Category Archives: Contemporary art

Modern art is Rubbish

In the latest of our series of blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence Mark Champkins looks back at Phase 1, while Project Curator Sarah Harvey gives us a sneak preview of Phase 2 before it opens on 25 July.

Phase 1 – Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence

Tuesday 15 July was the last day of sorting through Museum waste for The Rubbish Collection project, and my last chance to put in a shift filtering through discarded drinks bottles and leftover lunches.

The project is fascinating. It aims to examine what constitutes the waste that passes through the Museum, where it would normally go, and what might be usefully recycled.

The exhibition is split into two parts. The first involves the collection of every piece of waste generated by the Museum over a month. A team of volunteers has been sorting and photographing the contents of the Museum’s rubbish bags, and pulling out items of particular interest. The second part will start on 25 July, and will be an exhibition of cleaned and collated rubbish materials.

The Rubbish Collection Phase 1 © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection Phase 1 © Science Museum

As I began my shift, what struck me first was the smell of the gallery. It’s a sweet, fruity smell, not unlike over-ripe apples. It comes from the vast amount of sugary drinks and half eaten fruit thrown into the bins, the likely source being the hundreds of packed lunches eaten in the Museum every day. Throughout the Museum, the usual bins have been replaced with ‘General Waste’ and ‘Recycling’ bins. It soon became clear to me that in order to avoid the worst of the smell, the bags to pick out to sort through are the ones marked ‘Recycling’. This avoids the majority of the decomposing foodstuffs.

The task is to open up the bags, lay out the contents on a large white table, sort the contents as you see fit, and then snap a photo of the arranged items on an overhead camera. The opportunity to arrange the rubbish in whatever way you want has brought out the creativity of the volunteers. To this end, within a few days, a tumblr account was opened to show off some of the most imaginative of the layouts. Amongst my favourites are the seascape, composed of blue plastic bags and fruit, and blazing sun in the sky, made from bread sticks, paper towels and what looks like parsley. You can have a look here.

Rubbish of the Day, day 27 © Science Museum

Rubbish of the Day, day 27 © Science Museum

After half a dozen bags, a disheartening pattern starts to emerge. Much of what is being thrown away is perfectly good. Lots of the food is unopened or untouched. Leaflets and flyers are almost always pristine. It’s as though the bins are being used to de-clutter, rather than being a place to put things when they have reached the end of their useful lives. It seems inexplicable how many of the items have ended up in the bins. Three wheelchairs have been collected, over a dozen shoes, two fridges, a bra and a giant toothbrush.

Spurred by the some of the weird and wonderful items collected I have set myself a challenge. Like a Science Museum Womble, I aim to filter through the items left behind to put together some items that can be repurposed and redesigned to make a one-off product, that we can sell in the Museum shop. Watch this space…

Some of the materials for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection

Some of the materials for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Phase 2 – Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, The Rubbish Collection

After 30 frenzied days of documenting all the Science Museum waste, you might have expected artist Joshua Sofaer to take a well-earned break. No such luck. Since the documentation finished on 15 July, The Rubbish Collection has remained a hive of activity and an almost miraculous transformation has taken place. Gone are the sorting tables, bin bags and faint whiff of old packed lunch; in their place Joshua has created an intriguing and magical exhibition showcasing 30 days of Science Museum rubbish.

The exhibition is comprised of some of the bizarre and surprising items that were retained from the bins in the documentation phase of the project, displayed alongside almost 18 tonnes of materials processed and recycled from the Science Museum rubbish. Both the scale and the beauty of these materials and objects is quite unexpected, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so I’m just going to give you some teaser images (below). The exhibition opens to the public at 11am on Friday 25 July, so please come down and experience the wonder of ‘rubbish’ for yourself.

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection opens at the Science Museum on 25 July and runs until 14 September 2014.

281,647 visitors: a ‘rubbish’ story

In the next in our series of blogs about The Rubbish Collection, Project Curator Sarah Harvey looks back at what we have collected and reflects on what Phase 1 of the exhibition has taught us about our relationship with waste.

