Category Archives: Contemporary art

Babbage's Difference Engine No 2, 1847-1849 drawings

Happy New Year

We’re welcoming in the New Year with a look at just a few of the exciting things happening here at the Museum in 2013.

Zombie hordes will invade the Museum in late January as we explore the science of consciousness and debate the ethical implications of a Zombie attack. Running during Lates and over a weekend, ZombieLab will feature live games, performances and talks from leading consciousness researchers across the UK.

Babbage's Difference Engine No 2, 1847-1849 drawings

Babbage’s Difference Engine No 2, 1847-1849 drawings

British philosopher and mathematician Charles Babbage, famous for his designs of automatic calculating machines, will be the focus of a new display this spring, as the Museum showcases the newly digitised Babbage archive and its collection of technical plans, drawings, scribbling books and letters.

In the summer, we’ll open Media Space, a brand new 1800 m² venue with two exhibition spaces and a café bar. A collaboration with the National Media Museum, Media Space will showcase some of the 3.2 million items from the National Photography Collection in a series of temporary exhibitions.

Media Space

Before work began on Media Space. Image © Kate Elliott

Photographers, artists and the creative industries will use our collections to explore visual media, technology and science through the wider programme of exhibitions and events at Media Space.

Finally, we’ll end the year with an exploration of one of the great scientific and engineering endeavours of our time: the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva.

Opening in autumn 2013, this new exhibition will give visitors a close-up look at remarkable examples of CERN engineering, including the vast dipole magnets. We’re working with CERN scientists and theatrical experts to produce a truly immersive experience which transports visitors into the heart of the LHC.

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector

A Higgs boson is produced in the ATLAS detector at CERN

Also on display in the exhibition will be historic objects from our collections, including the apparatus used by JJ Thomson  in his electron discovery experiments and the accelerator Cockcroft and Walton used to split the atom.

So whether it’s Zombies, Media Space or the Large Hadron Collider that interests you, there’s something for everyone in the Museum this year.

Tilly Blyth, our Keeper of Technologies and Engineering and Alison Boyle, our Curator of Astronomy and Modern Physics, chose to be pictured with Babbage's Difference Engine No 2, in this photograph by Greg Funnell

The Female Face of Science

What do you see when you picture a scientist? Too often, it’s a man with crazy white hair, and although this may be due to the genius of one man, it is still worrying that far fewer women than men work in science.

Tomorrow's World

Tomorrow's World, taken in the BBC Studios at Alexandra Palace by Greg Funnell

At the Science Museum this evening, ScienceGrrl is launching a calendar to change this. Featuring 13 stunning images of scientists (both male and female), including two of our own Curators, the calendar aims to encourage girls and young women to see science as an enriching, exciting career, while also raising money for projects which break down gender stereotypes.

Tilly Blyth, our Keeper of Technologies and Engineering and Alison Boyle, our Curator of Astronomy and Modern Physics, chose to be pictured with Babbage’s Difference Engine No 2.

Tilly Blyth (l) and Alison Boyle (r) pictured with Babbage's Difference Engine No 2 in this photograph by Greg Funnell

Tilly has a fascinating collection to look after, including Stephenson’s rocket, the Apollo 10 space capsule and Charles Babbage’s Difference engine. She thinks that science is a vital part of our culture and is currently working on the new Making Modern Communications gallery, which opens in 2014.

The objects Alison helps the museum collect today will shape future generations’ understanding of science and technology. Alison loves the variety of working in the museum, from holding a first edition (1543) of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres to leading an exhibition on the Large Hadron Collider, which opens next year.

There’s more information on the Science Grrl website, and the calendar can be bought here.

French human skin with tattoos


Our writer in residence, Mick Jackson, gave us a few words on his tenure here at the Science Museum.

The flag on top of the Science Museum has been lowered to half-mast. It’s a modest gesture, marking the fact that my tenure as writer-in-residence is slowly drawing to a close. People ask, with some justification, what a writer-in-residence actually does. Well, in my case, it was a number of things: I offered writing surgeries to the museum’s staff (a surprising number of whom are privately working on a novel or collection of stories), I composed a short ‘jogging memoir’ to coincide with the Olympics and I generally tried to make myself available and useful.

