Newly-knighted Sir Ian Blatchford, Director and Chief Executive of the Science Museum Group, is on a mission to show how national museums can do even more to inspire people by being generous with their star objects.
Sir Ian was instrumental in the Group first acquiring the Soyuz spacecraft used by Tim Peake on his Principia mission and then touring the capsule to eight venues across the UK where it has wowed hundreds of thousands of people, along with a virtual reality experience and a comprehensive education outreach programme that has reached thousands of school children.
Also on tour is its icon of British engineering, Stephenson’s Rocket, which left its home in the Science Museum for the Great Exhibition of the North, is currently at the Group’s Science and Industry Museum in Manchester and is set to return to the Group’s National Railway Museum in York as part of the build up for its Vision 2025 campaign.
The Vision 2025 campaign aims to create the cultural heart of an ambitious development scheme in York by turning the site into the world’s greatest railway museum by 2025 to mark the 50th anniversary of the museum and the 200th of the world’s first passenger steam railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
Sir Ian was also the driving force behind the £4.2 m refit of the world’s most famous locomotive, the Flying Scotsman, which made its inaugural run in February 2016.
And Sir Ian himself curated an exhibition to celebrate the career of the world’s greatest railway artist, Terence Cuneo, as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017.
Sir Ian says that the work of the Science Museum Group is rightly celebrated because its collections of seven million items rests on remarkable foundations, the nation’s key role in the rise of science, from the industrial revolution to astonishingly creative individuals such as Isaac Newton and Ada Lovelace, to the discovery of the single atom thick wonder material graphene (celebrated at a recent exhibition at the Science and Industry Museum).
Britain has an amazing story to tell about its contribution to world science. For Sir Ian, who talks much about ‘inspiring futures’, this story of the power of rational thinking must be taken to the young people who will change our world in decades to come.
With the biggest informal learning effort of its kind in Europe, the museum group he leads now attracts more than 600,000 children in booked educational groups. It has also pioneered the next generation of interactive galleries in its Wonderlabs in London and Bradford. Sir Ian likes to talk of ‘dumbing up’ – museums can ignite curiosity about science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Sir Ian’s ambitions are global; he feels it is more important than ever before to engage with new allies as much as re-engage with his old friends. “We, and Britain’s wider museum sector, are rightly celebrated as unique and powerful players in cultural diplomacy,’ says Sir Ian, who, as the most experienced current director of a national museum, and former Deputy Director of the V&A, is also the Chair of the powerful National Museum Directors’ Council.
The Group of museums that he oversees – five, including the Science Museum, reaching an annual audience of more than five million – supported a recent report by the think tank ResPublica, entitled Britain’s Global Future: Harnessing the soft power capital of UK institutions. “Culture is a powerful bridge between nations,’ he says, ‘and Britain is fantastically placed to use it to create global impact, both in terms of its individual talent pool and its wealth of great institutions.’
Sir Ian, who has a background in the history of art, walks the walk as well as talking the internationalist talk. The Group has strong cultural bonds with Russia, through its current Last Tsar exhibition, the UK–Russia Year of Science and the museum’s ground-breaking Cosmonauts exhibition which began in London and closed in Moscow after a long run and rave reviews.
For his efforts, Sir Ian received the Pushkin Medal, the nation’s highest cultural honour, from Russian President Vladimir Putin – you can see a virtual version of the Cosmonauts exhibition here.
To top it all, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, made a special journey to South Kensington to celebrate her 80th with Sir Ian and an exhibit in her honour at a gala concert in the museum. Throughout her celebrations, Tereshkova continued a running joke about how she would like to accompany Sir Ian into orbit, and how they would sing duets as they ventured forth in a joint mission to Mars.
At Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Tomorrow, a spectacular new science centre in the harbour, Sir Ian secured a partnership memorandum in the presence of the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport during the 2016 Summer Olympics.Sir Ian launched events and exhibitions in autumn 2017 centred on the rich history of Indian scientific innovation, under the banner title Illuminating India, and is working on projects with China, France, America and Brazil.
Sir Ian is the first to point out that the transformational changes achieved under his leadership have been made possible by a talented and dedicated group of colleagues, volunteers and trustees across the Science Museum Group and by a growing coalition of supporters from philanthropists such as David and Claudia Harding to corporate partners, trusts and foundations.
As for the next big thing, Sir Ian is keen to do a landmark science fiction exhibition which has seen him at meetings in Los Angeles with the creator of The Big Bang Theory, Disney Imagineers and the singer, technophile and entrepreneur will.i.am.
Internationalism is second nature to Sir Ian and his Group, he says, ‘because cross-border collaboration is at the core of the history and future of innovation in science, technology and engineering.”