Science Museum, London

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Science Museum
Science Museum, Exhibition Road (cropped).jpg
The Science Museum
Science Museum, London is located in Central London
Science Museum, London
Location within central London
Established1857; 164 years ago (1857)
(separate status formalised 1909)
LocationExhibition Road,
Kensington & Chelsea London, SW7 2DD
United Kingdom
Coordinates51°29′51″N 0°10′29″W / 51.4975°N 0.174722°W / 51.4975; -0.174722
Visitors3,301,975 (2019)[1]
  • Ranked 7th nationally[1]
DirectorIan Blatchford
Public transit access
Science Museum Group

The Science Museum is a major museum on Exhibition Road in South Kensington, London. It was founded in 1857 and to date is one of the city's major tourist attractions, attracting 3.3 million visitors annually.[2]

Like other publicly funded national museums in the United Kingdom, the Science Museum does not charge visitors for admission, although visitors are asked for a donation if they are able. Temporary exhibitions may incur an admission fee. It is part of the Science Museum Group, having merged with the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester in 2012.

Origin and history[edit]

The museum was founded in 1857 under Bennet Woodcroft from the collection of the Royal Society of Arts and surplus items from the Great Exhibition as part of the South Kensington Museum, together with what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. It included a collection of machinery which became the Museum of Patents in 1858, and the Patent Office Museum in 1863. This collection contained many of the most famous exhibits of what is now the Science Museum.

In 1883, the contents of the Patent Office Museum were transferred to the South Kensington Museum. In 1885, the Science Collections were renamed the Science Museum and in 1893 a separate director was appointed.[3] The Art Collections were renamed the Art Museum, which eventually became the Victoria and Albert Museum.

When Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone for the new building for the Art Museum, she stipulated that the museum be renamed after herself and her late husband. This was initially applied to the whole museum, but when that new building finally opened ten years later, the title was confined to the Art Collections and the Science Collections had to be divorced from it.[4] On 26 June 1909 the Science Museum, as an independent entity, came into existence.[4]

The Science Museum's present quarters, designed by Sir Richard Allison, were opened to the public in stages over the period 1919–28.[5] This building was known as the East Block, construction of which began in 1913 and temporarily halted by World War I. As the name suggests it was intended to be the first building of a much larger project, which was never realized.[6] However, the Museum buildings were expanded over the following years; a pioneering Children's Gallery with interactive exhibits opened in 1931,[4] the Centre Block was completed in 1961–3, the infill of the East Block and the construction of the Lower & Upper Wellcome Galleries in 1980, and the construction of the Wellcome Wing in 2000 result in the Museum now extending to Queen's Gate.


The Science Museum now holds a collection of over 350, 000 items, including famous items such as Stephenson's Rocket, Puffing Billy (the oldest surviving steam locomotive), the first jet engine, the Apollo 10 command module, a reconstruction of Francis Crick and James Watson's model of DNA, some of the earliest remaining steam engines (Including an example of a Newcomen steam engine, the world's first steam engine), a working example of Charles Babbage's Difference engine, the first prototype of the 10,000-year Clock of the Long Now, and documentation of the first typewriter. It also contains hundreds of interactive exhibits. An IMAX 3D Cinema opened in 2001 showing science and nature documentaries, most of them in 3-D, and the Wellcome Wing which focuses on digital technology.[7] Entrance has been free since 1 December 2001.


The Science Museum has a dedicated library, and until the 1960s was Britain's National Library for Science, Medicine and Technology. It holds runs of periodicals, early books and manuscripts, and is used by scholars worldwide. It was, for a number of years, run in conjunction with the Central Library of Imperial College, but in 2007 the Library was divided over two sites. Histories of science and biographies of scientists were kept at the Imperial College Library until February 2014 when the arrangement was terminated, the shelves were cleared and the books and journals shipped out, joining the rest of the collection, which includes original scientific works and archives, at the Science Museum at Wroughton, Wiltshire.[8] The Imperial College library catalogue search system now informs searchers that volumes formerly held there are "Available at Science Museum Library Swindon Currently unavailable". A new Research Centre with library facilities is promised for late 2015 but is unlikely to have book stacks nearby.

Replica of the DNA model built by Crick and Watson in 1953.

