Hands-on science

Visitors to the Science Museum are often either delighted or slightly bemused by the contrasts provided by its exhibits. The oldest gallery, containing delightfully old-fashioned dioramas of agricultural machinery at work, faces one of the newer, on plastics. Both the topics and their method of display are entirely different, and entirely of their time.

Another striking juxtaposition is provided by the positioning of the noisy, and packed, hands-on Launch Pad, aimed at 8-14-year-olds, next to the sedate, and usually completely empty, display of the Science in the 18th Century. It had always seemed odd, and rather unjust to the beautiful 18th-century instruments, that the gallery entrance should be placed on a landing through which parents are quickly dragged by their impatient children to the more enticing activity beyond, and where child-free adults almost fear to tread. On my last visit, however, I finally got it. Trying to persuade my son – put off, I assume, by the evident unpopularity of the place – to let me look just quickly at the display, I explained to him what the instruments were for. He’s only three, so I’m not sure he quite took it all on board, but he did admit that he would rather like to have an orrery.

The point is, of course, that much of the George III Collection is an 18th-century Launch Pad for young princes. Lucky Frederick, William, Edward, Ernest, Augustus and Adolphus (for I assume it was mostly the boys) had the chance to play with instruments – designed by top makers, such as George Adams, explained and demonstrated by an eminent tutor, Stephen Demainbray – that would demonstrate established physical laws and display the orderly workings of the solar system. The spectacular Philosophical Table alone could be used to display a whole host of fundamental principles. For these privileged boys, these objects, when at Kew Palace and Kew Observatory, would have been as hands-on as the interative displays in Launch Pad – only rather less crowded. Here, then, is a nice contrast: a democratisation of learning. What, once, only princes might enjoy is now made available to all visitors to the Science Museum for free.

That said, part of the story of the George III Collection is about an earlier response to widening audiences for science. The definitive catalogue of the collection, Alan Morton and Jane Wess’s Private and Public Science (1993), quickly reminds us of this fact. Many of the instruments, although they came to Kew in 1769, were made by Demainbray for the kind public lectures popularised by his teacher John Desaguliers, in a period when lectures on natural philosophy were an attraction among fashionable, wealthy and leisured audiences. This was, of course, some way off the 19th-century movement for working class education but was certainly a new chapter for scientific exposition and demonstration (see Larry Stewart’s The Rise of Public Science for more on this extraordinary period and the rise of popular Newtonianism).

The Collection as a whole enjoyed a different kind of public, and pedagogical, life before it reached the Science Museum in 1927. In the 1840s, when Queen Victoria was trying to decide what to do with the royal palaces, gardens and observatory at Kew, the instruments were brought to King’s College London and displayed in the George III Museum, opened by Prince Albert in 1843.

Prince Albert opening the George III Museum, ILN 1 July 1843

At King’s, the instruments and apparatus were put in the care of Professor Charles Wheatstone, famed chiefly for his work in telegraphy. It had, already, significant historic interest, but it was part of its intended purpose that it should be updated to reflect recent science and became both a teaching tool and a working, “hands-on” collection. The image above shows Prince Albert inspecting a portion of Charles Babbage‘s Difference Engine, now also at the Science Museum, and Wheatstone ensured his own immortality by including examples of his own work, including an improved version of the speaking machine invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen. The opening event was to be rounded off with a whizz-bang demonstration, spectacular enough to impress even today’s jaded Science Museum audience. In front of crowds and a band of the Guards, Wheatstone was to demonstrate his electro-magnetic telegraph by sending a signal across the Thames to discharge a cannon on the shot-tower at Lambeth.

Sadly it didn’t work. Albert was, according to this biography of Wheatstone, gracious enough to “accept the principle involved”. I hope the kids at Launch Pad show the demonstrators and interpreters as much indulgence!

About Rebekah Higgitt

Rebekah Higgitt completed a PhD in the history of science at Imperial College London in 2004 and did postdoctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. She was Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 2008 and 2013 and is now a senior lecturer in the School of History at the University of Kent. Her research and publications have mainly focused on scientific institutions, scientific biography, history of science and the relationship between science, government and the public in 19th-century Britain. She became Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland in August 2020 and is currently also Acting Keeper of Science & Technology.
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11 Responses to Hands-on science

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Hands-on science | Whewell's Ghost -- Topsy.com

  2. Thony C. says:

    Maybe more kids would go into the 18th century gallery if there were replica orrery’s and other early instruments that they could use and ‘play’ with.