In return I was given access to some of the museum’s more obscure nooks and crannies, as well as its extensive stores (two of the items that made the greatest impression on me were the 19th Century ‘French human skin with tattoos’ and early lunar photographs). I also took part in a press interview with Sky TV’s ‘The Book Show’ – talking about the residency here as well as appearing in the Bookseller magazine.

French human skin with tattoos
Human skin, with tattoos of women’s heads, France, 1900-1920

Just as importantly, I was given access to the museum’s employees. I could list a hundred inspiring meetings I’ve had over the year but shall limit myself to one. Did you know that the Science Museum has a disused observatory on its roof? No, neither did I. The curator of astronomy and modern physics, Alison Boyle, showed me round soon after I arrived. I know practically nothing about astronomy but the visit encouraged me to start finding out. Until I saw a notice on the wall I’d never previously come across the concept of sidereal time. In the short term it inspired a short story which was commissioned by The Verb / Radio 3, ‘Information regarding the stars’, but I’ll be surprised if I don’t revisit the idea.

The Science Museum

Anyway, heartfelt thanks to the museum and all who work in her. I’m sure that I’ll be drawing on the ideas I’ve uncovered here for years to come. As a farewell gift to the public I shall be tweeting some behind-the-scenes photos of the museum over the coming weeks (@mickwriter). After that, who knows? The Science Museum’s a big place. If I can just keep a hold of my security pass people might not notice that I never actually left …

Aleks Kolkowski records Aaron Williamson, Camberwell, 2009

Phonographies – Live Wax Cylinder Recordings

Aleks Kolkowski records Aaron Williamson, Camberwell, 2009. (© Helen Petts)

On Wednesday 30 May Sound Artist-in-residence, Aleks Kolkowski, began his series of live demonstrations of wax cylinder recording, using an original hand-cranked Edison phonograph c.1909.  Aleks was joined by the talented Jason Singh, a beatboxer and vocal sculptor, who is currently the Sound Artist-in-residence at the V&A museum. Both residencies are part of Supersonix, an Exhibition Road Cultural Group project.

Aleks gave a fascinating introduction to the process and technology used to inscribe sound onto a wax cylinder; the pressure of sound energy channelled down a large horn makes a Mica membrane flex, pressing a sharp sapphire stylus into the softened wax to literally cut a grove of the sound vibrations. This historical technology was then used to record a series of very modern beatbox performances with Jason testing his full vocal range to mimic instruments and create experimental sonic environments that were captured in the wax.

The success of a wax recording is affected by the quality of the wax and any invisible imperfections that it might hold, so there was great anticipation as the first recording was played back on an antique concert horn.  The effect was quite magical with the wax offering not so much a faithful reproduction of the performance but one that was layered and softened by the recording process.


The series continues with special guests:

Wednesday, 20 June 2012: Mick Jackson – Writer-in-Residence, Science Museum

Wednesday, 27 June 2012: Cheryl Tipp – Wildlife Sounds Curator, Sound Archive, British Library

Thursday, 28 June 2012: Nahum Mantra, Thereminist

Events are free but bookable through the Science Museum bookings line 0870 8704868 or at any sales desk inside the museum (maximum capacity 25 people) 

Aleksander Kolkowski is a composer, violinist, sound artist and researcher born and based in London. His career as a professional musician has spanned over 30 years and, over the past 12 years, Kolkowski has explored the potential of historical sound recording and reproduction technology; combining his unique collection of horned string instruments with gramophones and wax cylinder phonographs, to make contemporary mechanical-acoustic music. This work has been shown across Europe and in the USA, and broadcast by the BBC, WDR, Deutschlandradio and others.

This series is part of his major project Phonographies an archive of contemporary musicians, artists and writers recorded exclusively on wax cylinders.



