently helped celebrate the opening of the Information Age gallery.

The Prize is sponsored by Winton Capital Management, who’s founder David Harding has a long record of working with the Science Museum, having supported the Information Age gallery, the award-wining Collider exhibition and a new Mathematics gallery that opens in 2016.

Dogs in Space

By Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering and Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant.

On this day (3 November) in 1957, just one month after the launch of Sputnik, a dog called Laika became the first living creature to orbit the Earth. But sadly, with no means of returning her safely to Earth, she was on a one-way mission. Enough reserve supplies were prepared for Laika to survive one week in orbit inside the Sputnik 2 satellite, but she overheated and died only a few hours after launch.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Dog spacesuit and ejector seat used on suborbital rocket flights launched from Kapustin Yar, Soviet Union, c. 1955. Credit: Zvezda Research, Development and Production Enterprise, photo by Rosizo.

Laika’s flight followed earlier stratospheric flights with dogs as crew. These sub-orbital missions were crucial for gathering knowledge of what happens to living creatures in space, as well as testing the equipment, ejection and parachute landing systems that would later be used by cosmonauts. The space dogs were used all the way up until the first manned space flight and after, flying in Vostok-type spacecraft.

On 22 July 1951, after six months of training, two small dogs nicknamed Tsygan and Dezik were launched from the site of the first Soviet cosmodrome in a region called Kapustin Yar. At a height of 110 km, the head of the rocket containing the dogs separated and began to free-fall back down to Earth. They experienced intense G-forces during descent, but after a heavy jolt from the parachute, the cabin containing the two four-legged pilots slowed and touched down safely. The trip, which lasted 15 minutes from start to finish, made Tsygan and Dezik the first animals to experience space flight and to emerge from the craft unharmed.

The completely new field of space biology was asking many questions about whether humans and other animals could survive an extended trip into outer space. The scientists involved needed to test the boundaries of endurance on actual living creatures. Was it possible to survive the extreme accelerations and decelerations of launching and landing? How could basic life-support needs – such as air, water and food – be supplied away from the home planet? And finally, would the experience of weightlessness inside a small capsule be harmful? Scientists needed to test life-support equipment, develop a training regimen for crews and perform tests in space. All of this had to be completed before human crews could embark on space exploration.

By the time of the first Soviet space dog crew, American scientists had attempted a number of launches using monkeys in V2 and Aerobee rockets, and all of them ended in the death of the animals. But the information collected during the flights demonstrated that the animals could cope with the intense G-forces and stresses of the rocket launches.

Chief Designer Sergei Korolev decided that the Soviet space programme would, on the other hand, work with dogs. The choice of dogs, ‘man’s best friend’, over monkeys, among our closest genetic relatives, was based on rational reasoning springing from emotional attachment. The Russian scientists believed they could build stronger bonds with the animals and so ensure their obedience. They also believed that the dogs eking out an existence on the harsh streets of Moscow would possess a survivalist temperament.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

Belka and Strealka in the arms of Oleg Gazenko, following their day-long space flight, 1960. Credit: Institute of Biomedical Problems, Moscow.

There were strict criteria for scouting the first star squad of dogs. They had to be female, because the specialised clothing and toilet technology was easier to tailor to them. And they needed to be small in size: 6 to 7 kg each to accommodate the strict weight limit for the rocket. These dogs also needed to have light-coloured fur, in order to show up clearly in front of the on-board camera. The scientists had even attempted to bleach the fur of one of their favourite darker dogs without success.

In the six years of stratospheric dog flights only a few launches ended in tragedy. But through these sacrifices enough information was gathered on whether living beings were likely to survive a trip into space. After the launch of an untrained puppy called ZIB (a quick replacement for a runaway dog), Chief Designer Korolev was ecstatic. At the landing site, when greeted by the happy puppy, he announced to his colleagues:

‘Space travellers will soon be flying in our spaceships with state visas – on a holiday!’

These early tests, conducted in secrecy, culminated in the final question: could a living creature survive a prolonged stay in zero gravity?

The most successful canine mission was perhaps the one performed by Belka and Strelka in 1960, who completed 18 orbits and returned to Earth in perfect health. They were greeted by an international press corps at a news conference in Moscow and their friendly faces were broadcast around the world. Belka went on to have a litter of puppies, one of which was given to the American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy by Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

White House dog Pushinka, a puppy of the Soviet space dog Belka. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

At the time of this gift, Korolev already knew the name of the cosmonaut who would be the first to fly into space. By the time of Gagarin’s flight, 48 dogs had been to space and 20 had perished.

