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October 29 - 30, 2007

Video: “Circa 1951: Presenting Science to the British Public” Robert Anderson

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33:37 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 2: Popular and Public Science


Cliff Mead: Allow me to introduce the next speaker, Robert Anderson, who’s from Cambridge, and was the former director of the British Museum. Robert Anderson attended St. Johns College at the University of Oxford. He received a B.A. in Chemistry in 1966, followed by a Bachelor of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy in 1970. He then moved on to his first job as the curator at the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, where he was responsible for the historical chemistry and physics collection. After a series of positions, in 1992, he was appointed director of the oldest national museum, the British Museum in London. Altogether, Dr. Anderson has published 14 monographs and catalogues and over 50 papers and articles. He has been the recipient of a number of awards. He holds an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the Universities of Edinburgh and Durham, is an honorary fellow of St. John’s College at Oxford, and the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is an international member of the Academy of the History of Science. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Robert Anderson was the 1986 recipient of the Dexter award, and he is currently Chairman of the Society of History and Alchemy, which publishes the journal AMBIX. Robert Anderson. [1:44]

Robert Anderson: Thank you very much indeed. I’m extremely pleased to be here. That was a very difficult act to follow, I must say. Quite unfair.

In recent years, historians have taken quite some interest in the way in which science was presented to the public in the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly through lecture demonstrations, popular publications and exhibitions. For the 20th century, popular books, serials and magazines have been considered in some depth. However, the involvement of scientists in museums and world fairs over the past century is largely virgin territory. What little has been done may indicate that scientists had more involvement with shows in the 19th century than they did in the 20th, though in the context of this meeting, it is of interest that Linus Pauling was involved in producing a display of molecular models for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, and here we see an image of that display which he produced. The symbol of the fair, if you remember, was the Atomium, a giant 335-foot tall model of the unit cell of an iron crystal, indicative of the place of science in the Fair itself. But what I want to talk about is what happened seven years earlier in London in 1951, the Festival of Britain had taken place in London. Here we see an artist’s impression of the fair. You probably see St. Paul’s Cathedral at the top, for those of you who know London. The only building which remains from the Festival of Britain is the building just below the chimney, or to the right, the Festival Hall. The whole of the rest of it was demolished, as I shall explain to some extent later. Concerning the Festival of Britain, I shall particularly be discussing the Exhibition of Science, considering in particular the problems in locating and financing it, and the lengths to which its organizers went to distinguish its content from exhibits in the Science Museum, which was actually next door to the Exhibition of Science.

The Festival of Britain was a government-sponsored series of cultural events consisting of seven main exhibitions, two traveling shows and hundreds of smaller activities which were held throughout the United Kingdom in 1951. The whole ambitious enterprise was memorably described by its director as a "tonic to the nation". Science and technology were particularly prominent at the main exhibition site on the South Bank in London, and also at South Kensington and in the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. The need for a building to house the festival’s Exhibition of Science led to the partial construction of the Science Museum’s long-awaited Centre Block. What is considered in this paper is how first the Exhibition, and later the Museum, would benefit from this new building, while it is pointed out that each had a very different approach as to how science was best presented to the public. [4:23]

