Go back to article: Responding to stories: The 1876 Loan Collection of Scientific Apparatus and the Science Museum


This article argues that it is useful to see historical exhibitions as both responses and contributors to narratives about science that are circulating in the public sphere. It uses the example of the 1876 Loan Collection of Scientific Apparatus (which was the immediate predecessor of the Science Museum in London). The article demonstrates how, in promoting this huge exhibition and fighting for the necessary support and resources, leading scientific, cultural and political figures engaged with two rather different public interpretations of science’s past, present and future. One dealt with science as a vigorous part of culture with a fascinating and under-appreciated past and a dynamic future coming, internationally, to the fore. The other concerned the threat to Britain’s international economic ascendancy by countries with equal ingenuity and better education that could lead Britain into a decline reminiscent of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. According to this second narrative, science would be the vaccine that would prevent this disease afflicting Britain. In the aftermath of the exhibition, the narratives were drawn upon again to form and sustain a permanent display that was known from 1885 as the Science Museum. While the memory of the Loan Collection itself was obscured in the 1920s during the Museum’s early life as a separate administrative body fighting for resources, the author suggests that continuity can be shown in the narrative arguments used by the creators of the two projects. A greater significance should therefore be given to this exhibition in the story of the development of the Science Museum.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140104/006