Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

Chancellor Announces £3 Million Investment in Museum of Science & Industry

By Kate Campbell-Payne and Roger Highfield

The Chancellor, George Osborne MP, today announced a £3 million investment to create a new special exhibition space at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester.

Speaking in the Museum at the official launch and celebration of Manchester as the European City of Science 2016, Europe’s greatest scientific gathering, the Chancellor set out further Government plans to prioritise science investment in the North West.

Chancellor George Osborne MP with Professor Brian Cox , Sally MacDonald, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Chancellor George Osborne MP with Professor Brian Cox , Sally MacDonald, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group.

Mr Osborne said that it was ‘great to be back’ in the Museum, not just in an official capacity but as a local resident who visits with his children.

He told the audience of leading figures that Manchester was the first great scientific city in the modern world and that it was developing into a global force.

Today’s investment will allow the Museum to take forward ambitious plans to convert the brick-vaulted basement of its historic 1830 Warehouse – the first ever railway warehouse – into a venue for world-class exhibitions that will inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

Artist impression of new special exhibition gallery space at the Museum of Science & Industry.

This will help shift the centre of gravity of the Science Museum Group towards the north and enable the Museum of Science & Industry to develop its own touring exhibitions, along the lines of Collider. ‘It is a real pleasure to be here as a near local MP and someone who believes passionately in the future of the city,” he said.

Director Sally MacDonald said the investment would enable the iconic site to create a ‘really stunning’ gallery: “With the support of our partners, we want to develop ground-breaking exhibitions that can tour internationally, shining a global spotlight on our collections and our great city of Manchester.”

She hopes the new gallery will help boost the current audience of around 700,000 visitors by tens of thousands more. “This is a place where ideas can change the world, from industrial revolution to today and beyond.”

Today’s announcement comes just days after the Chancellor announced plans for a £235 million Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials Research and Innovation at the University of Manchester. “I want it to be the best in the world,” he told the audience.

This, the centrepiece of investment plans for the region announced last week, will build on two centuries of innovation in developing materials that has underpinned Manchester’s rise as one of the first globalised industrial cities.

The £3 million Government investment in the Museum is in addition to an £800,000 grant that funded preparatory work, including the selection of the best location for the new exhibition space from across the Museum’s historic 7.5 acre site.

It was at the Museum’s Power Hall in June that George Osborne announced his intention to create a “Northern supercity” to rival London, New York and other major cities by building HS3, a high speed rail link between Manchester and Leeds.

At the launch was Professor Brian Cox, who still lectures in the university and conducted a bioluminescence experiment in the Museum for primary schoolchildren, along with the Chancellor. He remarked on how, over the past decade, more and more children were inspired by STEM.

Professor Brian Cox and the Chancellor conduct a bioluminescence experiment with local school children.

Professor Brian Cox and the Chancellor conduct a bioluminescence experiment with local school children.

Prof Cox laid down a challenge to all the political parties in the coming election to ring fence the science budget, or indeed increase it, to match the huge research budgets of Germany and America.

Prof Cox said that the UK can indeed be the best place in the world to do science, building on its infrastructure of world class schools, universities and museums. “I am extremely optimistic about the future.”

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, said that the city has a tally of around 25 Nobel Prize winners. “Science is at the heart of Manchester, its past present and future,” he said, adding that around 50,000 people in Greater Manchester are employed in science and technology.

Manchester is the home of many world changing science achievements:  John Dalton’s atomic theory of the 19th Century; the pioneering work of James Joule in thermodynamics; Rutherford’s work to reveal the atomic nucleus by smashing helium nuclei into gold foil;  the world’s first programmable computer in 1948; the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube’ baby, in 1978; and in 2004 when Manchester made headlines with  ’graphene’ an atom-thick wonder material.

That long history is celebrated throughout the Museum of Science & Industry and in its collections, ranging from Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame (1775) to the creation of Terylene, the world’s first wholly synthetic fibre (1941) , and the isolation of graphene just a decade ago.