The Science Museum took a long time to establish and build. It was founded by the government following the Great Exhibition of 1851. After 1851 the South Kensington Museum was established. South Kensington Museum was a body of disparate parts which were thrown together in 1857. It included industrial and fine art, animal and food products, architectural material, fish specimens, educational materials, ship models, and much else. Administratively, these collections were divided up into science and art; art being housed on the site of the present Victoria and Albert Museum, while science was concentrated on the west side of Exhibition Road. Yet other collections, those considered to be of the lowliest status, later ended up in the Bethnal Green Museum in the East End of London, being deemed as more appropriate for the lower classes. Any public money for accommodation of the South Kensington Museum was invariably directed towards the art collections, with very little being provided for science. The science collections languished in the Southern Galleries of rapidly decaying buildings which had been erected for the 1852 International Exhibition. A number of prominent scientists and public figures pointed out the iniquities of the way which government provision was biased, and though a significant loan collection of scientific instruments was exhibited to much acclaim and large audiences in 1876, the momentum gained by this did not immediately lead to a clearer vision or better resources as many had wished. In 1886 a report of an Interdepartmental Committee on the National Science Collections which considered the problem of the Museum’s future was published. There had been disagreement amongst its members, to the extent that one of them, called Algernon Bertram Mitford, a landowner and diplomat, insisted that his minority report should be appended and published. This argued that no science museum as such was needed: the collections should be dispersed to other existing buildings and the site thereby vacated on the west of Exhibition Road should be made available to the National Portrait Gallery. Eventually the Board of Education established a committee under Sir Hugh Bell to reconsider the problem, and it reported in 1911. The terms of reference were broad and one of the issues was to propose the allocation of space between interested parties. Although objections were heard from the British Museum of Natural History, whose collections had been brought over from Bloomsbury in 1880 and housed in Waterhouse’s splendid building, it was proposed that the embryo Science Museum should be allocated space to the north of the Natural History Museum, a long, thin east-west site stretching from Exhibition Road to Queen’s Gate. You can see Exhibition Road is the road down on the right. About an equal distance from the left hand side of that slide is Queen’s Gate, so it’s a very long, thin building, and the red building is the first part of the museum which was to be constructed. These recommendations were accepted and work started to clear the site of parts of the shambling Southern Galleries which included the former refreshment rooms of the 1862 International Exhibition which were "temporarily" occupied by the Science Museum. The start of the First World War in 1914 reduced the museum’s place in the queue for government building projects. As soon as the East Block was more or less finished - this was in 1928 - it was opened by King George the Fifth and Queen Mary. You can see King George and Queen Mary right at the bottom of that slide. That is the new building which is being opened in 1928. It had taken 71 years for just some of the science and technology collections to be housed and displayed in a satisfactory manner. [8:10]

The East Block did not solve the space problem and there was an expectation, or at least a hope, that the Centre Block would follow immediately. The Bell Report had recommended that the museum should present contemporary aspects of science and industry in a new building, and there was enthusiasm from within the institution to do this. Support also came from the newly formed Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries, which commented in a surprisingly uncompromising way that, and I quote,

"We strongly recommend that the erection of the Central Block of the Science Museum should be begin as soon as possible. In this connection we cannot think that the old Southern Galleries of the Museum, condemned as unsafe and unsuitable by a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1897, should continue to exist in unredeemed ugliness side by side with the fine building representing the Eastern Block."

Here we see the remains of the refreshment rooms of 1862. Plans involving architects started to be made in 1933 but there were disagreements between the museum and the Office of Works concerning the scope of the scheme, and these led inevitably to further delays. When agreement for expansion was at last reached, preparations for the next World War postponed future building works. Its outbreak soon necessitated the closure of the Museum and the removal of many objects to places of safety. The Southern Galleries were shattered by bombs, which led to the Standing Commission on Museums and galleries to declare: "Now the position is well nigh desperate." After the War, construction of the Centre Block was high on the list of the government’s public building agenda, though the need to re-house families and the shortage of building materials was not conducive to arriving at a quick solution. It was the need for a building to house the science exhibition of the Festival of Britain which led to the first phase of its construction. I now turn to the Festival of Britain. [10:03]

The earliest thoughts about holding an exhibition in 1951 came from the Royal Society of Arts in 1943, which considered that an international exhibition should be held to commemorate the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition. At the end of the War the proposal was pursued in a variety of ways, the government setting up a committee under Lord Ramsden to look into how exhibitions and fairs could promote exports. It reported in 1946. It was decided not to continue with the idea of an international exhibition because of the cost and the financial and human resources it would tie up at a time when reconstruction had to be a higher priority. If it was to happen at all, the Festival of Britain could not be over-ambitious. The idea of holding the festival became a party political issue, the Conservatives and the Beaverbrook Press vigorously opposing the idea that public expenditure on such a national enterprise was a proper way to boost people’s morale in austere post-War Britain. You must remember that in 1945 in the general election, Labor threw out the Conservatives, and Churchill was displaced by the Labor leader, Clement Attlee. In 1949, Sir Waldron Smithers, a particularly virulent Conservative MP, asked the Deputy Prime Minister in Parliament, and I quote, "How can the Right Honourable Gentleman expect continued help from America if, when good dollars sent to relieve us from the result of four and a half years of Socialist Government, they are squandered in this way?" Winston Churchill, then in opposition, referred to the forthcoming Festival of Britain as "three-dimensional Socialist propaganda."

