An Opulent Time At The Science Museum

Museum view

Looking down towards the entrance

It was a couple of Christmases ago that we were last at the Science Museum, so it was about time we had a return visit for a little exhibition there. Having squeezed ourselves onto the rather busy tube Heather and I arrived to the excitement of walking down the linking tunnel and into the museum, with it’s peculiar security (are they checking bags or not? We sort of just sauntered past). There was a lot to explore, so leaving Heather to have a cuppa in the second floor cafe, I set about it.

CHildhood Entertainment

It’s strange when parts of your life are in a museum

I started with a wander through the Maths gallery to Information Age. That managed to make me feel quite old. Things one wouldn’t necessarily expect to be in a museum (a trike used for some of Google’s more inaccessible streetview collecting for instance, or a red phone box). It was the things from my childhood (and later!) that were worst though. I was probably never going to own a gold plated BBC Micro but I certainly remember them (mind, there’s probably still a physics lab or two running experiments off them). But things like old mobile phones (including my first – a Philips Savvy) just feel a little too cutting.

I left the aching behind to rejoin Heather, passing the Science Museum’s build of the Difference Engine along the way which didn’t help seeing as how I remember it being far from finished years ago. There were older things than us though, including some musical clocks.

Self Sounding Bells


The top expands

We’d gone to the Science Museum to see a little exhibition (judging by the number of people in there, it wasn’t particularly well known, despite its “pay what you like” pricing; actually it being off to one side and without a dedicated shop, guidebook, or much publicity elsewhere made it feel like maybe the museum wasn’t quite sure what to do with it). The exhibition was on Zimingzhong, pronounced something like “zi-mong-jong” and translating as something like “self sounding bells”. These were extraordinary ornate clocks, complete with musical accompaniment of a chime (the self sounding bell), produced mainly in the west for the delight of the Chinese emperors.

They truly are remarkably accomplished objects, with the time telling part itself often being the least remarkable, which is something given they date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As well as telling time and musical chimes, many of them moved, expanding pagodas, opening flowers, glass rods turning to imitate moving water. Sadly, and this has to be felt as a great failing of the exhibition, none of them were actually running. It’s understandable, given how delicate they are, and their age, why they were left as static displays but the occasional video (including one of the dedicated team of Chinese conservationists) showed that they can run, which means leaving them all inert must have been a decision. So, while a range of styles were covered, showing the Chinese, English and at times combined influences, we were left looking at inanimate objects, which began to feel like looking at some sort of weirdly beautiful sculpture than actual timepieces, never mind musical ones.

There’s More Museum!

Not Up To Wiring Regs?

Almost anything used to go

The Zimingzhong weren’t in a huge exhibition, but large enough to take us up to lunch time, for which we headed down to the ground floor cafe. Filled with sandwich and cake we went seeking more galleries, finding ourselves slightly unintentionally (having just followed the lift) down in the basement. That let us wander through the Secret Life Of The Home. If the Zimingzhong exhibition had felt like swish lighting and careful background sound, this part of the museum feels almost forgotten, like it may have been unchanged since the 1933 automatic door was put down there. There’s a couple of buttons to press and handles to turn, but it’s mainly objects and the occasional cardboard description or diagram and—having wandered round the ultra-modern Engineers area later, with it’s dearth of actual things—all the better for it. Strangely it didn’t make us feel as old as Information Age had, as most of the tech is actually older than that (barring the occasional CD player).

Tower Clock

A tower clock mechanism

We headed back upwards, towards where we’d actually meant to be heading. At the landing outside the lifts we found the Landscape Artist Of The Year painting by Monica Popham—something we’d enjoyed watching on TV. We also found some more clocks, in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, at least some of which are running as evidenced by the inevitably out of sync chiming on the hour. It was also up here that we could wander Science City, looking at some of the scientific instruments and technology bursting from the great advances of the 1700s onwards. There was also time to make Heather feel old in Information Age (though I somehow mislaid the Sky TV and cable boxes).

Where Are The Things?

Deconstructed Playstation

I’m sure my parents woudl have killed me for taking such things apart

Heather decided she wanted another rest so I parked her back in the cafe to wander for another half hour or so myself. It was at this point I headed for the modernist Engineers and Technicians galleries. I’m not a fan. While they are certainly interactive, and perhaps I’m just too old for them, they seem to lack the most important thing of a museum—the objects which make it. Part of the joy of wandering other galleries is to have the eye caught by something and then investigate it, finding the unexpected or the thing you didn’t know you wanted to know about (this is much the same joy as bookshops and libraries). There just isn’t enough here for that to happen.

I was quickly away from there, passing medicine (err, squishy stuff!) and into the sanctuary which is Making The Modern World. Here there are a wonderful array of objects, and quite often the originals, the ones that were all important to the history of science. It was a fine and perfect gallery to finish my little tour with, and then collect Heather for a wander round the shop (still no Zimingzhong material sadly). And we were often to recover in the pub before going home.

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