Thirty days of sorting and documenting all the Science Museum‘s rubbish have come to a close. It’s been surprising, sometimes shocking and certainly thought-provoking, fun, hard work and, at times, a little bit smelly!

We’ve documented all the rubbish produced by the Museum’s 281,647 visitors, 500+ staff and contractors, five cafés, two building sites, three shops, two Science Nights, one Lates event and several storage cupboard clearances. We’re still waiting to see the figures but, it’s safe to say, it was a lot of rubbish.

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the thirty days, artist Joshua Sofaer, his assistants and the Science Museum volunteers, along with hundreds of brave visitors eager to take up this unique opportunity to get up-close and personal with the trash, have rummaged tirelessly through approximately 250 bags of rubbish per day.

Along with the expected items like crisp packets, drinks cans and the remains of thousands of kids’ lunch boxes, we’ve also found some more unexpected objects hidden amongst the detritus of everyday Museum life. 16.5 pairs of shoes, two two-piece suits, a bra, three fridges, one dishwasher, a box of old floppy disks (visiting school children didn’t know what they were), piles of discarded over-the-counter medicines, three wheelchairs and a staggering volume of disposable cutlery.

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

So, what have we learnt from all this investigating and documenting? Aside from the revelation that kids don’t eat the fruit in their packed lunch (one day I’ll count the number of untouched apples we documented), the most obvious thing is that we don’t recycle as much as we could.

Over the last few months the Science Museum has been working hard to put new systems in place for separating our rubbish both in public spaces and offices. The addition of recycling bins in public areas is a long overdue step forward for the Museum but we found that almost all recycling bags in public areas were contaminated with non-recyclable rubbish, so we need to do more to encourage and help visitors to recycle while they are here.

The amount of recyclable material lost to incineration because we are not yet separating café waste is a lot more than we would like but there are plans in place to roll out new segregation systems to all the Museum’s cafés in the near future. Just separating out the café food waste could reduce the Museum’s general waste tonnage by around a third.

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Whilst the documentation was taking place in the Museum, behind the scenes we’ve been doing some detective work to find out where and how those materials are processed and what they go on to become. These days, very little is lost to landfill so most of the rubbish that left the Museum has been transformed into some other physical form, either through recycling or through incineration.

That transformed rubbish is now travelling back to the Science Museum, to be reunited with some of the most interesting items we retained from the bins. Over the next 10 days, Joshua Sofaer will be creating an exhibition showcasing what is produced from our rubbish, examining the beauty and value of the materials but also looking at the sheer volume that was produced over one month. The exhibition will open on 25 July but if you want a sneak preview before then, make sure to watch this space…

The Rubbish Collection continues with Phase 2 from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

Managing our waste

In the next of our series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, talks to Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management.

Grundon is the Science Museum’s main waste contractor, handling all our general and recyclable waste – approximately 30 tonnes per month in total! The Museum’s waste either goes to their Colnbrook Materials Recovery Facility and transfer station, or if non-recyclable, to the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant. Lakeside produces around 37 Megawatts of electricity each year – enough to power 50,000 homes.

I spoke to Neil Grundon, the company’s Deputy Chairman, about the future of recycling and waste management, and what we can all do to help.

Sarah: What does Grundon do?

Neil: Grundon is one of the UK’s leading suppliers of waste management and environmental services. We partner with our customers to help them reduce the financial and environmental impacts of their waste.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw away?

Neil: The strangest thing I’ve seen is a stuffed European Bear holding a lampstand. We’ve also taken a variety of wooden spacecraft used on film sets.

With regards to the most difficult things to deal with, my personal dislikes are garden hoses, inflatable rubber dinghies and beach balls. They always come in as one-offs and are impossible to segregate and recycle. I am sure that somebody will correct me on this, but by the time they reach us the only thing that we can do is to incinerate them for energy. Oh, I would also add those fluorescent glow necklaces that people wear at festivals – I dislike those too.

