How the Science Museum reinvented itself

One of Britain's biggest attractions is launching its £50m revamp by dusting off the machines that drove the Industrial Revolution and highlighting their impact on everyday life. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Online

They may seem like dusty relics of a bygone era whose relevance to the cutting-edge technology of today is remote. But the steam engines that powered Britain's 19th-century economic development are to be placed centre-stage at the Science Museum in London as part of an attempt to bring the history of the Industrial Revolution to life.

They may seem like dusty relics of a bygone era whose relevance to the cutting-edge technology of today is remote. But the steam engines that powered Britain's 19th-century economic development are to be placed centre-stage at the Science Museum in London as part of an attempt to bring the history of the Industrial Revolution to life.

An outdated display that concentrates on the technical specifications of inventions by pioneers such as Thomas Newcomen and James Watt is to be replaced with a new exhibition explaining the impact they had on real lives. It is the first phase of a 10-year, £50m revamp of the institution.

Eleven engines, described by the Science Museum as the 11 "heroic" engines, are currently housed in what is known as the East Hall and are largely ignored by most visitors who rush past them on their way to other galleries. So yesterday, the hall closed for a £500,000 overhaul which will re-display these engineering icons more effectively and reveal the importance of steam technology in helping Britain to become the "workshop of the world".

The display area will be re-named the Energy Hall in a move that will clearly connect it to the new, and currently more popular, Energy Gallery upstairs. Its importance will be emphasised by simultaneously restoring to prominence the original museum entrance, now called the north entrance, in Exhibition Road.

Jon Tucker, the museum's head, said: "It's important when a visitor walks into the Science Museum that they get a sense of excitement for the past, present and future of science and technology. This project will create a more open and welcoming introduction to the museum, giving our visitors a much more generous view of our historic Energy Hall."

Heather Mayfield, the deputy head, said the East Hall engines were among the museum's most important objects because of their contribution to the Industrial Revolution. The revamp was intended to encourage people to stop and take a proper look.

Developments in steam contributed to far greater general prosperity in the UK than had been the case in the previous agrarian economy. But they also dramatically changed Britain's physical landscape, not always for the better, and helped fuel damaging changes in the climate which continue to the present day.

Surprisingly, some of the technology which was revolutionary in the 18th and 19th centuries is not as outdated as might be expected: pioneering work by Charles Parsons on the steam turbine remains the foundation of the steam turbine still used in most power stations today.

The shift in focus in the Energy Hall is being made partly as a result of feedback from teachers, who were asked why they were not using the engine gallery in their history lessons. One major change will be the inclusion of the real-life stories of the workers affected by the changes, which will be examined alongside the surviving machines. A member of staff will create a new character, similar to other educational characters already operating in the museum, who will dress and speak as one of the Luddites, the workers who feared the advent of new technology and the impact it had on their employment conditions and wages. As visitors follow the character through the hall, visiting key machines, the Luddite gradually evolves into someone who believes in the potential for the new industry.

The engines will be grouped with models and tools used by the industrialists, together with animations showing how the machines worked. And the new display will also highlight the intriguing personal stories of the inventors themselves, many of whom were larger-than-life characters. "We are completely changing the way we tell the story of the Industrial Revolution," said Ms Mayfield.

Ben Russell, curator of mechanical engineering, said the 11 heroic engines illustrated the move from the use of "organic" power, such as water, wind or muscle, to a mineral-based economy between around 1750 and 1850. "Britain was unique in going through this transformation first," he added.

Like computers and mobile phones in more recent times, engines began as large machines which gradually became smaller as the technology grew more sophisticated.

And just as biochemistry businesses and software giants today engage in industrial espionage to keep themselves in the forefront of their field, the example of James Watt's lap engine, to drive a lapping or metal polishing machine, shows that things were no different more than a century ago.

A German engineer, Georg Reichenbach, bribed his way into Watt's works to see and sketch the lap engine by candlelight - though he found it impossible actually to build one as a result.

The Science Museum itself was first built in the 1920s to a design by Sir Richard Allison, who was also responsible for Selfridge's department store. The revamp of the East Hall, which is being partly funded by the Wolfson Foundation, will strip out false walls introduced more than 20 years ago and open up windows to let in natural light.