The Museum is constantly innovating new ways to tell this story so as to make science accessible and enticing for its visitors, from its partnership with the largest STEMNET contract outside of London to the annual Manchester Science Festival.

The Museum’s major partnerships include relationships with the Wellcome Trust and the University of Manchester with whom the Museum is working on a new exhibition on graphene, which will open in 2016.

The Museum audience was also addressed by Rowena Burns, CEO of Manchester Science Partnerships, on the ‘limitless opportunities’ for life sciences in the region.  Plans for the European City of Science, “an unmatched opportunity to showcase our science and innovation to the world”, were outlined by Prof  Luke Georghiou, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester; and Professor Colin Bailey, Vice-President of the University of Manchester, told the audience that the new Sir Henry Royce Institute will “ hit the sweet spot in the innovation chain of materials” to speed their delivery from lab bench to market.

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.

Human Spaceflight Enters a New Era

Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technology and Engineering, reflects on Orion’s maiden voyage in space and NASA’s first step on the Journey to Mars.

THE ORION spacecraft that could loft humans to Mars in coming decades has made its maiden flight.

The conical craft, which looks Apollo on steroids, was launched on a Delta rocket out of Cape Canaveral in Florida on a short test flight in which it reached a height of 3,600 miles—15 times higher than the International Space Station and the farthest anyone has sent a human-spaceflight capsule since Apollo 17 returned from the Moon in 1972—and orbited the Earth twice.

The craft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja California, where it was recovered with help from the US Navy.

The launch marked the first mission of its type for almost half a century and will test key technologies to ensure that Nasa can send astronauts into Earth orbit and beyond – to the Moon, asteroids and ultimately to Mars.

Nasa’s chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, outlined Nasa’s vision during a talk in the Science Museum last month.

Currently the United States has no operational human-rated space launch system; astronauts are launched to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.

Engineers installing the heat shield on NASA’s Orion spacecraft prior to its maiden space flight.  Orion is similar to the Apollo capsule design but larger, heavier and capable of carrying four astronauts – one more than Apollo could.  Image Credit:  NASA/Daniel Casper

Engineers installing the heat shield on NASA’s Orion spacecraft prior to its maiden space flight. Orion is similar to the Apollo capsule design but larger, heavier and capable of carrying four astronauts – one more than Apollo could. Image Credit: NASA/Daniel Casper

Orion, built by Lockheed Martin, will be a successor to the Shuttle, which acted as NASA’s human-rated launch system for 30 years but could not go beyond Earth orbit. Nasa administrator Charlie Bolden called the Orion test “a giant day for us.”

The Orion craft it is clearly an enlarged and improved Apollo command module, as on display in the Science Museum (Apollo 10) – the blunt-bodied ballistic capsule the took the first humans to the Moon and which was launched atop of a rocket and, at the end of its mission, hurtled back to Earth for a splash down.

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

Astronaut Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan with curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Cernan was Lunar Module Pilot on the Apollo 10 mission and flew also on Apollo 17 as commander and the last man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Science Museum

Orion’s first manned mission is planned for 2021 – a rendezvous with a captured asteroid  as part of a plan to identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon.

The last time Nasa launched a flight of this significance was in November 1967, when it launched the very first Saturn V rocket and with it the Apollo 4 command module on a very similar mission.

That pioneering sixties mission was a great success with both the rocket and spacecraft performing largely to plan. Within a year, Nasa had launched the Apollo 7 mission – the first crewed flight of a command module.

One of the key differences between the two programmes is the rate of development: Apollo had billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of personnel all working frantically to meet President Kennedy’s commitment of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth before the end of the 1960s.

Orion has no such political underpinning and still less the huge amounts of money Apollo was granted. Progress is and has to be slower, and it may be that a momentum of successive missions will be hard to maintain.

And yet, if humans are to have a future in space such large, state-directed programmes will almost certainly have to continue, even if they are extended over many more years than the decade or so invested in project Apollo.

Asteroid Day Declaration at Science Museum

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs, writes about the launch of Asteroid Day at the Science Museum.