Sarah: What do you see as being the main challenges that the industry faces?

Neil: The main challenge for the industry is one of perception. Believe it or not, it is the leaders of waste management companies who lay awake at night wondering how to recycle composite plastics, not the manufacturers, the pressure groups or the public.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?

Neil: All consumers and organisations can do better – companies like Grundon only take away waste and treat it. We trust you to do the right things – and put it in the right bin!

My top 3 things that people could do differently would be:

1.       Where possible to separate food waste. It contaminates recyclables and it is heavy and too expensive to dispose of in landfill.

2.       Choose what you buy wisely, as ‘recycled’ does not always mean recyclable.

3.       Simply – use recycling bins.

Sarah: How can we encourage the public to recycle more?

Neil: The public need incentives to recycle. People see no benefit from separating their waste and are often conflicted when they hear various scare stories in the media.

Grundon have invested in a company called Greenredeem to correct this disconnect between us and the consumer. Greenredeem combines ‘reverse vending’ kiosk technology with a web-based membership and reward scheme. It aims to encourage people to recycle at home and ‘on the go’ and to help cut the vast number of cans and bottles which end up in landfill from litter bins or simply thrown away on the street.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 50 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Neil: If the industry changes as much in the next 50 years as it has in the last 20 years it will be unrecognisable. At present we have two initiatives that we are very excited about. The first uses carbon dioxide to fix heavy metals within incinerator fly ash (a by-product of the Energy from Waste process) to create a carbon negative aggregate, which is used to create building blocks.

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block, www.c8s.co.uk

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze block, www.c8s.co.uk

The second is a large facility that has been designed to extract the propellant gases and liquid content from aerosols and capture it for reuse. The added bonus is that we can then also recycle the aluminium and steel cans.

Grundon Waste Management new Hazpak 600 creates recycled aerosol blocks

Grundon Waste Management new Hazpak 600 creates recycled aerosol blocks

I am very excited about 3D printing, as I think it will revolutionise the supply chain and hopefully eliminate much of our packaging. However, there is a question mark over what we do with redundant printed material. One of the greatest challenges for the industry will be what to do with the recycled products of today when they become the waste products of tomorrow.

Many of these materials will happily go round time and time again, however that garden hose… …well who knows!

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s ‘The Rubbish Collection’ project?

Neil: What did I think? Well, it’s great that Joshua and the exhibition is raising awareness of the value of waste. Thank you Joshua, we need all the help we can get!

Visitors can take part in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

A sustainable future

In the next of our series of posts linked to The Rubbish Collection, Matt Moore, Head of Sustainable Development for the Science Museum Group, looks at how we measure and minimise the environmental impact of our exhibitions and galleries.

The Science Museum Group places sustainability at the heart of its work. In 2010 we created a sustainability policy that would sit at the heart of all our official work practices, but well before that we were developing ideas and projects that would pave the way for the innovative work we do today.

In 2005 we became the first national museum to install solar panels on the roof – awarded for innovation by the Department for Trade and Industry – which have so far produced over half-a-million kW of energy for the museum. It’s amazing how quickly technology is developing; those original panels produced 80W, our soon-to-be-installed new panels generate 280W and newer designs will be even more energy efficient.

While it’s easy to get carried away with whizz-bang new kit, we need to be conscious that our buildings, subject to changing building techniques over the last 100 or so years, are complicated to heat, light and make suitable for our visitors and irreplaceable objects.

The hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

The Hempcrete store at Wroughton © Science Museum

We increasingly look at the ‘fabric-first’ approach to sustainability as we develop new projects and structures. By being intelligent with the building structures we can use the materials they are made from to help passively maintain good conditions for the objects they contain. The Hempcrete Museum Store at our Wroughton site is a fantastic example of this. It uses a hemp and lime construction medium to balance the humidity within the building according to temperature, decreasing the amount of air-conditioning that is required.