Image of tuning forks

Hearing Artefacts – A Science Museum Radio Diary

Image of tuning forks The Science Museum is very pleased to announce our first ever Sound Artist in Residence, Aleks Kolkowski.

In recent years Aleks has explored the potential of historical sound recording and reproduction technology to make contemporary mechanical-acoustic music. His works for singers, instrumentalists and even singing canaries often feature live-made sound inscriptions onto wax cylinders and lacquer discs using Edison phonographs and old disc recording lathes.

Other activities include repurposing discarded digital CDs as 45rpm analogue records and both sound installations and performances where historic sound reproducing machines, mechanical musical instruments and archival recordings are combined with state-of-the-art electronics. Such practice-led research using antiquated audio technologies and investigations into little-known forms of mechanical amplification led to the award of a PhD from Brunel University.

His major project to date has been an archive of contemporary musicians, artists and writers recorded exclusively on wax cylinders. Begun in 2006 and continuing, the entire Phonographies collection may be listened to online.

Busily recording away, Aleks has developed a series of weekly radio programmes documenting the sounds of the museum. Granted unfettered access to our collections and in close co-operation with curators and staff, Aleks has recorded objects, machines and instruments and the stories associated with them. The radio series will be aired on Resonance 104.4 FM  at 4.30 on Thursday afternoons every week beginning March 22nd and repeated on Sundays at 11am.

 From the service corridors and basement workshops to restricted areas on the upper floors, the sounds of the entire building will be also be traced in an attempt to map the sounds of one of the world’s greatest museums.

 This week’s show: Thursday 5th April, 16:30 – 17:30, repeated on Sunday 8th at 11am

Machine Music: Sounds of Steam; Double Beam and Mill Engines; Loom

 This week’s show focuses on the giant steam driven mill engine in the Energy Hall on the ground floor of the museum and the largest working exhibit on display. Ben Russell, curator of Mechanical Engineering talks about its history and maintenance engineer and steam specialist John Shulver fires up the boiler and blasts some excess steam out into the museum courtyard. We hear the engine in all its glory from close up on the deck down to its thudding echoes in the basement. Also heard on the programme are the clamorous clacking sounds of the Toyoda Loom and the rhythmic chug and whir of an exquisitely engineered model double-beam steam engine from 1840. 

 Last week’s show: The Museum as a Sonic Space

 Tim Boon, the Science Museum’s Head of Research, muses on how sound operates in the museum, whether accidental, incidental or deliberately created, through a guided tour of particular galleries and exhibits. In the second half of the programme, Aleks  accompanies Exhibit Maintenance Manager Sean Wogan as he starts up the Water Garden and other delights.



Mick Jackson

Writer in residence

Mick JacksonMick Jackson is a prize-winning author and screenwriter, who has recently become our new writer-in-residence.

His first novel, The Underground Man, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award and won the Royal Society of Authors’ First Novel Award. He has published three novels and two illustrated collections of stories with Faber and Faber, his most recent being The Widow’s Tale in 2010. He also writes screenplays and has directed documentaries.

Mick will be at here until September, 2012. Some of his interests which he hopes to explore during the residency are early photography, astronomy, airships, submarines and the history of medicine (particularly The Common Cold Unit).

Throughout his residency he will be keeping us up to date with blog posts. His first post is below. 

Being the writer-in-residence at a major London museum can be pretty demanding. There are people to meet, notes to be made, etc. – and all the thinking on top of that. When the stress threatens to overwhelm me I tend to head for ‘Agriculture’ on the First Floor. In one display case a series of tractors slowly turn in their own small circle, constantly tilling the same grey soil. It’s my equivalent of a Japanese raked gravel garden. After a couple of minutes, a sort of English pastoral Zen settles upon me and I’m right as rain.

To be honest, when I began the residency I was hoping for a hat of some description, with my title printed on it. And maybe a special phone on which I could be notified of potentially-interesting events: ‘There’s something weird going on in Marine Engineering. Grab your notebook and get yourself down there.’ As I approached the crowd I would say, ‘Let me through, please, I’m the writer-in-residence. This scenario may have potential as a short story, or a quirky piece for Radio Four.’