Asteroid Day was unveiled last night in the Science Museum, as part of a global news conference lead by Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former trustee, and the astrophysicist and Queen guitarist Dr Brian May.

 Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, Director Grigorij Richters and Dr Brian May, astrophysicist and guitarist from Queen took part in the launch event at the Science Museum.

Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, Director Grigorij Richters and Dr Brian May, astrophysicist and guitarist from Queen took part in the launch event at the Science Museum. Image: © Max Alexander

Launching an international awareness day and accompanying declaration the organisers hope to draw more attention to the threat posed by the million or so asteroids in our solar system that have the potential to destroy a city. To date, we have discovered around one per cent, fewer than 10,000.

The event in the museum’s Cosmos and Culture gallery, chaired by organiser Grigorij Richters,  was linked to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco where astronauts Tom Jones, Ed Lu, and Apollo 9 Astronaut Rusty Schweickart addressed the meeting.

A focus was the release of the “100x Declaration”, read out in the museum by Lord Rees, calling for a 100 fold increase in the detection and monitoring of near Earth asteroids that threaten human populations.

Lord Rees said: “We must make it our mission to find asteroids before they find us.”

“The human race has been living on borrowed time,” added May, who said he was honoured to be in the museum. “Nobody knows when the next big one will hit. It takes just one. We have a huge bridge to cross. But we do have all the technology to avert disaster.”

They urged the adoption of Asteroid Day on June 30, 2015 – the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska  explosion, caused by an impact which destroyed 800 square miles, the equivalent size of a major metropolitan area,  in Russia.

The 100x Declaration was signed by more than 100 noted figures from 30 countries, including Richard Dawkins, Anousheh Ansari, Stewart Brand, investors Shervin Pishevar and Steve Jurvetson, Alan Eustace and Peter Norvig of Google, Peter Gabriel, Jane Luu and Jill Tarter.

There were also many who had links with the Science Museum including Brian Cox, Kip Thorne (through Interstellar), and Helen Sharman.

The declaration was signed by around 40 astronauts and cosmonauts, such as Chris Hadfield and Jim Lovell. “We have the technology to deflect dangerous asteroids through kinetic impactors and gravity tractors but only if we have years of advance warning of their trajectories,” stated Dr Ed Lu, Shuttle astronaut, designer of the gravity tractor and cofounder of the Sentinel Mission, a space-based infrared survey mission to discover and catalogue larger asteroids.

The point, he said, was not to push any one particular technology or project but rather to raise awareness and encourage the discovery of asteroids in any way possible.

Currently, governments around the world spend up to $50 million per year toward this end, and scientists find about 1,000 near earth objects annually, said Lu.

Rusty Schweickart, who with Lu co-founded the B612 Foundation as part of their mission, said the magnitude of the threat dawned in the wake of the pioneering work of Profs Luis and Walter Alvarez, who linked an impact 65 million years ago to the demise of the dinosaurs, and when Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9  broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994. “We need to accelerate the discovery of these objects.”

Press conference attendees in London and San Francisco listen to ‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye, live from New York.

Press conference attendees in London and San Francisco listen to ‘Science Guy’ Bill Nye, live from New York. Image © Max Alexander

Meanwhile, Bill Nye, the Science Guy and CEO of the Planetary Society, joined the event via Google Hangout from New York.  He told the meeting: “Let’s get going.

‘Objects at an Exhibition’: experience the Science Museum as never before

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, blogs about an exciting new project at the Science Museum for 2015.

The Science Museum will be the venue for an exciting musical event in autumn 2015. Six contemporary composers are writing new pieces of music inspired by key objects and spaces in the Museum. On the night of the concert, audiences will travel through the Museum to hear the pieces performed live next to the objects of inspiration. This unmissable event is a collaboration between the Museum, NMC Recordings and the Aurora Orchestra, which are both renowned for their support for innovative music and engaging musical events.