This work is not all big innovation though, there are many small, practical steps that have been taken to make the museum more energy efficient; from reprogramming the building management systems and lighting controllers to turning kit on only when it’s needed and changing our light bulbs to ever more efficient versions. This is important work for buildings of this scale and achieves impressive results – the lighting alone at our sister museum, the National Railway Museum, accounted for 44% of the energy used!

It is important when we develop new exhibitions and galleries that we plan and collaborate on the impacts and benefits that materials, electronic equipment and staff activity all have on a project. When the Atmosphere gallery was conceived, considerable effort was spent on understanding the environmental footprint, from the procurement chain to end of life disposal. This has become a core element of exhibitions being developed today; none more so than the Rubbish Collection!

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Waste is an inevitable by-product of the Museum’s operation, and we are becoming more agile at dealing and developing new ways to divert this resource away from pointless burial. Our current system ensures that almost no waste is sent to landfill. What can’t be recycled is sent to Grundon’s highly efficient energy from waste plant, where with the increasing value of some of the raw materials means that our waste can become products that have a second, third or even fourth life after leaving the museum. Keeping waste to a minimum is an important part of the story, and through procurement we encourage suppliers to minimise both the travel distances for their products and the packaging associated with them.

Across our group of Museums, sustainability initiatives over the last year have seen many successes: at Wroughton, biodiversity actions have brought two poor-condition County Wildlife Sites into a land management plan. The cafés at all our sites achieved high levels of recognition from the Sustainable Restaurants Association for sourcing food from local and ethical suppliers, along with good practice within the cafés to minimise food waste and energy use. Café development at the Science Museum over the last few months has included innovatively planted walls and herb gardens in the new terrace area. Our procurement team is working hard to ensure that our suppliers and contractors have a good record and work with us to improve sourcing and energy efficiency.

The terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

Plants adorn the new terrace at the Science Museum © Science Museum

So, what does the future hold for sustainability in the Science Museum Group? An ever-increasing need to be efficient in energy use will see developments in building fabric performance, energy efficiency technology and energy generation at our sites and when we develop our visitor spaces, new materials, efficient interactives and intelligent systems will add to the Museum experience. We’ll also be trying to put more energy back into the national grid than we take out with a 40MW solar project at our Wroughton site – that’s about four times the electricity that the Science Museum Group consumes!

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

Every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato – getting hands-on at the Science Museum

In this week’s blog from The Rubbish Collection, Corrinne Burns, Content Developer at our Antenna Gallery gets a volunteer’s view on the exhibition.

‘Do people just get naked in the Science Museum?’ Katyanna Quach asks me, with a suspicious look in her eyes. Before I have time to give that mental image the thorough probing that it deserves, I’m given a bit of context. “We’ve found a bra, some shoes…”

‘And an entire suit. And money. And a television,’ adds her colleague Hannah Burke. We’re standing in the basement of the Museum, surrounded by the bagged detritus of the previous day – waste from galleries, cafés, offices and kitchens. But they’re here for a good reason: this, friends, is art. Katyanna and Hannah are two of the many volunteers helping artist Joshua Sofaer in his quest to document an entire month’s Museum waste.

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Drinks containers in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Joshua’s Rubbish Collection is an unusual art installation – over the next few weeks, every single item that goes into a Museum bin will be taken out again and publicly documented. Joshua is building a photographic archive of 21st century Museum waste – every receipt, every teabag, every half-eaten potato (and, it would appear, every bra and every television). For the last few months I’ve been watching my colleagues work with Joshua to draw this idea, this ‘contemporary archaeology’ project, out of Joshua’s head and onto the Museum floor. Today, I’ve come to see the result – and to meet the Museum volunteers at the centre of this unique archive.

Joshua hopes that the Rubbish Collection will make us “… consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.” It’s certainly making the volunteers think.

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Hannah Tran at work. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

‘I’ve seen whole uneaten lunches from Waitrose. Not touched at all. You just think, “Why didn’t you take it home?”’ says Hannah Tran. ‘Even Museum cafés create food waste – obviously they can’t keep sandwiches forever, but on the night shift we get a lot of completely unopened paninis.’