Here we see a cartoon by the cartoonist Ronald Searle of somebody called "Sir Woolly Smithers," obviously Waldron Smithers, going up to Herbert Morrison, the deputy leader of the Labour party, who is selling tickets for the Festival of Britain, and Smithers, on the left, is saying "What’s more, sir, I still think it would be a waste of money, if it weren’t such a success." [Audience laughter]

There were significant problems in deciding on a site for the festival, and a number were proposed and rejected. Eventually the South Kensington museums, cleared of their permanent displays, were proposed. In July 1948, the Lord President’s Committee examined the possibility of accommodating the main festival and the Science and Technology Exhibitions in the Exhibition Road and Cromwell Road area of South Kensington. That’s where all the museums are, at present. But the national museum directors were strongly opposed to this idea, saying that if used for the festival, South Kensington would not be able to perform its regular museum role for a period stretching from November 1949 to October 1953. Finally, the South Bank of the River Thames was chosen as the main site. We saw that in the slide earlier. This was an area of poor housing and industrial wasteland which is right in the centre of London, nearly opposite the Houses of Parliament, and it had always been an area of neglect. However, it was clear that it was too small to house all hoped-for aspects of the Festival of Britain.

From an early stage it had been decided that the presentation of science would form a major part of the festival. To this end, an advisory Council for Science and Technology was established under the chairmanship of a senior civil servant, Sir Alan Barlow, the Director of Science being a geologist-turned-journalist called Ian Cox. They decided that science could not be shown only on the main South Bank site as it would overwhelm all other subjects. Opportunism then came into play. The Director of the Science Museum, Herman Shaw, foresaw that the Festival could be used to put right the deficiencies of his inadequate and partly ruinous building, and in August 1947, as soon as he had heard of the planned Festival, he had proposed organizing a large science exhibition in South Kensington. And here in this next slide we see what eventually transpired. This was a matter of desperation: the dire economic situation was not giving the Museum any confidence that there would be other ways of improving its position. The ending of food rationing and promoting housing reconstruction had to be higher on the government’s spending agenda than museum buildings. Something else, of course, was looming: the threat of further conflict on the Korean peninsula. Such a war, if it occurred, would clearly stretch the national coffers even further. Of course, hostilities did erupt in June 1950. [14:40]

For reasons of expediency, Shaw offered to house the proposed Exhibition of Science in the western end of the East Block, that red part of the plan I showed you before, the deal being that the Block be completed. Even twenty years after the royal opening ceremony, the East Block still had not been finished. The Science Council accepted this offer if the Exhibition of Science could be kept distinct from the normal displays in the Museum, and if it could have its own separate entrance. More ambitiously, the suggestion was made that the proposed Centre Black might be constructed and used for the festival exhibition and, after that, it would revert to the museum. Quite apart from the financial constraints, this was wishful thinking on the part of the museum. The project could never have been completed by the end of 1950 in time for fitting out the exhibition for May 1951, when it was to open. A temporary building was also mooted, but it was thought that this might delay rather than expedite a permanent solution. So the solution which did emerge was to build just the basement and the ground floor of the Centre Block. The whole exhibition could be accommodated there, no part of the East Block would now need to be handed over, the Science Exhibition could be quite distinct and would automatically have its own entrance, and, from the museum’s point of view, there were high hopes for early completion of the Block thereafter. This arrangement was agreed in November 1948 with the expectation that the building would be ready two years later, just in time for fitting out the Festival’s Exhibition of Science. So plans could now be made for its content.