Music is a natural subject for the Science Museum: intellectually it provides a powerful example of the interaction of technology and culture; practically it has the power to deeply enhance the variety of what we can offer our visitors; and emotionally it has the potential to move and deepen engagement with our collections and spaces.

Together, we have commissioned Gerald Barry, Barry Guy, Christopher Mayo, Claudia Molitor, Thea Musgrave and David Sawer who – with their diverse approaches, techniques and styles – will offer Museum visitors, Aurora audiences and NMC listeners new and interactive listening experiences in a setting overflowing with landmark achievements and innovations in science and technology.

Barry is working on an extraordinary graphic score based on Charles Babbage’s difference engine workings.

Difference engine No.2

Difference engine – Image Credit: SSPL, Science Museum

Claudia is exploring ‘non-music’ inspired by the BBC 2LO transmitter and the idea that music was originally prohibited on BBC radio.

2LO

BBC 2LO transmitter – Image Credit: SSPL, Science Museum

Gerald’s piece is about ‘the mysterious and unnameable aspects of outer space’Chris’s work will be presented in the Flight Gallery where he hopes the audience will make some of the same connections he’s making ‘on the journey from idea to inspiration’; reflecting on a world where there’s an increasing emphasis on speed David has chosen the mail coach in the Making the Modern World gallery to seek clarity in time standing still; and Thea says: ‘I do like the idea of composing something for the Energy Hall… I plan to place two or perhaps three performers on the upper level with the rest on the lower level facing people as they enter the Museum. I am thinking generally of the wonders of discovery, with soloists ‘taking off’ with flights of fancy against the more earthbound group below.’

To find out more about the project and how to support it, please visit our Oramics Machine Facebook page.

Objects at an Exhibition Big Give

The end of AIDS?

Nicola Burghall, Content Developer, blogs about HIV and AIDS, the subject of a new display in the Museums Who Am I? gallery

December 1st 2014 marks the 26th World AIDS Day. The UNAIDS ‘90-90-90’ initiative sets ambitious global targets to end the epidemic by 2030. So how far have we come since the epidemic gained global attention in the 1980s? Here at the Science Museum we decided to explore this question with our new exhibit - The end of AIDS?

The new display ‘The end of AIDS?’ in the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery. Credit: Science Museum

The new display ‘The end of AIDS?’ in the Museum’s Who Am I? gallery. Image Credit: Science Museum

The focal point of the exhibit is an animation called ‘Growing up with HIV’. It was created in collaboration with an inspiring group of young people who live with HIV and the National Children’s Bureau. It tells the story of a young mum-to-be looking forward to the birth of her first child, while she reflects on her life and what it was like to grow up with HIV.


The group created the animation in just four workshops. First they visited the Who Am I? gallery, where they learned about our visitors and science communication. We then discussed what HIV means to them and interviewed an expert about what it does. Over the following sessions we narrowed down what were the most important messages and how to help visitors relate to them.

A key idea was to challenge some of the commonly held misconceptions by explaining what HIV does and the success of current treatment. They decided to tell a personal story about the struggles we can all face growing up.

Struggle and progress turned out to be a strong theme for the animation – referring both to science (trying to improve treatment for HIV) and people (trying to live full, healthy and happy lives).

The rest of the display was built up around the conversations we had during the workshops and from talking with experts. A key message is the importance of testing. In the UK 20% of the estimated 100,000 people who live with HIV are not aware of their infection. In the display we included a postal sampling kit from the Terrence Higgins Trust, which is available for free to high-risk groups.

You can also find a concert programme from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness, held in 1992. It was at this event that 100,000 red ribbons were first distributed in the UK. The ribbon is now the iconic symbol of public awareness and support for people living with HIV and AIDS.

From our stores we brought out a collection of drug packaging which represents all the drugs an HIV patient may have taken in one month in 1999. Today some patients can take just one pill a day and trials have begun for a monthly injection. The last section of the display looks at the latest research and includes the story of Timothy Ray Brown – the only person to have been cured of HIV.