Katyanna shares Hannah Tran’s unease at the sheer volume of waste we produce. ‘You see how much of it there is and think, “I shouldn’t waste so much. I should recycle more.” Some stuff that could be recycled is just put in with general waste, and then it’s contaminated so you can’t recycle it.’ Katyanna, like many of the volunteers here, was driven to get involved with The Rubbish Collection because she feels that we need to make ourselves think about waste. ‘So much media attention is devoted to wildlife at risk, to species going extinct … but still, some people don’t really care. So this project is an interesting way to talk to the public and get them to think about rubbish, and recycling, differently.’

So what do visitors make of the whole experience?

‘Well, it looks really factory-like in here. Because we’re dressed in boiler suits, I think people come over and think, “Oh, these guys are working!”’ says Katyanna. ‘So I go, “Hi! Do you want to sort rubbish?”, and explain what we’re doing. Some people do really enjoy it and try their hardest to make something pretty out of it. Some people are disgusted by it, but do it anyway.’

Katyanna  Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corinne Burns

Katyanna Quach and Hannah Tran in The Rubbish Collection. Image credit: Corrinne Burns

Visitors don’t have to get too close for comfort , of course. They’re just as welcome to come and observe the documentation process, and to talk to Joshua and his friendly team of assistants and volunteers. It’s certainly not the sort of gallery you see often. Or, indeed, ever.

‘I don’t think visitors to the Science Museum expect to find an art installation here. Especially this one, because it’s not “done” yet. It’s quite conceptual,’ says Hannah Tran. ‘It’s very different from the other stuff in the Museum. But people are really curious – kids are more interested in the rubbish itself, and older people often want to talk about the kind of stuff we find, but also about just how much waste there is.’

Tempted to take part? Let Hannah Burke convince you. ‘Although it may sound crazy, many of the rubbish bags have their own interesting stories to tell, and that can really make the job of sorting through rubbish worthwhile. It is always exciting to see enthusiastic members of the public become immersed at the task in hand. I can’t wait to see what interesting items the next three weeks have to offer!’

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July to 14 September 2014.

The art of rubbish

Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, Sarah Harvey, considers how art can inspire us to question our everyday relationships with ‘rubbish’.

The newly opened Rubbish Collection exhibition is the latest, and arguably the most ambitious, of the Science Museum’s art commissions. Artist Joshua Sofaer’s exploration of what we throw away, both as an institution and as individuals.

The Rubbish Collection continues our series of thought provoking exhibitions, installations and events relating to the Atmosphere gallery and Climate Changing… programme. Art has had a strong presence throughout this programme, for instance within the Climate Changing Stories (2011-May 2014), David Shrigley’s House of cards (2010) and Tony White’s downloadable novel Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013).

So, why has art played such an important role in the Science Museum’s exploration of climate science and sustainability? The ability of artists to offer a unique and creative perspective on this challenging subject and to make visible the forgotten or intangible aspects of the world around us is the key.

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection is an excellent example of this. Sofaer’s concept is deceptively simple: get people to look at what they throw away and consider what happens to it next. It’s certainly not the way a curator would have tackled this topic; it has taken an artist to think the unthinkable and invite Science Museum visitors to help sort piles of rubbish.

Sofaer is cleverly utilising and playing with the recognisable role of the Museum, in collecting, sorting and displaying precious objects, and using them to tell stories. Rather than looking outward, to examine the material production of the world around us, we will be looking at what the Science Museum itself produces in the form of waste and exposing the value of these overlooked materials, both in aesthetic and monetary terms.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

The concept is surprising – and in some ways utterly absurd – yet the outcome has the potential to shock as Sofaer brings us face to face with the reality of our daily consumption and waste of resources.