But all was not plain sailing. The budget for the Exhibition of Science at South Kensington, originally set at £750,000 early in 1949, had to be reduced with devaluation threatening. It was reduced from £750,000 to £400,000. This meant that there had to be a rethink of what could be displayed; it was not just a matter of economizing on the original scheme. One casualty was a planetarium, which had been a long-felt need of the museum, but one which couldn’t be accomplished within the new budget (or, indeed, the timetable). Another was the so-called ‘Newtonian-Einstein House’, which would have cost between £100,000 and £150,000. This remarkable concept had been suggested by the physicist Max Born in July 1949, who held the Tait chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. He’d come as a refugee from Göttingen, where he had been stripped of his job in 1933. The House would have been a revolving three-dimensional space (80 feet in diameter) in which visitors would have sat or stood, not on a flat floor, but on a parabolic wall, their weight appearing to change when they walked about. Objects thrown or rolled on the floor would move in unexpected trajectories. A lake would be seen to have a curved surface. It was even suggested that beverages might be offered, the liquid appearing to be poured horizontally. The Science Museum was in support of this, expressing a wish to operate the device post-1951, even though its likely siting could not be contiguous to its main building. The architects Powell and Moya had even developed a design. The Treasury, however, was concerned about the budget, killing-off the idea with an excuse, the festival bureaucrats recording, and I quote:

"I hear that the Treasury are turning down the Newtonian House…on the grounds that it has no connection with the serious side of the festival that they can see and the long-term justification - that experiments could be carried out in it – for example on direction-finding in bees - has not been substantiated".

This was in spite of the fact that a civil servant had offered grudging support two months earlier, scribbling a note: "Yes. Presume Newton is relevant to the period 1851-1951". [18:42]

The Nature of the Festival’s Exhibition of Science was developed in sharp contrast to the approach taken by the Science Museum up to that time. Practically no objects would have historical association - they would be created as models especially for the purpose. Design would be a strong element which would go hand-in-hand with the displayed material and the storyline would demand that visitors would be strongly guided through predetermined routes. It is significant that a reconnaissance of the Palais de la Découverte in Paris was commissioned in 1949 from the science journalist Anthony Michaelis. Here we see an artist’s impression of the Palais de la Découverte, a sort of H.G. Wellsian, Van de Graaff machine. Michaelis, who had been to see it, recorded that he recommended that "every officer of the Festival of Britain Organization who was responsible for a given scientific subject should personally visit the Palais and closely inspect his own field of interest." Now, the displays in this Paris centre (which had been established in 1937 at the Exposition Internationale) were not mainly based on ‘real’ objects. They were heavily pedagogic and populist and might be seen as the prototype of today’s science centre demonstrations. This approach was clearly influential on the Exhibition of Science. The lead on this festival was to be taken by Ian Cox, who explained, "The Science Exhibition at South Kensington will not be arranged in conventional museum fashion, with small specimens laid out on benches and in glass cases. Written explanations will be cut to a minimum, and the demonstrations will be visual. Every device of show technique has been considered; motion pictures, animated diagrams, stereoscopic photographs, electric signs, moving three-dimensional models, as well as actual examples of historical apparatus." Cox also defined who the displays were and were not intended for: "The Exhibition is not designed for men of science or professional technologists, although they will undoubtedly find many new methods of presentation to interest them. Its target audience is that growing section of the general public with no specific scientific training, but nevertheless an active curiosity about scientific affairs." [20:58]

Very influential in the exhibition’s development was Jacob Bronowski, designated as a caption writer, but clearly very much more than that. He had worked intermittently for the central government and in research laboratories, and was a man of great breadth of culture who was later to be the author and presenter of the intelligent and popular television series The Ascent of Man. He described the exhibition as responding to the question: "How is matter - the very substance of the world about us - built up, why does it take so many forms and why do these behave as they do? The story, as presented, will be a new one to most of our visitors, because the great obstacle in the way of popular understanding of modern science is unfamiliar words and, often, there are no familiar ones that can take their place. The exhibition has been designed so that the displays can tell the story and no words need to get between the visitor and its understanding."

