I am really chuffed to find myself one of the new intake of Trustees for the National Museum of Science and Industry (NMSI), which incorporates the Science Museum in London and its companion near Swindon, the National Railway Museum in York and the National Media Museum in Bradford. This is a role I could never have dreamt of when as a small child I was taken to the Science Museum in London for a holiday treat. I would hazard a guess that just about every British scientist – as well as many a non-scientist – has very fond memories of that site in South Kensington (its neighbouring museums too in all likelihood). For me, as a child, I thought of it as the ‘push button’ museum, somewhere one could go and amazing things would happen at the push of a button. However my most vivid memory actually didn’t involve a button at all, and that was its wonder. Instead I recall a red door which opened as if by magic when you approached it. I didn’t stop to ponder, as a 7 year old, what might have caused that to happen, but it just struck some chord in my heart that made me want to approach it over and over again. Each and every one of us no doubt has some equally special and treasured memory of the museum, ranging from the huge steam engines to a bit of moon rock (if you’re young enough), from early X-ray equipment to exquisitely finely machined clocks and chronometers. It is a playground of sheer pleasure for so many of us, a staggering tribute to Prince Albert, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley and other early visionary champions, as well as to the wealth and excitement of our scientific heritage in the UK. I am not given to hyperbole and lyricism in my writing, but I do feel amazingly honoured to have been asked to join the board to whom this fantastic enterprise is entrusted. (I should add, somewhat shamefully, I have never visited the other museums whose trustee I have just become; a lapse that I am sure will soon be rectified as I take on my new duties.)
As a child, visiting the museum, I had no idea what scientists did or even what science was. While we collectively worry – and that includes myself in my role as Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee – about what primary school science should cover, what skills we expect children at each key stage to have mastered as they progress up through the school system, it is worth remembering that ‘science’ as a discipline had not penetrated the random north London primary school I attended. We did nature study, I think, the life cycle of frogs (frogspawn could be found in the ponds on Hampstead Heath; maybe it still can) and the seasons as made manifest by growing hyacinth bulbs in glass vases full of water so we could observe roots and shoots grow; watching the leaves decay in the playground; and learning the names of animal’s homes such as the ‘form’ of a hare – strange tidbits that stick in the mind decades on. That was the nearest we got to science. No electricity or introductory genetics, nothing involving rocks or rockets. So, I just learnt about tadpoles and leaves, and presumably somehow imbibed something sufficient that when I first encountered physics a few years later at secondary school I knew I had found something that resonated with me.
But now I get to see a different side of the Science Museum – the inside, behind-the-scenes side. I’m tremendously looking forward to it. In the galleries themselves I’m sure there’s even more to admire and be amazed by than I’ve ever chanced upon in my unsystematic wanderings. I am eagerly anticipating the chance to discover so much more than I’ve ever seen before with (I hope) guided tours by the experts whose job it is to oversee the more than 300,000 objects the museum possesses. The reality is that I’ve only been to the museum as a child myself and with my own children. I now will have not only the excuse but the justification to spend time meandering around the galleries as a paid up member of the scientific community and without an inquisitive child in tow, just an inquisitive me. And I have the opportunity to participate in decision-making about how to make it an even more wonderful place, with greater impact and reach to all and sundry (and not just the London middle classes). I have a lot to learn about what is already there to see in nooks and crannies I’ve probably never discovered, what perhaps is missing in the history of science displays or presentations of modern cutting edge discoveries, and how its modern wonder can be best displayed to the child who encounters the museum for the first time.
As I went to my interview for the position a while back, I walked up Kensington Gore past the main entrance, which was just closing, to the rear where the interviews were being held, and I walked past what appeared to be a typical domestic drama. A small child, perhaps 5 or 6 years old was kneeling on the ground screaming its head off as its mother tried to reason with it. But as I listened I realised it wasn’t altogether ‘typical’. The child wasn’t screaming for an ice cream or that it had lost its toy but ‘I want to go back, I want to go back’. Closing time at the museum had caused this child deep distress. Now that’s a sign of success in what the museum is doing.