The aim is to make it easier to see the glory of exhibits such as the Haystack steam boiler from Bassett Pit, Derbyshire, which dates from 1791 and is one of the oldest boilers in existence, and the Old Bess pumping engine designed by James Watt in 1777 for a factory in Birmingham. But the re-development also offers an opportunity to include a new bookshop, better ticketing facilities and a four-metre wide ramp to make the museum more wheelchair-accessible. The gallery should reopen by Easter.

The work on the East Hall is the next item on a masterplan designed to redevelop the entire museum and follows last year's opening of the Dana Centre, which is for adults only and examines sensitive scientific issues, and of the new Earth Gallery earlier this year.

The Launch Pad, which opened 20 years ago and contains a wide range of hands-on exhibits, will be updated next and moved to a bigger space on the third floor.

Ms Mayfield said: "We have galleries here that are 50 years old and, more worryingly, 30 years old which are likely to be even less well done. We have an early 1920s classical building so we're starting by looking at what the architect was trying to do with the spaces."

Future plans include a £6m gallery dedicated to the history of science from the 1600s to the present day, which will examine major themes in the development of science and feature some of the museum's star exhibits. Its go-ahead will be dependent on obtaining sponsors, but it is hoped there will be companies willing to back the museum's attempt to become "an exemplar of what museums of science should be in the 21st century". Ben Russell said that the changes were partly about presenting a "truer vision of what the museum is about. It's not just about older things".

Mr Russell and Ms Mayfield stressed that the Science Museum had a role in examining the past, present and future of science, technology and medicine and that nothing in science could be examined in isolation. Even the very fabric of the museum itself is being used to make this point, with a new solar-powered roof, which is both practical and at the cutting edge of technology.


Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729)

Devon ironmonger who devised the world's first truly practical steam engine after visiting mines in Devon and Cornwall to supply tools and becoming aware of the desperate battle against floodwater in the mines. By condensing steam in a cylinder underneath a piston, he harnessed atmospheric pressure to pump water from mines, helping secure the coal supplies that drove forward the Industrial Revolution. His first engine was erected near Dudley Castle, Staffordshire, in 1712. No original engines survive but the design proved so robust it lasted for 60 years. The Science Museum owns the oldest surviving and complete Newcomen engine in existence which was built in Derbyshire in 1791 and worked until 1918. Despite his scientific importance, there are no known portraits of Newcomen in existence.

James Watt (1736-1819)

Born in Greenock, the son of a shipwright, Watt trained as a scientific instrument maker in London. He returned to Scotland to work at Glasgow University, where he was given a workshop. He was responsible for a series of remarkable innovations, most notably the "separate condenser" which he patented in 1769. This was the single most important breakthrough in the history of steam and reduced fuel consumption by up to three-quarters. Watt, a dour hypochondriac of a genius, took the steam engine and turned it into an efficient, universal power source. The Science Museum has four of his engines which will be displayed in the revamped Energy Hall. These include the lap engine which he made in 1788 and which is the oldest existing engine in the world.

Richard Trevithick (1771-1833)

A powerfully built Cornishman who gained his mining experience in the Cornish tin industry, Trevithick was respected for his technical knowledge (as well as his wrestling skills) by the time he was 19. His work was in the field of "strong steam", steam used at high pressures. This gradually replaced the low-pressure steam used by James Watt because it enabled steam engines to be made either small and compact, or even larger and more powerful. Trevithick is the engineer who helped move steam technology from the mines to all other fields, including railways and agriculture, yet he failed to benefit from his inventiveness. After disappearing to spend a decade travelling in Central and South America, he returned to the UK, was declared bankrupt and died penniless.

Sir Charles Parsons (1854-1931)

The son of the Earl of Rosse, a renowned Victorian astronomer and president of the Royal Society, Parsons was brought up in an environment rich with scientific discussion and experimentation. Unusually for an aristocrat, he completed an apprenticeship in Newcastle and from the start, his chief interest was the development of a steam turbine. Turbines avoid the need to use a piston by harnessing steam's kinetic energy. This enables electricity to be generated more efficiently than older steam engine designs. Parsons built his first turbine, the world's first practical turbine, in 1884. It was the most important step towards creating today's electricity grid and is one of the stars of the Science Museum collections. Turbines working on the same principles as Parsons' are still used in power stations.

Profiles by Ben Russell, curator of mechanical engineering, Science Museum