Storage and archives[edit]

Between 1979 and 2019, the museum's main storage and archive facility was at Blythe House. As of 2019 170,000 items which are not on current display are stored at the Science Museum at Wroughton, a 220-hectare (545-acre) former RAF base near Swindon owned by the Museum since 1979. The Science Museum will use £40m from the government to develop the Wroughton site and put many previously stored items on display there from 2023, in addition to storage, conservation labs, and research facilities.[9]

The Dana Library and Research Centre[edit]

In November 2003, the Science Museum opened the Dana Centre. The centre is an urban bar and café annexed to the museum. It was designed by MJP Architects.[10]

In October 2007, the Science Museum cancelled a talk by the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, James D. Watson, because he claimed that IQ test results showed black people to have lower intelligence than white people. The decision was criticised by some scientists, including Richard Dawkins,[11] but supported by other scientists, including Steven Rose.[12]

Informal Learning[edit]

Around 450,000 young people visit the Science Museum on educational trips or benefit from its outreach programmes each year, more than any other UK museum.[13]

Old Bess, A surviving example of a steam engine made by James Watt, in 1777.


The Science Museum also organises "Astronights", "all-night extravaganza with a scientific twist". Up to 380 children aged between 8 and 11, accompanied by adults, are invited to spend an evening performing fun "science based" activities and then spend the night sleeping in the museum galleries amongst the exhibits. In the morning, they're woken to breakfast and more science, watching a show before the end of the event.[14]


On the evening of the last Wednesday of every month (except December) the museum organises an adults only evening with up to 30 events, from lectures to silent discos. Previous Lates have seen conversations with the actress activist Lily Cole[15] and Biorevolutions with the Francis Crick Institute which attracted around 7000 people, mostly under the age of 35.[16]


The East Hall

The Science Museum is made up of a number of galleries, some of which are permanent, and some of which are temporary.

The Energy Hall[edit]

Video of a Corliss steam engine in the Energy Gallery in motion.

The East Hall is the first area that most visitors see as they enter the building, stretching up through three floors. On the ground, the area is mostly filled with iconic steam engines of various sorts, including the oldest surviving James Watt beam engine, which together tell the story of the British industrial revolution.

Also on display is a recreation of James Watt's garret workshop from his home, Heathfield Hall, using over 8,300 objects removed from the room, which was sealed after his 1819 death, when the hall was demolished in 1927.[17]

Exploring Space[edit]

Exploring Space is a historical gallery, filled with rockets and exhibits that tell the story of human space exploration and the benefits that space exploration has brought us (particularly in the world of telecommunications).

Making the Modern World[edit]

The Apollo 10 Command Module Charlie Brown, which orbited the Moon 31 times in 1969,[18] is displayed in the Modern World Gallery

Making the Modern World displays some of the museum's most iconic objects, including Watson and Crick's double helix, and the Apollo 10 command module are displayed along a timeline chronicling man's technological achievements.


Flight is on the western end of the third floor. Contained in the gallery are several full sized aeroplanes and helicopters, including Alcock and Brown's transatlantic Vickers Vimy (1919), Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, as well as numerous aero-engines and a cross-section of a Boeing 747. It opened in 1963 and was refurbished in the 1990s.[19]


One of the most popular galleries in the museum is the interactive Wonderlab, formerly called Launch Pad. The gallery is staffed by Explainers who demonstrate how exhibits work, conduct live experiments and perform shows to schools and the visiting public.

Media Space[edit]

This gallery is a collaboration between the Science Museum and the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, home of a photography collection of more than three million images.[20]

Information Age[edit]

Information Age Gallery at the Science Museum London

The landmark gallery explores the six networks that have transformed global communications: The Cable, The Telephone Exchange, Broadcast, The Constellation, The Cell and The Web/[21] It was opened on 24 October 2014 by the Queen, Elizabeth II, who sent her first tweet.[22]

Engineer your Future[edit]

This gallery opened in December 2014, and aims to inspire school children to go into careers in engineering. It was developed with a consortium of companies and the Royal Academy of Engineering.[23]

Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries[edit]

This five-gallery medical exhibition spans ancient history to modern times with over 3000 exhibits and specially commissioned artworks.[24] Many of the objects on display come from the Wellcome Collection started by Henry Wellcome.[25] One of the commissioned artworks is a large bronze sculpture of Rick Genest titled Self-Conscious Gene by Marc Quinn.[26] The galleries occupy the museum's entire first floor and opened on 16 November 2019.[24]

Temporary exhibitions[edit]

These range from the award-winning Codebreaker, on the life of Alan Turing,[27] to Unlocking Lovelock, which explores the archive of James Lovelock.[28]

Touring exhibitions[edit]

The Science Museum has developed many touring exhibitions over the years. The Science Box contemporary science series toured various venues in the UK and Europe in the 1990s and from 1995 The Science of Sport appeared in various incarnations and venues around the World. In 2005 The Science Museum teamed up with Fleming Media to set up The Science of... who develop and tour exhibitions including The Science of Aliens, The Science of Spying and The Science of Survival

In 2008, The Science of Survival exhibition opened to the public and allowed visitors to explore what the world might be like in 2050 and how humankind will meet the challenges of climate change and energy shortages.