The Climate Changing… programme’s aim was to be thought provoking and The Rubbish Collection certainly fulfils this brief. In the run up to the exhibition it has already stimulated conversations within the Science Museum and it is exciting to know this self-reflection will have an impact on the future decisions the institution makes in relation to sustainability and climate change.  As Project Curator of The Rubbish Collection, the project has certainly made me think about rubbish in a very different light. I hope it will inspire all those who take part too.

Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection runs until 15 July 2014. Phase 2 is open from 25 July until 14 September 2014.

Introducing The Rubbish Collection

This summer the Science Museum is doing something crazy. It is allowing members of the public to rummage through its bins, writes artist Joshua Sofaer.

The Rubbish Collection is a two-part art installation, which will see every single thing thrown out by the Science Museum staff and visitors for 30 days, photographed in a purpose-built temporary archive in the basement of the Wellcome wing. Members of the public will be invited to open the bags of rubbish and layout the contents on an archive table, photograph their arrangement, before repacking the contents in the bag and sending it on its route towards recycling or incineration.

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

We will then follow the journey that the rubbish takes and will recall it to the Science Museum at various stages in its transformation, for the second part of the project: an exhibition of waste materials. Visitors will be able to see the elements and quantity of stuff thrown out by one institution.

Humans are avid collectors. We are also nosy. We enjoy investigating the things around us and seeing material culture collated, labelled and exhibited. It was this impulse that was the incentive for the first museums. The Rubbish Collection, which will soon fill the exhibition space below, inverts the idea of the museum preserving what is sacred or unique, asking us to consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.

By handling the waste themselves, I hope the public will notice how recycling bins are often contaminated and also how perfectly good resources are sent off needlessly for incineration when they could be reused or recycled.

Mirroring the conventional museum displays that are adjacent, The Rubbish Collection exhibition will confront visitors with a literal representation of one institution’s waste, while focusing attention on the urgent need for waste reduction.

It’s a step into uncharted territory and a courageous thing for the Science Museum to do; allowing the public to rummage through its bins. It shows that their commitment to tackling issues connected to climate change, sustainability and carbon efficiency, starts with themselves.

Rubbish bags are also repositories for stories of our lives. Opening one and laying out the contents is a kind of contemporary archaeology that stimulates the imagination, as we deduce or invent the histories of the materials before us.

Seeing the towers of paper, above, or mountains of glass sand, is similarly not only about recognising the need for more sustainable living, it is also about acknowledging the aesthetic properties and the wonder of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.

The Rubbish Collection runs from 16 June to 14 September 2014. For more information, click here.

In search of perfect sound – introducing Britain’s largest horn loudspeaker

Aleks Kolkowski, former sound artist-in-residence, remembers his first encounter with the Museum’s exponential horn.

 A long black metal tube, slightly tapered and almost 9-foot-long lay on a row of filing cabinets at Blythe House, the Science Museum’s storage facility. The object was pointed out by John Liffen, the Museum’s Curator of Communications, who guided me during a research visit of the collections in 2008. It was all that remained of a mighty horn loudspeaker that was demonstrated in the Museum during the 1930s, John explained. A demolition accident had almost totally destroyed it in 1949.

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

Now the tube assumed a more fascinating form, like a fossil or a dinosaur bone as we delved into audio archeology. The story of the horn, researched in great detail by John, sparked an interest in me. Four years later in 2012, on being appointed as the Museum’s first-ever sound artist-in residence, I was given a wonderful opportunity to initiate its reconstruction.

The exponential horn loudspeaker was designed in 1929 by the Museum’s curator of  ‘Electrical Communication’ R. P. G. Denman who also personally built a radio receiver to run in tandem with it. The purpose of this new sound system was to provide the public with demonstrations of the highest quality broadcast sound that was obtainable at the time. Denman saw it as setting a benchmark for audio quality, his aim was, in his words “to provide a standard by which commercial apparatus could be judged”.

