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Collections and Objects

Our world-class collection forms an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical achievements from across the globe. Come behind the scenes as we explore new object acquisitions and meet the conservation team.

My daily commute to work is a nightmare. Seriously. Look at the view I have to put up with every morning: Sorry. That was smug of me. Unless I’m in a tearing hurry (I try not to be) I commute by fast clipper along the River Thames to work. It’s a glorious way to travel! Sometimes, big ships come up the river and park alongside HMS Belfast (a Second World War ship now part of the Imperial War Museum). This week […]

Sometimes a single object can express a lot about a contemporary issue, and where it fits into shifting ideas about health and personal responsibility. Take the PatientPak, launched in the UK in September 2008. The kit contains antimicrobial products claiming to kill 99.99% of hospital germs including Novovirus and E coli and the ‘superbug’ MRSA. Bought via the internet or in high street shops, the manufacturers advertise their product as an ‘ideal gift’ for people going into hospital. The issue […]

I was talking recently about battery-powered electric vehicles, but the big story right now is the hybrid car, which combines both a petrol engine and a battery-driven motor. They’re pretty complicated, but the HowStuffWorks tutorial here explains it clearly. The idea is that they’re more fuel-efficient than purely petrol cars, thereby reducing climate-changing emissions. But the concept has a long history – albeit with different aims in mind. In the early years of motoring, for instance, one big problem with […]

The 1980s race to create an affordable and reliable home computer was the subject of BBC4’s ‘Micro Men’ shown last night (and still on iPlayer). Chris Curry, co-founder of Acorn computers, and Sir Clive Sinclair were competitors but they were also close friends and they both did an enormous amount to bring the creativity of computing into British homes. Our computing collections represent the incredible diversity of British machines at this time, from familiar computers such as the Dragon 32, ZX81 and the […]

My colleague Peter Turvey, senior curator at our Wroughton site, brought to my attention the BMW MINI E, an electric version of the famous small car I talked about in an earlier post. It’s going to be trialled in south-west England this autumn and, if successful, may join the likes of the curiously-shaped G-Wiz electric car on our streets. Electric cars sound like the height of modernity, but in fact they have a far longer history than you might imagine. In […]

Working at a Museum doesn’t just mean thinking about the past, often it involves a bit of dabbling in futurology as well. We are lucky enough to have a very rich medical collection at the Science Museum, centred on objects collected by Henry Wellcome. However, his collection ends in 1936, when he died. So, in order to keep up to date, we are always thinking about the kind of objects that we need to acquire for the collection. With medical […]

All river traffic through London’s Thames Barrier was halted for ten hours last Sunday, as the gigantic flood-defence machine was given its annual test closure. I went along to Woolwich to watch the event. The barrier is a truly awesome sight, spanning half a kilometre across the River Thames with a series of ten moveable gates. The largest four gates (each with an opening the width of Tower Bridge) are giants: each weighs 3,700 tonnes. The barrier has protected London from […]

On 18 March 1967, the huge tanker Torrey Canyon, carrying 119,193 tons of crude oil, ran aground on Pollard Rock, off the Isles of Scilly. The resulting oil spill reached all the way to France’s west coast and caused devastating environmental damage. Part of the problem lay in the crew’s incorrect setting of the ship’s Sperry automatic steering system. We’ve examples of Sperry kit in our Shipping gallery: There was one positive effect of the disaster: tighter controls on marine pollution and industry-funded research into new spill-beating […]

Before people used chronometers for maritime navigation there was another way. It was called the lunar-distance method, or ‘taking a lunar’: This was all about observing the moon’s position at night compared to certain reference stars, and then doing a whole lot of arithmetic. The key gadget was the sextant, which measured angular distance. Here’s one from our extensive collection: Using the moon to help solve an earthly problem led to countless lives being saved at sea and, indirectly, to the huge changes […]

Our shipping gallery has been closed for a few weeks (for maintenance work) but I am delighted to say it’s now open again. It’s one of our oldest displays, launched in the early 1960s, but it’s wonderful and I love it. The exhibits on show really invite you to spend time with them, to explore them and think about what they mean. And it doesn’t have to be the official story. Any detail might catch your eye and reveal a story personal […]

Since about 1800, maritime navigation has relied on super-accurate timekeeping. Recently this has involved radio time signals beamed down from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, but for the bulk of the period, ship masters have navigated using the chronometer. These are very accurate portable timekeepers carried on the ship, providing a reference to compare against local time. The difference between the two times is equivalent to the east-west distance between the two places. That’s longitude, and it was a real devil […]

Just a quick post today, as I’m out on the road. I spent yesterday at the Science Museum Wroughton with some transport specialists. One used to work for a well-known British oil company, and I had a very interesting chat with him about equipment used for cleaning up oil spills at sea. More on that in a later post (when I’ve had a chance to look into it and get some pictures together), but for now, let me quickly introduce our […]

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