I hope you will be able to visit the display and find it as enlightening and inspiring as I have working on it. I’d like to end this post with a few words from our group:

‘We are all going through our own struggles, but we can achieve anything we want’.

The end of AIDS? opened on 28 November and will be on display in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery until late February 2015.

From Morse Code to Wikipedia – The Information Revolution Hits November Lates

Laura Singleton, Press Officer blogs about the last Lates evening of 2014, which celebrated the Science Museum’s new Information Age gallery

A crowd gathers as a woman standing on a plinth points a mobile phone up to the ceiling of the Information Age gallery. In her other hand is a cable, connected to a device which produces a mesmerising electronic sound. The sound changes in pitch and frequency as the woman and her performance partners make careful movements as if playing a musical instrument. Above people’s heads a faint chorus of voices can be heard, while the light beacons on the ceiling twinkle.

Visitors watch a musical performance of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Fiducial Voice Beacons artwork. Image credit: Science Museum

Visitors watch a musical performance of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Fiducial Voice Beacons artwork. Image credit: Science Museum

This ‘sound art’ performance by Professor of Media Computing at Goldsmiths, Atau Tanaka and his team is a musical interpretation of a new art commission,  Fiducial Voice Beacons by BAFTA award winning artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The performance was one of the highlights of the November Lates evening, which was designed around the theme of information and communication technology to celebrate the new Information Age gallery. The subject matter certainly seemed to capture people’s imagination, drawing in a crowd of 3,728 visitors to the Museum and providing a perfect close to our 2014 programme.

 

Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer gives a tour of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

Charlotte Connelly, Content Developer gives a tour of the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

In an evening that managed to squeeze in 200 years of technological innovation into just over three hours, visitors were invited to hear Iain Logie Baird’s account of the first ever outdoor public broadcast by the BBC – the famous Nightingale broadcast of 1924, and the innovative microphone that made it possible. Elsewhere, Morse code and jewellery lovers could combine their interests to make special bracelets. Visitors exploring Information Age were encouraged to share their new pictures for a new Wikipedia page on the gallery too.

Those after a hint of nostalgia were drawn to a traditional looking telephone box supervised by BT, where people could enter the booth for photos to take away as personal mementoes of the evening.

Visitors queue up to take part in BT's Phone Box Photo Booth. Image credit: Science Museum

Visitors queue up to take part in BT’s Phone Box Photo Booth. Image credit: Science Museum

Meanwhile, on the second floor others were excited by the prospect of being able to handle iconic mobile phones from the 1980’s whilst browsing around the Information Age gallery and enjoying curators’ talks and drama character performances.

 

The Claude Shannon drama character entertains visitors in the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

The Claude Shannon drama character entertains visitors in the Information Age gallery. Image credit: Science Museum

Keen readers were challenged to take part in Accenture’s fun speed-reading game and could even record their voice on Wikipedia in a separate test.

One of the 21st century’s latest milestones – the quest to explore Mars, was represented by the ExoMars Rover Bridget, where visitors were invited to meet the team from Airbus Defence who built her and ask questions about their work.

How old were you when you first went online? Have you ever been dumped by text message? These were the questions that generated a wall full of post-it notes as visitors of all ages were eager to share their memories of the technological milestones that unite all of us.

The next Lates evening will be on Wednesday 28 January 2015 and will look at the incredible world of engineering. You can find out more on our website.

Think, Build, Create! New Code Builder Workshops

Audience Engagement Manager Jen Kavanagh explains how the new Code Builder workshop aims to inspire the next generation of programmers

The Science Museum’s new Information Age  gallery explores communication and information technologies and processes, including the development and use of computer networks. Computing is currently a hot topic for schools, with the launch of the new computer science curriculum coinciding with the opening of this new gallery. As a result, the team here wanted to explore how we could effectively respond to this through the gallery’s learning programme.

Early computing objects on display in Information Age tell stories of user innovation, from Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT Cube computer to the Pilot ACE used by Alan Turing.

Tim Berners-Lee's NeXT computer, which is on display in the Information Age gallery.

