How long must heaven wait?: At the Science Museum, astronomy is out and fast-food in. Allan Chapman is irritated

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ORIGINAL objects, whether made by famous hands or present at significant turning points in human affairs, have always fascinated mankind. Medieval pilgrims tramped across the known world to venerate saints' bones, while post-Renaissance virtuosi were willing to mortgage their estates to acquire marbles and bronzes from ancient sites. Even now, when electronically- generated images provide a new realm of reality, we are still willing to pay fabulous sums to acquire objects of virtu, be they a pair of trousers once owned by Elvis Presley or a painting believed to be by Rembrandt.

Today, however, there is a fashion which requires 'dusty and boring' artefacts (museum-speak for original objects) to be packed away into store, to create gallery space for polystyrene gewgaws and video displays.

For the last few years it has been impossible to view the Science Museum's collection of astronomical instruments (excepting a few telescopes in the Optics Gallery). At a time when astronomy has won a place on the national curriculum, the Science Museum has removed its entire collection to make way for the frankly facile 'Food for Thought' (subtitled 'The Sainsbury Gallery'), which leaves the visitor in no doubt about the contributions of Messrs Sainsbury (and the Big M) to the nation's eating habits. No longer is it necessary to go to your local high street to see a supermarket check-out counter, a fitted kitchen display, or an American-style fast-food bar; for pounds 3.75 you can see these artefacts lovingly conserved in a Science Museum gallery along with real plastic food.

The closure of the astronomy gallery is a particular desecration, for it tells us so much about a leading museum's attitude towards the place of science as a wider cultural activity. Astronomy is perhaps the most actively pursued scientific hobby in the country, with bodies such as the British Astronomical Association and Federation of Astronomical Societies co-ordinating the activities of thousands of serious amateurs, to say nothing of the even greater thousands who have a more general interest in the science.

The Science Museum's astronomy collection is one of the finest in the world. Here, one could see some of the telescopes with which Sir William Herschel first explored the structure of the Milky Way, the 72in mirror used by Lord Rosse to discover the rotation of distant galaxies, along with hundreds of exquisite artefacts in brass and glass - artefacts which could be enjoyed by the least technically minded of people, as objects of beauty and elegance in their own right; the Michelangelos and Titians of science.

Since November 1988, this gallery, along with the most complete collection of scientific devices ever assembled by a monarch (the George III collection) has been locked away in the Science Museum's store in Olympia. No one expects a museum to display all of its collections all of the time, but it is disgraceful that the nation's premier technical museum should remove all its astronomical artefacts from view for an indefinite term of years.

The Science Museum's celestial alternative is its spaceflight gallery, concentrating only on rocket technology. It is quite divorced from an understanding of astronomy, or even space, and fails to supply tangible links by which the visitor might pass from a curiosity about the heavens to beginning to find out something for him- or herself. No child can expect a real spacecraft for Christmas, though five years ago, after visiting the deceased astronomy gallery, a child might have asked for a basic telescope. For a museum that claims to emphasise 'inter-active learning' I find it ludicrous that no curiosity is ignited in the most fundamental and easily purchasable of astronomical instruments, to encourage visitors to see things for themselves in the sky.

When a museum removes its historical collections from view, it commits a yet more serious atrocity. Science is deprived of its historical perspective and presented to the public as a wholly modern, hi-tech activity, bereft of connections with art, craft or literature.

We often forget that it is through the history of science that the surest common ground between the arts and science can be found. By presenting science as a human activity, we can cut through the veil of fear that surrounds so many technical subjects, and relate scientists to the wider culture of their day. After all, when Lord Rosse was not looking through his telescope, he could well have ridden behind George Stephenson's Rocket, still on view in the Science Museum's transport hall, hunted for fossils (eventually to be housed in the Natural History Museum) with the young Charles Darwin, or played upon a Broadwood piano, preserved across the road in the V & A.

Curators of our 'flagship' museums have a duty to make the subjects covered by their institutions as comprehensible as possible to the greatest number of people. But they must not forget that this comprehension should be through, and not in spite of, the original objects in their care. They are keepers of national museums of record and not mere managers of metropolitan theme-parks scrambling to attract commercial sponsors.

It is always thrilling to see a mind spark at the recognition that a device or object was present at a watershed in human understanding. Such objects are latter-day relics, and just like the holy relics of the Middle Ages, they can transfigure lives and change perceptions. This is especially important with scientific objects, for if science is not to be culturally alienated and hammered to death by certain philistines in the arts, it is imperative that we open up its humanising side. And nowhere can we do this better than through its history, made tangible by the rich legacy of artefacts preserved in our national collections.