Discover the dramatic history of the Russian space programme in our new exhibition, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, opening 18 September 2015.

Information Age: evolution or revolution?

On Friday 24 October 2014, the Science Museum celebrated the launch of a new permanent gallery; Information Age. The gallery explores over 200 years of information and communication technologies and was officially opened by Her Majesty The Queen who marked the occasion by sending the first tweet by a reigning monarch. In the afternoon, the Museum’s IMAX auditorium continued the celebrations, bringing together a panel of some of the world’s leading thinkers and entrepreneurs to share their insights and predictions about the big events that have shaped the communication technology we are familiar with today, and look ahead to what the future may hold.

Director of External Affairs Roger Highfield introduces the panel at Information Age: evolution or revolution?

We’re repeatedly told that we are experiencing more rapid technological advances than ever before. But over the past two centuries, our predecessors witnessed transformational developments in communication technology that were arguably far more revolutionary, from the laying of the first telegraph cable that connected the UK and USA to the birth of radio and TV broadcasting.

What can we learn from their experiences? Is what we are going through truly an unparalleled revolution, or does our focus on the now distort our perspective on an ongoing evolution in our relationship to information?

Click here to listen to the whole discussion and decide for yourself…

Chaired by Tom Standage, Digital Editor of The Economist and author of The Victorian Internet and Writing on the Wall, the expert panel brought together to discuss this question featured:

  • Hermann Hauser, computing engineer and co-founder of venture capital firm Amadeus Capital Partners
  • Baroness Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of lastminute.com, Chancellor of the Open University, chair of Go ON and board member of Marks and Spencer
  • Mo Ibrahim, mobile communications entrepreneur and founder of Celtel, one of Africa’s leading telecommunications operators, and
  • Jim Gleick, best-selling author of Chaos and The Information

The opening of Information Age marks the start of the biggest period of development of the Museum since it was opened over a century ago. Over the next five years, about a third of the Museum will be transformed by exciting new galleries, including a brand new mathematics gallery designed by Stirling Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid.

Information Age is now open, located on floor 2 of the Museum. A new book entitled Information Age, to which the event’s panel have all contributed, is also now on sale in the Museum shop and online.

Open for Business: The story of contemporary British industry

Curator Ben Russell reflects on the story of contemporary British industry, on show in our Open for Business exhibition. 

Our collections include some of most celebrated icons of manufacturing and engineering in history, including Puffing Billy, Newcomen’s engine and Stephensons’s Rocket. These objects embody the ingenuity, resourcefulness and resolve of the engineers and manufacturers who created them.

Stephenson's 'Rocket' (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Fast forward to the present day, and it seems like many people’s perceptions of manufacturing continue to be dominated by heavy industrial images of men in boiler suits bathed in oil, up to their elbows in a machine. Of course, that’s still an integral part of industry, and one not without its attractions. But what we don’t often recognise is just how much contemporary British manufacturing has (literally) smashed these conventions into pieces.

Many people think Britain doesn’t actually make things anymore, but the reality is very different. Making things and selling them around the world remains strategically important for Britain, and its resilience continues to draw many manufacturing companies back to the UK after relocating to the Far East. As well as the mass production of everything from tin can tops to cars, many British companies thrive by carving out their own unique niches, from building yachts to weaving fine textiles. Many companies make a reputation for the excellence of their product: Quality sells.

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Our exhibition Open for Business tells the story of contemporary British manufacturing through the images of nine Magum photographers. They each concentrated on a different region of the UK, visiting one-man businesses and FTSE 100 companies like Airbus and Renishaw, to try and create a snapshot of industry across the UK.

Their subjects can seem surprising, with photographs that include Aardman animators and theatre propmakers, as well as shipbuilding and factory workers. Renowned photographer David Hurn wanted to show the variety of manufacturing in Wales. Rather than just focus on the coal mines more commonly associated with industry in Wales, he chose to photograph Corgi Hosiery, a Welsh company that produces a range of socks designed by Prince Charles.

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

The incredible diversity of British manufacturing challenges the perceptions of what’s needed behind-the-scenes to make things. Roles in contemporary UK industry are vast, varied and can no longer be defined by the image of men in boiler suits.

Of course, it was ever thus: in the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s reputation as workshop of the world was attributed, not to the rise of the machines, but to the excellence of her people. In 1803, a French commentator praised ‘the wonderful practical skills’ of Britain’s ‘adventurers in the useful application of knowledge, and the superiority of her workmen in rapid and masterly execution’. The same could equally be said about making things in Britain today.

See more stunning images in our Open for Business exhibition, which closes 2 November 2014.