THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY:
AN OVERVIEW
THOMAS WRIGHT

    The National Museum of Science and Industry is one of the world's leading museums devoted to the history and public understanding of science, technology, and medicine. It owes its origin to the spirit and drive of Prince Albert, the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (held in nearby Hyde Park), and the subsequent founding in 1857 of the South Kensington Museum, an institution concerned with the union of the arts and sciences in the pursuit of profitable industry.

    The collections that formed the South Kensington Museum are best described as the art collections and the rest. Through time and donation "the rest" began to coalesce into the science collections, which were immeasurably strengthened by the acquisition in 1884 of the Patent Office collection of patent models, documents, and artifacts. It is due to Bennet Woodcroft (1803-79), the assistant to the commissioners of patents, who was possessed of a strong sense of the historical importance of the artifacts that he saw around him, that such icons as the locomotives Rocket and Puffing Billy and Arkwright's original spinning machinery were saved from oblivion. In 1885 the now clearly distinct science collections were accorded the title of the Science Museum, and in 1909 the art collections, now called the Victoria and Albert Museum, were formally and administratively separated from the Science Museum. By this date the Science Museum was situated on the west side of Exhibition Road and the Victoria and Albert on the east. Whether this separation can be seen to be a manifestation of the two cultures at work or merely an administrative convenience is an issue that remains to be properly investigated.

   By 1977, through a number of building and in-filling programs, the Science Museum had essentially achieved its present-day layout, with 32,000 square meters of exhibition space. The original collections had been systematized and expanded to cover all the majordisciplines in science, engineering, transport, and medicine, the latter following the permanent loan to the museum of the unrivaled and extensive Wellcome Collection of medical artifacts in 1977.

    Because of pressures of space at South Kensington, in 1975 and 1983 the Science Museum founded the National Railway Museum at York and the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television at Bradford, each being based on collections already held by the Science Museum. In 1983 responsibility for the Science Museum (encompassing at that time York and Bradford as outstations) and its collections was transferred from central government to trustees by the National Heritage Act. The bulk of the funding was, and still is, provided from the public purse, although powers were vested in the trustees to raise and retain money by means of levying entrance charges and engaging in commercial activities such as retailing. In 1985 the old subtitle of the Science Museum, the National Museum of Science and Industry (NMSI), which had lain dormant for many years, was resurrected to recognize and underline the growing stature of York and Bradford and the emerging corporate nature of the institution.

    Because of Britain's pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution, the NMSI, and the Science Museum in particular, holds large and authoritative collections spanning the full range of science and technology. It employs a large number of specialist curatorial staff to undertake acquisition of both historical and contemporary material, with the accent on the contemporary. This need to keep as up-to-date as possible is due to the short life cycle of much modern scientific and technological material. With the growth of other specialized museums, the Science Museum has been able to discontinue collecting in some of its traditional areas and refocus on new ones. For instance, the decline of Britain as a maritime nation and the subsequent neartotal closure of marine-related industry has meant that the museum no longer acquires objects in this area (although it still retains its famous Shipping Collections to mark this important epoch in industrial history). Instead the museum has expanded significantly into the biomedical sciences, building on its medical collections and related interests.

   Like all museums worldwide, the NMSI has felt the effects of diminished central government funding, and of the wider cultural changes that have coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The museum is increasingly in competition with the leisure, entertainment, and media markets (and indeed with other museums), not only for attention but for money. With these changes has come an inevitable shift in emphasis toward the public face of the museum and away from more traditional areas of activity. In an organization employing some 600 people, with a yearly income of £23 million, receiving some 2.5 million visitors a year, with a series of objectives and concerns that range from the purely practical (welcoming staff, providing clean lavatories) to the purely cerebral (research into the history of software), whose time scales of operation range from the media deadlines of the here and now to the preservation perspective of eternity, such a shift has inevitably created internal tensions at various times. It is reasonable to say that the museum has emerged from these trials with a sense of forward-looking purpose that recognizes the generally unstable nature of the world in which it has to operate and reaffirms that it is the collections and the scholarly base underpinning them which provide the core knowledge needed to meet the challenges of the future. To back these sentiments with action, the museum funds a large and extensive postgraduate research program, operating principally at the Ph.D. Ievel, in which suitable staff are encouraged to produce work germane to the collections and their contexts as part of their regular employment.

    In expanding its traditional role as public educator, the museum has positioned itself within the current debate over public attitudes toward science and technology by jointly funding Britain's first professorial chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the adjoining Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine. In addition the museum has joined with the Imperial College to found the South Kensington Institute, whose purpose is to become a leading center for the academic study of the history of technology in Britain.

    An important issue that the NMSI is tackling is the opening to public access of the 80 percent of the collections not on public display. Here the view is that the extensive stores where the reserve collections are housed are not a necessary evil but a positive attraction with visitor appeal. This means that extensive and frequent general and specialized visitor tours of the various storage sites (whose operations are themselves of interest to the public) are organized and led by specialist curators. Inevitably, there is minimal written interpretation available, and the effect is similar to the way museums used to be in the 1950s. The public has warmly welcomed these initiatives, and it is now museum policy to create a series of visible storage areas within the main body of the Science Museum to emphasize the rich range of objects held. To provide for the sort of information required by the public, without the presence of a curator, an upgrade to part of the museum's inventory database is being engineered.

   The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web is seen as an important area for future development. Already the NMSI has the largest number of local pages in Britain, and it is currently developing a series of experimental projects to see how the medium can best be used. One point that has already become clear is that the crucial issue at stake is the quality of the information provided, which in turn reflects and highlights the scholarly research and knowledge base.

    As the NMSI enters the 21st century, all three constituent museums have expansion plans. Most notably, the Science Museum intends to enter into a partnership with the Wellcome Trust to create a large extension of some 10,000 square meters. This will feature displays devoted to contemporary and emerging sciences and technologies placed within their historical contexts, such as the big-, brain, and communication sciences. There will also be conference facilities and an advanced IMAX system. In parallel with this new extension, an ambitious program of gallery renewal is also envisaged, which it is hoped will result in a definitive gallery on the theme of industrialization.

DR. WRIGHT IS assistant director of the Science Museum. He has written on the emergence and epistemology of engineering science in the 19th century and is at present researching British government efforts to encourage improvements in computer software development.

Copyright 1996 by the Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved.