Curiosity is thriving across the UK: the Science Museum Group saw a surge in visitors last year to its museums in Bradford, Manchester, York, Shildon and London, with the Science Museum recording its highest recorded attendances in its 107-year history.
This news that more than five and a half million people wanted to find out where the great scientific adventure is taking us would, I feel certain, have pleased Marie Curie, who won her two Nobel Prizes in the years just before and after the Science Museum’s creation in 1909. She understood both the vital power of science in industry and its beauty as a cultural force, driven by curiosity.
“We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty,” she explained. “Neither do I believe that the spirit of adventure runs any risk of disappearing in our world. If I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure, which seems indestructible and is akin to curiosity.”
That our museums enjoyed around 5.55 million visits in 2015/16 is testament not only to people’s enduring fascination with the history of human ingenuity but also to the creativity of the people who work with me. In Bradford, Light Fantastic delivered a compelling new take on physics as part of the National Media Museum’s sharpened focus on the science of image and sound, as audience numbers soared by 11 per cent.
At the Science Museum, the critically-acclaimed Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age was the undoubted highlight of a year that saw a record 3,419,000 attendances. This included unprecedented school visits, with 390,000 young people visiting in an educational group, a new record for UK museums. A further 84,000 people attended shows or workshops at schools, festivals and science fairs as the outreach team took our mission to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers on the road, here and abroad.
At the National Railway Museum’s Shildon site the audience was up by almost a third, while in York floods could not keep the crowds at bay in a year that culminated in the triumphant return of Flying Scotsman. The ever popular Manchester Science Festival contributed to record visitor figures of 707,000 for the Museum of Science and Industry, a rise of 4.1% on the previous year.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest learned body, remarked that these excellent audiences across the group “show that the popularity of science is increasing all the time”. He added, “it shows the public has a real appetite for knowledge and innovation, which bodes well for culture and the economy.”
I believe this sentiment is critical to understanding the true value of the Science Museum Group; a vital part of Britain’s cultural landscape and a catalyst to fire the imagination of tomorrow’s innovators when the UK faces a real science and engineering skills gap. Nearly 1.8 million under 16s and well over half a million 16- to 24-year-olds visit our sites every year, and my fervent hope is that among them will be future engineers and scientists, including more Newtons and Curies.
Curie knew only too well why we have to nurture scientific curiosity:
“When radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.”