Instead, I am left to wander round the galleries in hatless anonymity. There’s the odd perk, of course. As a member of staff I get 20% discount on my lattes. And curators, who possibly have better things to be getting on with, seem quite prepared to sit down with me and discuss their specialist field. This morning I have been contemplating sidereal time and horary quadrants. Anything to do with Time or Cosmology, I find, can easily bring on a bout of brain-ache. But the moment I feel the pressure building I head back to the tractors – the slowly-turning tractors – and within five minutes my equilibrium is restored.

Mick Jackson
Writer in Residence

Alexei image

In Interview: Alexei Shulgin

Alexei image Alexei Shulgin, artist from media art production company Electroboutique responds to Head of Science Museum Arts Projects, Hannah Redler’s questions about his exhibition at the Museum, ‘Electroboutique Pop up’.

Electroboutique pop-up at the Science Museum consists of art objects, ‘products’ as you call them, slogans and texts. On the surface this seems like a move away from the area for which are particularly known, as a pioneer of net art. Can you say something about the shift in the focus of your practice, from bits and bytes and online environments to ‘(art) marketable products’, perhaps starting with a brief outline of what net art is (or was)?

Well net art was an avant-garde movement in the 90’s; that came to life after the emergence of the internet. I think net art was an ultimate modernism, an art practice that existed without institutional borders and was addressed to everyone (who had a computer and internet). I believe many of the net artists’ inventions were later used in construction of “web 2.0” which marries social networking and online shopping.

I think net art had served its role in the development of online capitalism and has become marginal around 2002-03. In the virtual world dominated by heavily controlled social/ commercial sites such as Facebook and eBay very little space is left for artistic exploration. That was one reason for me to search for the new. Another one was that by that time I was looking for new economical conditions of art production and making “commercial”, art-market ready art appeared to be the best option. Especially considering the almost non-existent support of art by the state in Russia where I was living by then. I was lucky to meet Aristarkh Cernyshev then and we decided to make a project together, Super-I real Virtuality Goggles. It went really well and we decided to go on with a collaboration, formed Electroboutique, rented a studio together and started developing our unique style on the intersection of pop art, design and interactive electronics, something that has not existed yet in the market.

What is the significance for you of this exhibition being in a Science Museum rather than an art gallery? How do you think the museum context and its very wide general audience might change the way the works will be experienced or received?

Yes, the Science Museum is great for us! Firstly, as I have already said before, the Science Museum shows at its best an unbreakable connection between history of capitalism, science, engineering, and design. With the Science Museum art programme we get all ingredients: we consider art an important institute of a capitalist society, one of its driving forces. This unity of art and capitalism is one of the focuses of our artistic exploration, which is why the Science Museum context works so well for us. And of course, being real modernists, we want to bring our art to the masses, to ordinary people, and not just to the snobbish art crowd. And where on earth we can find more diverse audience than in the Science Museum. We believe our works affect people on different levels. The first, entertaining one is addressed to all; but if you like to reflect a bit on the state of the world today – we offer this option too!

Can you say something more about your appropriation of the language of corporate social responsibility in the work, or why it became important subject matter for you? It’s not immediately the most obvious bedfellow for works which play so expertly with the outputs and aesthetics of mass media. But when one starts to think about the corporate world as a major driving force within new media and communication spaces, lots of questions start to arise. Is this in any way related to the political drivers that originally led you to practice as a net artist?

Perhaps. You know, you start being an artist because you feel the world around you is unbearable, you don’t see how you can participate in this circus. Then, you discover that art world is not any better, and you start looking for new frontiers. In the 90’s the internet was such a frontier; then after few years it has become a part of a banal and rude reality. I think it’s a kind of evil loop: you look for a new “temporary autonomous zone” to quote Hakim Bey, and you start exploring it and then, after a while and thanks to your efforts  it becomes eaten up by progressing capitalism.