  3. rebecca_p says:

    I’ve heard it repeated that the George III gallery is the least popular at the SM, and that the nature of the instruments makes it impossible to really engage people (and especially children). But I don’t think that’s true – places like the Museum of the History of Science Oxford seem to have great hands-on family activities built around 17th and 18th-century collections. It just doesn’t seem to be on the agenda for them. Love the idea that the collection was the 18th-century version of Launchpad! But those old instruments will still be with us 200 years in the future.

  4. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Thanks both Thony and Rebecca for your comments. I think that a lot more could be done to bring the two galleries together – explainers in both galleries, models of the 18th-century instruments or new demonstration pieces that illustrate the same principles being used in front of the historic ones. Perhaps more could be made of the rather large empty space on the landing between them?

    While I’m obviously in favour of the history being brought to life a bit, I also like the idea of making use of the contrasting aesthetic of the objects and spaces. Why should science always be illustrated with ‘modern’ design, clean lines and computer-design type palettes? Just maybe there is something here that would be a means of making science appealing to a range of audiences? Something to reach out to those with interests in history and art? Perhaps even something that might appeal to girls fed up with the ‘boys’ toys’ aspect of much science engagement?

  5. rebecca_p says:

    The website and curator blogs are really excellent at bringing objects to life. Maybe this part just needs a bit more storytelling? If you can get the adults interested that way, will the kids become interested? Or do you definitely need kiosks and activities to signal that there is something to see and do? Again it’s the contrast with the other gallery that makes it difficult – instruments exert a charm of their own that gets lost in the middle of the latest technology. Small museums can use that to their advantage. SM has everything and that’s a huge challenge.

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      I am, I must admit, a fan of spaces in Museums that are not obviously pushed at kids. They are good for adults, but also for older children who are developing their own interests. But I equally dislike the idea that practical learning and science are for kids, history is for adults. I feel that the use of both spaces could be a bit more flexible and imaginative. I gather that Launch Pad is a hit with adults during late evening openings (sadly I’ve never managed to get to one) – does anyone know if the 18th-Century Gallery gets much attention then?

  6. pete langman says:

    Ah, the gallery!

    My favourite instrument is difficult to decide upon – I love the inclined plane, and the air pump, but for sheer chutzpah the philosophical table is hard to beat. A Black and Decker workmate for demonstrative leisure!

    I’m also fond of the books written for those who couldn’t attend the demonstrations, such as and . Just fabulous pieces, written in part to recreate the experience of witnessing the demonstrations in the minds eye of the reader.

    When it comes to getting kids involved, they really love the hands-on experience. Oh, and daft wigs do it for them, too. The Boerhaave’s Newton for Kids is a great exhibition.


    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Ah, Pete, you beat me to it! I was about to give Enlightening Science a plug! I think a roving Desaguliers (what would he make of Launch Pad?) is a must.

  7. D says:

    Ah, while I seem to have spent a great deal of time learning about the concepts of science, I think I maybe never did take enough interest in why science and in particular science from the 1800s onwards was so fundamentally important to the way in which we live today (sorry!).

    ‘Hands on science’ all seems to be about directly experiencing the concepts……I am sure this is great for both children and adults. Just one question: how can we adapt the idea to my level – I would love to see an exhibition where I would repeat my physics or chemistry A-level praticals!

    • Rebekah Higgitt says:

      Hmm. Would be tricky to pull off for mass audiences! My best suggestion would be to hang around university science open days – or to become a science teacher 😉

  8. sbej says:

    My interest in this period stems directly from the small provincial museum of my childhood. I studied the 6th to 10th cen. as an undergrad and made a massive jump to the late 17th century as p.g. student.

    Motivation was seeking to explore a question that had fascinated me as a kid.

    The collection at the museum of my childhood all came from one family, and was housed in its original setting.

    What sparked my interest was what seemed at the time to be a very odd juxtaposition of objects. Instruments of science, maps, books of exploration and discovery, alongside, a mummy, a collection of shruken heads, evil looking african spears and the centre piece of the collection was a merman half fish, half monkey in a massive and imposing glass display that looked like the most expensive item in the whole collection.

    As a child the merman seemed very out of place, as did the primitive art surrounded by the empirical measuring instruments of science. That seemingly very odd juxtaposition of hard science and folk legend fascinated me as it seemed to be no sense to have the two things alongside each other.

    The fact the collection had not been divided and placed out of context and was still in its original setting helped to fire my imagination and sense of wonder.

    As the collection was originaly intended to do.

    Big museums I often find disapointing you see objects you know very well and they seem to be stripped of history, context, and life.

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