Tim Berners-Lee’s NeXT computer, which is on display in the Information Age gallery. Image credit Science Museum / SSPL

These amazing stories show the huge potential of computers, and our new tinkering workshop, Code Builder, aims to build on these further.

After an introduction, the group is set a task to use basic coding language to devise and input procedures into an online programme, test, rework them and see live results. These results come in the form of a small robot, Robotiky, which is programmed using bespoke online software.

A Robotiky robot created at a Science Museum Code Builder workshop

A Robotiky robot used in Science Museum Code Builder workshops

Coded instructions are written and simulated on screen, and then sent to the robot via a USB connection, allowing the students to see their code in action. The session encourages the development of logic and computational thinking skills, through trial and error, as well as exploring the interaction between hardware, robot, software and computer programme.

This workshop is designed to complement a number of areas of the computing curriculum at key stages 3 and 4. These include evaluating and applying information technology to solve problems, as well as helping pupils understand the hardware and software components that make up computer systems and how they communicate with one another and other systems.

Code Builder runs twice a day every Thursday during term time. Sessions last an hour and are free for schools to attend. To book visit our website.

Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum: Objects from the Ancient World

Content Coordinator Ulrika Danielsson goes behind the scenes to explore our medical collections. 

I recently had the opportunity to explore the Science museum’s collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. The fact that the museum has a Classical collection may come as a surprise to some readers; to quote a former colleague’s young son, ‘Planes, cars, trains and rockets!’ may more readily come to mind when thinking about the Science Museum. However, the collection does exist and has many interesting stories to tell, some of which will be included in new galleries dedicated to the history of medicine that will open in 2018.

Greek and Roman antiquities made their way into the Science Museum more or less entirely from the enormous collection amassed by Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). The great majority were transferred as a permanent loan into the Science Museum’s custodianship in the 1970s as part of a larger collection relating to the history of medicine. Looking at the Classical collection today there is a wonderful mix of ceramics, sculpture, glass vessels, surgical tools and coins just waiting to be discovered.

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Image of votives from the Science Museum object store at Blythe House, London

Amongst the most eye-catching finds is the large number of anatomical votive offerings of terracotta and marble which include heads, abdominal viscera, feet, breasts, wombs, genitalia, eyes and ears. While the exact age and provenance of these anatomical models unfortunately remain uncertain, we know that they would have been brought to sanctuaries and shrines in the ancient world to express thanks or request healing or fertility from the gods believed to reside there. As divine property, the votives were not destroyed or recycled but instead packed into small buildings or rooms, or buried in sacred pits, which is why such large numbers have survived.

Votives were made from moulds and mass produced, most likely by family-run businesses located near shrines and on the major pilgrim routes. In some cases, the reproductions were modified to show specific pathological conditions, or even specially commissioned to show the specific limbs and features of individuals. You can see the former in this copy of a votive elbow covered in raised pustules in the Science Museum collection (below).

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Plaster copy of Roman votive elbow covered in raised pustules. Credit: Science Museum

Anatomical votives do not only tell us about religious medicine in the ancient world, but also of the Roman and Greek understanding of the body and of common ailments and afflictions affecting ancient populations. In some cases votive deposits confirm and underline what we know from written sources and other archaeological material, as is the case with for instance eye disease. Partial or complete blindness was a very serious condition in the ancient world as it would have prevented people from carrying out their livelihoods.

Eye conditions in general were common and feature prominently in both ancient literature and medical texts. Additionally, votive eyes have been found in large numbers and also feature prominently in the Science Museum collection. There is even a theory that different conditions can be gleaned from the way votive eyes have been depicted. Votive eyes showing eye balls may indicate conditions affecting vision (e.g. short-sightedness, detached retina and cataract) while those with eyelids and other surrounding tissues may point to infected lesions (e.g. trachoma or inflammation of the eyelid).

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

Votive eyes from the Science Museum collection.