In 2014 the museum launched the family science Energy Show, which toured the country.[29]

The same year it began a new programme of touring exhibitions which opened with Collider: Step inside the world’s greatest experiment to much critical acclaim. The exhibition takes visitors behind the scenes at CERN and explores the science and engineering behind the discovery of the Higgs Boson. The exhibition will tour until early 2017.

Media Space exhibitions also go on tour, notably Only in England which displays works by the great photographers Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr.

Former galleries[edit]

The museum has undergone many changes in its history with older galleries being replaced by new ones.

  • Blythe House, 1979–2019, the museum's former storage facility in West Kensington, while not a gallery offered tours of the collections housed there.[30] Objects formally housed there will be accessible at the National Collections Centre, at the Science Museum Wroughton, in Wiltshire from 2023.[31]
  • The Children's Gallery, 1931–1995.[32] Located in the basement, it was replaced by the under fives area called, The Garden.
  • Glimpses of Medical History, 1981 to 2015. Located on the fourth floor, it contained reconstructions and dioramas of the history of practised medicine. It was not replaced, but subsumed into Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries which opened on the museum's first floor in November 2019[33]
  • Launchpad,[34] 1986[32]-2015. Originally opening on the ground floor, in 1989 it moved to the first floor replacing Textiles. Then in 2000 to the basement of the newly built Wellcome Wing. In 2007, it moved to its final location on the third floor, replacing the George III gallery. It was replaced by Wonderlab in 2016.[35]
  • Science and the Art of Medicine, 1981 to 2015. Located on the fifth floor, which featured exhibits of medical instruments and practices from ancient days and from many countries. It was not replaced, but subsumed into Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries which opened on the museum's first floor in November 2019[33]
  • Shipping, 1963–2012. Located on the second floor, its contents were 3D scanned and made available online. It was replaced by Information Age.[36]


The museum is adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The closest London Underground station is South Kensington; a subway connects the museums to the station.

At the front of the museum to the east is Exhibition Road. Immediately to the south is Museum Lane and the Natural History Museum. To the rear is Queen's Gate and to the north is Imperial College.


The Science Museum underwent a series of refurbishments as part of a vision to update the museum. The East Hall has been finished and the renovated museum shop opened in October 2005.


The Science Museum's website has a variety of features, including collections information and the award-winning Launchball game.[37]


The museum joined the 10:10 project in 2009 in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint. One year later it announced that it had reduced its carbon emissions (according to 10:10's criteria) by 17%.[38]

Centennial volume: Science for the Nation[edit]

The leading academic publisher Palgrave Macmillan published the official centenary history of the Science Museum on 14 April 2010. The first complete history of the Science Museum since 1957, Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum is a series of individual views by Science Museum staff and external academic historians of different aspects of the Science Museum's history. While it is not a chronological history in the conventional sense, the first five chapters cover the history of the museum from the Brompton Boilers in the 1860s to the opening of the Wellcome Wing in 2000. The remaining eight chapters cover a variety of themes concerning the Museum's development.

Directors of the Science Museum[edit]

Making the Modern World gallery from above

The Directors of the South Kensington Museum were:

The Directors of the Science Museum have been:

The following have been Head/Director of the Science Museum in London, not including its satellite museums:

The following have been Directors of the National Museum of Science and Industry, (since April 2012 renamed the Science Museum Group) which oversees the Science Museum and other related museums, from 2002:


The Science Museum has been sponsored by major organisations including Shell, BP, Samsung and GlaxoSmithKline. Some have been controversial. It was criticised for accepting funds from Shell for its 2021 climate change exhibition. Scientists for Global Responsibility called the museum’s move "staggeringly out-of-step and irresponsible".[40] Others, however, said the museum was 'performing a vital public service'.[41] Some presenters, including George Monbiot, pulled out of climate talks on finding they were sponsored by BP and the Norwegian oil company Equinor.[42]

Equinor is also the title sponsor of "Wonderlab: The Equinor Gallery", an exhibition for children, while BP is the funding partner of the museum's STEM Training Academy.[43]

Previously Shell had sought to influence how the museum would present the climate change programme sponsored by the oil company.[44]

The museum's director, Ian Blatchford, defended the museum's sponsorship policy, saying: "Even if the Science Museum were lavishly publicly funded I would still want to have sponsorship from the oil companies." The museum declined to give details of how much it receives from oil and gas sponsors.[45]


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External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°29′51″N 0°10′29″W / 51.49750°N 0.17472°W / 51.49750; -0.17472