The design idiom of the Festival of Britain was light, cheerful and colorful, intended to dispel the grey and still war-damaged appearance of London. To proclaim the presence of the Exhibition of Science, a screen designed by the architect Brian Peake based on a hexagonal array of graphite was erected to hide the dreary neo-classsical south wall of the East Block of the Science Museum. The Science Museum is on the right here. The exhibition was approached through a portal decorated with the festival logo and a large model of an atom showing electron orbits. This led, under the archway linking the Science Museum and the Geological Museum, to an inner courtyard and then to a ramp, from the top of which views were offered down to the main display areas, of which there were four. Here we see the route through the exhibit. It’s a style of exhibit design which we used to call a "Tunnel of Love." [Audience laughter] Once you were in it, there was no other way out but to go straight ahead. Now the first of the four sections was intended to make the visitor feel that he or she was shrinking down, in five stages, to atomic size. The device for this was elemental carbon, in graphite form: the first room contained a pencil and paper, then Alice in Wonderland-like the visitor shrank, successively, to the size of the pencil, to the thickness of the paper, to the size of graphite crystals and then to an atom of carbon itself. The next three display areas were titled "Physical and Chemical Nature of Matter", "The Structure of Living Things", and "Stop Press". The matter section dealt with the elements and here we see a spiral form of the periodic table which was specially designed for the Festival of Britain Exhibition. It also dealt with atoms, particle structure, light waves, the ‘architecture of crystals,’ metals, carbon and life which included enzymes, vitamins and bacteria. This led straightforwardly into the third room on living structures which concerned cells, reproduction, plant and animal growth, structure, heredity and the mutation of genes. The fourth section concerned recent discovery. A large central exhibit (real in this case) was the Nimrod Digital Computer constructed for the display by Ferranti; visitors were challenged to play a game with it. A popular exhibit in this section were robots: mechanical ‘tortoises’ devised by the neuroscientist W. Grey Walter which sought out light to recharge themselves, but were not deterred by obstacles on the way, round which they would steer. Other displays were concerned with cosmic rays, the energy of the sun and stars and the expanding universe. [24:49]

Bronowski commented on the "Stop Press" section: "Great Britain has won the Nobel Prize for physics three times, for chemistry once, and her three discoverers of penicillin have won the prize for medicine. Incidentally, Bronowski seemed to include people from New Zealand, [audience laughter] and indeed Germany in the case of Ernst Chain as being British, but never mind about that. However, he was anxious to point out: "There is nothing fiercely British about this exhibition. Science is international, and the ideas and discoveries which are shown here belong to all mankind. Yet it is right to take pride that some of the greatest names in the exhibition are British: Newton and Darwin, Faraday and Rutherford and J.J. Thomson," who discovered the electron in 1897. This was a bit of unwarranted jingoism on Bronowski‘s part for the reason I’ve just mentioned.

The most substantial critical review of the Exhibition of Science was written by G.R. Noakes, a celebrated science master and author of widely read physics textbooks. These were textbooks for high school students. He tried throughout to be positive in his review about what he observed, yet he included a number of quite sharp criticisms. He began: "A wealth of skill and decorative genius has gone into the making of the display which, despite some minor shortcomings, is an outstandingly good presentation of some of the main developments of pure science during recent years, with some appropriate historical background." Yet describing the EM3 electron microscope, he complained: "The catalogue says this uses four magnetic lenses; as exhibited, but as exhibited it uses one electric lamp under the lantern slide, underneath the lantern slide…Is not a leading make of British electron microscope something to show proudly, in working order, on this occasion?" In general, he was not impressed by the captions, saying that: "many items are neither clearly labeled nor effectively provided with displayed descriptive material. This is a little disheartening. It says a great deal about the real quality of what there is on show that this criticism…does not diminish one’s admiration of the whole." The exhibition was opened by the Lord President on 4th May, and it ran until 30th September 1951. The projected attendance was 5,000 visits per day (it had been noted that the Palais de la Découverte had attracted 2.5 million visits from the beginning of May to the end of November 1937). In the event, the Exhibition attracted only 1,500 visitors a day with a total attendance of 213,000. Interest was so low, that from 4th June 1951 the exhibition closed every evening at 6 o’clock instead of 10 o’clock as had been projected. Noakes questioned the success of the project when he wrote in his review: "The writer was one of a small company of appreciative visitors who seemed to be pretty well outnumbered by the attendants. By all accounts, the exhibition has not touched the public imagination…People will pay to be entertained or impressed, but not to be instructed."