When working on our electronic gadgets/art objects we have discovered that our production is quite similar to that of a “real” electronics company: same kind of chipboards, plastic, cameras. We work with contractors, we hire engineers and workers, we use a chinese labour force. We work on the market, we try to be innovative and offer new exciting products… Another world, our art production looks exactly like any other creative capitalist production. That’s why we decided to go further and use the current corporate marketing strategies such as declaring social responsibility and sustainability. And it all is true – we do care about world around us and we do try to make it better!

Your position also fluctuates quite irreverently between being sharply anticapitalist and a full-on creative entrepreneur luxuriating in the benefits of capitalism. In the text that goes along with your work ‘Commercial Protest’ you even promote this contradiction with the words “We protest against this state of affairs with this piece and set a fair price on it!” Tell us more!

Oh yes. Being anti-capitalist is a luxury, it’s a privilege of a first world citizen. You don’t see any “Occupy …” movements outside the Golden Billion countries. By sharpening the contradiction you are mentioning we want to emphasize the situation where critique of capitalism is in fact an essential part of the capitalist itself.

How do you think your takes on corporate marketing speak actually critique rather than reiterate the ideologies you’re commenting on?

We think we do both. By our creative critique we point out the weak points of capitalism and offer patches for them. We believe that contemporary art, along with science, is an avant-garde institute of a capitalist society. And one of its most important missions is developing new aesthetics and communications techniques for future use in product design, advertising and politics. Look globally – what is called ‘contemporary art’ flourishes in the societies with innovative capitalism, and is rather marginal and derivative in the others.

Many of the works in the exhibition either respond to, reflect or re-version viewers in real-time. How do the works create individualised experience for each audience member and how is it that these are a reflection of the audience themselves?

Well the initial reason for us to start making works like that was our desire to please the viewers, everybody just loves to appear in an art work. Such a ‘populist’ approach was our deliberate choice when we were starting. Also, placing an audience in an artwork makes communication between the two much easier. Today, media personalities and celebrities appearing on screen are very popular and attractive social figures, so we are playing with people’s desire to be one of them too. And yes, by including a viewer into our artworks we make their experience unique, and they appreciate it by loving (and buying) our works. And finally, it’s a practical trick, by pleasing our audience we manage to keep their attention for longer than average three seconds and communicate our critical messages while entertaining.


Contemporary arts programme

Not everyone knows that we have an ongoing contemporary arts programme, so we thought we would give you a bit of an update about what we have going on in the Museum art-wise.

Our contemporary art programme is now in its 15th year and is going from strength to strength. We exhibit art projects that explore artists’ perspectives on the past, present and future of science and technology and offer ways of thinking about the impact of science within wider cultural contexts.

Our latest offerings include a temporary display of large-scale photograph ‘In the House of My Father’ by seminal Black British artist Donald Rodney in the Who Am I Gallery, a gallery about human identity.

Our ever popular Cockroach Tour by maverick Danish artists collective Superflex is still in action. ‘Listening Post’ by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen is an extraordinary ‘portrait of online chat’ run out over a ‘curtain’ of 251 vacuum fluorescent screens which show live chat fragments in real-time.

Coming up, we have the UK premier of works by innovative art production company Electroboutique (Alexei Shulgin and Aristarkh Chernyshev). Their gorgeously designed broadcast and interactive ‘art products’ encourage participation and new forms of ‘Crititainment’ (entertaining critiques) through what the artists call ‘Creative Consumption’.


Electroboutique work with the languages of pop culture, media and art histories, real-time data processing and custom electronics, framed by a tongue-in-cheek appropriation of the language of corporate marketing speak. ‘Electroboutique pop-up at the Science Museum’ opens on the 23 November, running until 14 February 2012.

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Over the next few weeks we will be publishing an interview with Alexei Shulgin as well as running a live Q and A on Twitter.

Over the next year our prize-winning Writer in Residence Mick Jackson will be keeping us up to date with his discoveries in the Museum and next March we are delighted to be hosting a solo show of new works by British artist Suzanne Treister, details of which are to follow shortly.

Post by Hannah Redler, Head of Arts Projects