The Science Museum in Cambridge – dumb, resistant, dense, and worth a visit
What is a museum? A repository of objects? An educational tool? A display of imperial power?
There is a whole ‘science’ devoted to museum, needless to say, (known as 'museum studies'); and appropriately enough, there are whole museums devoted
to science. Science museums come, however, in different flavours. The Science Museum in London, so far as I remember, mostly justifies its own existence
as an educational establishment. It is a whirr of free-range children pinging from room to room, from display to display, pushing buttons to see what
lights up, what happens. The exhibits are there to interact with.
The other flavour is a bit less spangly. You don’t push any buttons. You don’t interact. There are no screaming children. There are no children at
In the latter mould of museum is the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge. It
is dry. It is laconic. It is case after case of brass objects. And it is, if you move slowly and look carefully, very interesting.
You can in fact interact a little if the spirit moves you. You can make your own shell display, for example, or look at early 3D images in the Victorian
Parlour. There is quite a good interactive website. But beyond such novelties, there are mainly just things to inspect. There is a ‘unique’ collection
of globes. There are microscopes, sundials, telescopes, slide-rules, pocket electronic calculators, and ‘a range of laboratory equipment’ (of which
I recall little, if I’m honest, beyond a Wimshurst Machine and a Van der Graaf generator).
The museum was built around the private collection of Robert Stewart Whipple (1871-1953), Managing Director and Chairman of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument
Company. After he bequeathed his telescopes and globes to the university, it was at first stored in various different buildings (including the basement
of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Girton College, and ‘two rooms in Corn Exchange Street’) before moving to the current Old Perse School – the city’s first
free school on Free School Lane – where it still resides.
Unsurprisingly, the museum now describes the purpose of its main gallery as “to bring as many of the museum's objects as possible out of the cupboards
and into high-density display. The themed cases are dense with instruments and contain only minimal labelling.” And it is, pleasingly, running an exhibition
at the moment entitled ‘Why is this here?’ devoted to objects in the collection which the curators find puzzling.
So there it is. Dumb, resistant, ‘dense’, and in every respect worth a visit.
The Whipple Museum of the History of Science is open weekdays 1230 to 1630. It is, like all good museums, closed at weekends.