The horn measured 27 feet (8.23m) in length with a cross section that curved exponentially from 1 1/16 inches (27mm) to a massive 7-foot-1-inch square (2.16m sq.) at the horn mouth. The science and theory of how horns propagate sound had only begun to emerge in the mid-1920s. It was found that a horn with an exponential shape was the most effective means of converting the sound energy from high pressure, low velocity vibrations produced at the narrow end of the horn, into low pressure, high velocity vibrations at its mouth, then radiated into the outside air. However, in order to reproduce the lowest sounding frequencies, this type of horn has to be very long with a correspondingly large opening.

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

Denman, an expert on loudspeakers, specially designed the horn in order to reproduce frequencies as low as 32Hz and up to 6kHz. This was achieved by loading it to one of the latest moving-coil driver units from the Western Electric Company (U.S.A.) namely the WE 555W, widely used in cinema sound systems of the time and now considered to be one of the greatest loudspeaker drivers ever made.

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

From 1930 until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the apparatus was demonstrated daily in the Museum’s Radio Communication gallery. The giant horn mouth appeared through the wall above the entrance while the rest of it hung conspicuously in the adjacent Agricultural Implements gallery. It was built into the Museum’s infrastructure and may be described as being its very first sound installation.

Concerts broadcast on the BBC’s London Regional programmes provided the content for the demonstrations. Critical reactions were positive and for audiences at the time, accustomed to limited bandwidth, interference and distortion, the sound must have truly been a revelation. The Museum’s Radio gallery became a popular lunchtime destination, where sandwiches were cheerfully munched while listening to the classics or Wurlitzer cinema organ music, the audio reproduced in glorious full-range. It left an indelible impression on those who heard it, including John Liffen’s own uncle. Writing in the Audio Engineering Society Journal of April 1975, the audio experts Percy and Geoffrey L. Wilson opined that “no superior loudspeaker has to date been demonstrated in Britain”.

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

Fast-forward to 2014 and we have an opportunity to hear the horn again.

This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent efforts of the Museum’s Workshops who undertook the reconstruction project with gusto. The missing 18-feet of the horn was rebuilt over an intense 8-month period following Denman’s original specification, although fibre-glass was used in place of the original lead and tin alloy. Led by the Workshops manager Steve Long, the team has succeeded in recreating the single largest loudspeaker in Britain.

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The programme for the upcoming installation is a mixture of past and present, allowing us to listen to the horn in old and new ways. Archive material from the BBC will be heard alongside recent recordings made within the Science Museum. Resonance 104.4FM will be resident in the space, broadcasting live from the Museum, while lunchtime concerts via BBC Radio 3 will mirror the original demonstrations of the 1930s. A series of events, including live music, poetry and performance will also showcase new works for the horn created by a variety of artists, writers and radio programme-makers.

The title, “In Search of Perfect Sound”, refers to Roderick Denman’s quest for audio nirvana. Our modern ears may have become accustomed to high fidelity audio and surround sound, but the exponential horn, with its extraordinary sound presence and a distinct three-dimensional effect, still holds an immersive power of its own.

I’m very proud to have played a part in giving the Denman horn a new lease of life and to have witnessed its exponential metamorphosis, from that modest-looking metal tube, cocooned above all those filing cabinets.

The Exponential Horn: In Search of Perfect Sound opens at the Media Space Studio on 20th May. An afternoon of talks and presentations about the horn and the history of radio in Britain will be held on 12th July. Speakers include John Liffen, Aleks Kolkowski, Dan Wilson and Seán Street.

Aleks Kolkowski is a sound artist, violinist and composer with a special interest in early sound recording and reproduction technology.

Max and Tangle’s guide to particle physics

To celebrate our Collider exhibition, we worked with the BAFTA award-winning Brothers McLeod to bring particle physics to life in this short animation. Myles and Greg McLeod had a pretty tough brief to squeeze all of particle physics (the entire Standard Model) into a two minute animation, but we think they pulled it off.

Collider content developer Rupert Cole interviewed scriptwriter Myles McLeod to find out how they did it.

Is this your first animation to do with physics?