In the ancient world religious medicine was part of a bustling medical market place where individuals were at liberty to consult different practitioners in lieu of, or alongside, seeking divine help. Any comfort, psychological or otherwise, gained from religious medicine should not be underestimated. There is also evidence to suggest that healing shrines specialised in for instance injuries to hands and feet, or indeed eyes, and that practitioners specialising in treating the above would have set up shop near the shrine, offering their services and wares. Ultimately votive offerings and religious medicine in general needs to be considered when looking at ancient medical practice as a whole.

This and many more exiting stories will be told in the new Medical galleries opening at the Science Museum in 2018. If you can’t wait, why not visit our current medical galleries, The Science and Art of Medicine and Glimpses of Medical History.

A Journey to Mars

A guest blog post from Nancy Williams, CaSE

Last Friday evening (14 November 2014), Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, gave the Campaign for Science and Engineering’s 24th Annual Distinguished Lecture (listen here). In front of a packed IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, Ellen took us through some of the extraordinary advances in science, technology and engineering resulting from exploration of space, and the challenges even now being worked on by scientists across the world driven by NASA’s journey to Mars.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, in front of the Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: CaSE

One of the great unknowns for us here on Earth is whether we’re alone in the universe – NASA’s Journey to Mars mission is working to get closer to the answer. Why Mars? The obvious answer would be that it is our planetary neighbour but what makes it an exciting prospect in the search for life beyond earth – is water. Mars is marked all over with signs that water once persisted on the surface – the ragged surface on the red planet could be compared to some of the great geological masterpieces shaped by bodies of water over millennia here on Earth – and then in 2008 the Phoenix lander took a sample of ice.

How do we begin such a search? What next steps do we need to take?

Ellen began by highlighting the importance of international co-operation in order to achieve this grand goal of going to Mars. She outlined tremendous work already achieved through combined efforts – particularly noting the extraordinary Philae landing this month as well as the ongoing work through the International Space Station, saying that in her view such a collaboration is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Although they are extraordinary, exploration by rovers and landers is very slow and limited – having scientists on Mars would dramatically change the scope of exploration and the timescale of discoveries.

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

Dr Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist, talks at the Science Museum. Credit: CaSE

We heard of the science, engineering and technology challenges that NASA has mapped out and how they, along with international and commercial partners, are going about finding answers. Getting people safely landed on Mars (and back again!) is not possible, yet – but Ellen said she expects it to happen in the 2030s. To get there, the challenges range from how to safely land a heavy craft in a thin and changing atmosphere, and how to keep Mars clean from contamination by microorganisms from earth, to ensuring that astronauts not only survive the eight month journey and landing but are healthy and able to work once they arrive – for instance combatting the muscle wasting and bone density loss that usually occurs in microgravity.

Another challenge is making the mission as efficient as possible – mass affects everything. NASA astronauts are already able to recycle 80% of the water they use, but as Ellen said – don’t think about that for too long. Other challenges you might not think about straight away – such as making sure dust from Mars isn’t brought into the spacecraft. But when you think about it, at zero gravity dust could cause havoc! But perhaps the dust could be put to good use – with the developments in 3D printers a next step being investigated as part of the ‘in situ resource utilisation’ research is how to use Martian rock to manufacture spare parts, rather than having to transport powder manufactured on Earth.

In the post-lecture Q&A one of the questions was on the timescale of decisions on future missions and investments. This highlighted the disconnect between the short-term, politically driven timescales of public funding and the long-term nature of NASA projects – a challenge not unfamiliar to UK scientists.

And of course in order to achieve NASA’s mission to Mars, and meet the many other great challenges faced closer to home, we need young people with creativity and ambition to become the next generation scientists and engineers. Ellen was animated about importance of inspiring young people about science and certainly did her bit on Friday (I saw one little girl grinning ear to ear holding a shiny new NASA badge)!

It is hard to do justice to the inspirational talk given by Dr Stofan in the awesome IMAX theatre at the Science Museum, so I recommend listening to the audio recording of the lecture itself (here) and you will have to imagine it is accompanied by wonderful images that are 17m tall and literally out of this world.