My next section is called "After the Festival." [27:58]

Any influence which the Festival of Britain’s new approach to the presentation of science might have had on the museum was not significant, and certainly not immediate. The public, after all, had not seemed enthusiastic. There had been practically no input from the museum to the Exhibition of Science, either in terms of displayed material or from the staff. For example, no curator had been attached to the organizing team. In fact, there was widespread feeling amongst the museum community that they were being excluded from making a contribution to the Festival of Britain as a whole.

The Science Museum did make one small gesture towards the Festival of Britain in the form of a small temporary exhibition, ‘The Science Museum: Past and Future,’ the exhibition was called, Frank Greenaway producing an accompanying booklet, and that booklet is, in fact, the first published history of the Science Museum. The neglect of references to the Great Exhibition throughout the festival had been critically noted, and a small-scale model of the Crystal Palace did appear on the South Bank - but that was all. Clearly history was being excluded from the Festival of Britain.

In a fairly low-key way, Greenaway’s booklet was a bid for future support. He refers to his exhibit as having "to record many difficulties and setbacks." He added that the museum was looking to the completion of the western part of the East Block, and also to occupying the ground floor of the Centre Block after the close of the Festival of Britain. In a brief coda, he wrote "The Museum looks forward to a future in which only one thing is certain: that science and technology will continue to develop and to provide material which should find a place in the National Museum." The assumption was that the traditional presentation, object-based, approach of the Science Museum would continue, in spite of external influences which might have been exerted by the Palais de la Découverte and the Festival of Britain itself. Financially, there were glimmers of light, the government indicating that it might be prepared to provide additional resources.

The Festival of Britain did help the Science Museum get its disgracefully delayed building program reactivated, though it was not until 1961 that the Centre Block was finished, and the West Block had to wait until 2000, just seven years ago, and then it was the National Lottery and the Wellcome Trust which provided the funding for the building, not the government. The lack of an adequate building did not paralyze thought-processes, though. During the festival, in August 1951, Alexander Barclay, who was the head of chemistry of the Science Museum, was asked by his director to provide a report on "The Broad Future Strategy of the Science Museum." In response, Barclay made some radical suggestions. He said, concerning accommodation, that the museum should put a claim in for the Royal College of Science Building which was just to the north. In concerning governance, Barclay really made a remarkable proposal: the museum might be placed under a board of trustees, and the treasury should make a block grant to the museum as it does to universities. He wrote: "There is little doubt that this would suit museum life and work much better than the present system of accounting in detail to a ministry for expenditure and being tied by rigid regulations for which museum folk are temperamentally unfitted. Museum work is much closer to university work than administrative. It needs more freedom, more flexibility and less irksome regulations in order to do the best work, much of which is on a personal basis." [31:22]

But this sea-change was not to happen. The Science Museum continued as a government-controlled institution in a less-than-inspired, and heavily bureaucratic way. Frank Sherwood Taylor, who died in 1956, was the last director who had any feeling for the history of science. Since then, I can’t really say that any director has had any particular interest in the history of science at all. The museum was detached from central government control in 1983 by Mrs. Thatcher, but for the simple reason that she wanted to reduce the head-count of civil servants. From the mid-1980s, the museum started to move away from historically-based, object-rich galleries, veering more and more heavily towards the science centre approach. One reason was the concern that if South Kensington didn’t take the lead, its role might be usurped by independent centres. The curatorial strength of the Science Museum dropped dramatically. The earlier discipline-based department system was disbanded.

If Barclay had been wrong in his prediction, another voice had more accurately foreseen the future. Colonel Mackintosh, had been director before and during the war, prior to Herman Shaw, and he’d written, and I quote: "…we must partially suppress our proper and purist exposition…and concentrate on highlights and temporary novelties and special exhibitions - a bit more flashy and eye-catching than is our wont… The wiseacre will look after himself in the museum; it is the less wise - and they are the majority - whom we must endeavor to stimulate and help."

Today, some would call this ‘access,’ others would say ‘dumbing-down.’ Whichever description is used, traditional science museums, with their historical approach, are today’s victims.

Thank you. [Applause] [33:11]


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Session 2: Popular and Public Science

Session 3: The Scientist as Public Citizen

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