I think it is! Though we’ve done maths before. We won a BAFTA for our psychedelic preschool maths show ‘Quiff and Boot’. Yes, that’s right, psychedelic maths. We also once explained Calculus using zombies. We’ve also done a bit of biology – dinosaurs to be precise – which was fun. We had to summarise 165 million years in 3 minutes. That’s efficiency for you.

Was it a challenge to cram so much particle physics into a two-minute animation?

Well, the challenge is where the fun lies. We were lucky that Harry Cliff at the Science Museum provided us with a wonderful visual explanation. Since we understood it, and we’re definitely not physicists, we knew that others would too. It was a great starting place from where we could then construct the backbone of the narrative. The next thing was what kind of a story did we want to tell, and what kind of characters would be in it.

How did you find physics compared with other topics you have worked with?

I think physics is one of those subjects that does both frighten and fascinate people. Everyone seems to have a drop off point, a point where you go ‘yes I understand that, yes I understand that’ and then ‘no I have no idea what you just said’. It’s such a fundamental science and some of it seems so deep and complex that on the face of it almost seems like magic, especially when you start talking about time moving at different rates and space being curved. On the other hand, it’s all about stars and forces and time and looking to beyond and imagining what’s out there and how it all works, so it’s a beautiful science too.

Where did the names Max and Tangle come from?

Well we wanted to take some characters from the world of physics so the cat is supposed to be Schrödinger’s Cat. Schrödinger coined the term entanglement, and Tangle sounded like a good name for a cat. We just needed a second character and Maxwell’s Demon was mentioned to us, and hey presto we had Max.

How did you decide on what the personalities of Max and Tangle would be like?

A lot of it came out of the question, ‘why would someone explain in a conversation all this information about particle physics?’ It seemed logical that one was clued up and clever and the other not as smart. Then it seemed like this could be a game of one-upmanship. So the less smart one needed their own advantage to balance things out, for Max that had to be his slyness and gung-ho approach to experiments. Once you start writing the script and getting them talking to each other they really start to show their personalities to you. When the voices come and later the animation, then they become even more distinct.

Do you have a favourite between Max and Tangle?

Max is great because he’s up to no good and it’s fun to have a character like that. They create chaos. But if you were asking me who I’d rather have over to lunch, I think I’d go with Tangle to avoid Max’s life-threatening experiments.

Discover more about protons, quarks and particle physics in our Collider exhibition.

Kraftwerk Uncovered

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, uncovers Kraftwerk and the connections between music and technology ahead of a live performance at the Science Museum.

Music and technology are intimate companions. Every instrument is a machine that extends the human capacity to make music. It’s why the relationship between music and technology is of interest to the Science Museum, and why we are hosting Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24th January 2014.

The evening features two performances by Icebreaker of new work exploring the origins of Kraftwerk’s sound and their preoccupations with technologies of all kinds. Before Kraftwerk became the world’s most influential technopop outfit, they emerged from the improvisatory new music scene in Cold War Germany.

In stunning new realisations, the highly respected composer, producer and soundscapist J. Peter Schwalm has reimagined Kraftwerk’s earliest recordings, from albums that have long been deleted. These origins lie in the sixties and seventies – exactly the same period as Daphne Oram, Electronic Music Studios and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were creating their visions of electronic music in the UK, revealed in our Oramics to Electronica exhibition.

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

These performances incorporate a new video work by visual artists Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish that explores the urban spaces of Kraftwerk’s origins. You can see a preview here.

But that’s not all. During the evening, you will also be able to enjoy the Balanescu Quartet’s wonderful re-workings of Kraftwerk’s Man Machine era technopop. These pieces, originally released on the album Possessed, reveal the music in a new, humorous light, picking-up on the dry wit of the originals.

The evening also features two talks: David Toop will explore how Kraftwerk’s music absorbed free jazz and soul, then refracted back into African-American music; with Richard Witts speaking on ‘Vorsprung durch Technik – Kraftwerk, Germany and England’, will investigate how Kraftwerk were received on their first tour of Britain in the 1970s.

Tickets for Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24 January 2014 can be bought online here