Go back to article: The Science Museum and the Leonardo da Vinci Quincentenary Exhibition of 1952

An exhibition proposal

The main file on the exhibition preserved at the Science Museum opens with the initial proposal, handwritten on Board of Education foolscap minute paper by one of the more junior curators, Keith Reginald Gilbert (an Assistant Keeper) to his Keeper, William O’Dea, and dated 9 August 1949:

1952 is the quincentenary of the birth of Leonardo da Vinci, and I think that consideration might be given to the possibility of celebrating this important anniversary by a special exhibition.[6]

Gilbert had joined the Museum only the previous year but already his plan distinguished three sections that would survive the entire process of making the exhibition: original drawings in British collections; photographic copies of those held elsewhere; and models based on the drawings. The Science Museum had done nothing so ambitious since the War and we might think that Gilbert was displaying the naïve enthusiasm of a newcomer. Even so, O’Dea lost no time in asking the Director, Herman Shaw, for permission to go ahead with the single model Gilbert had proposed for his own area of textile mechanics, to be made in the Museum’s workshops. This was Leonardo’s spinning machine, which, as it happens, was never made. Furthermore, O’Dea liked the idea of a more ambitious exhibition and thought it should be discussed among the other relevant Keepers.

The Director considered that, rather than commissioning a single model, the possibility of a ‘Special Exhibition’, a term he placed in inverted commas because it was clearly not an everyday one, should be explored. Accordingly, by 8 September Gilbert had prepared an extensive proposal, now typewritten, where he outlined Leonardo’s achievements in applied mechanics, compiled a short bibliography and a list of manuscripts in Britain, and described the ‘splendid exhibition in Milan in 1939’. This, he reported, had included about 120 models and he attached copies of the exhibition guide and the catalogue. Gilbert made the point that the exact date of Leonardo’s birth, 15 April 1452, had been settled only in 1939. This would be the first time a Leonardo anniversary could be celebrated with confidence.[7]

The very large Leonardo exhibition at the Palazzo dell’Arte in Milan in 1939 contained two hundred models based on Leonardo’s drawings. The models had been made at the request of Benito Mussolini. The Milan models became known in Britain through pictures in The Illustrated London News (Illustrated London News, 1939). The Liberal peer Herbert Samuel suggested to Ernest Mackintosh, then Director of the Science Museum, that the exhibition might come to London, but that was considered impossibly expensive.[8] The models were displayed in New York in 1940 but in 1942 were lost at sea, it would seem following their exhibition in Japan and, although the record is sketchy, as a result of a wartime engagement (Landrus, 2013, pp 323–5). Another famous early set was commissioned by the Los Angeles Country Museum from the Italian engineer, Roberto Guatelli, who became a specialist in Leonardo models. It was displayed in Los Angeles in 1949, then went on tour and was purchased in 1951 by IBM, who commissioned further models from Guatelli and organised travelling exhibitions (Landrus, 2013, pp 323–5; Moon, 2007, pp 200–03).

As O’Dea passed Gilbert’s paper on to the Director, it was clear that his enthusiasm for the exhibition project had increased, though he recognised that Leonardo’s ideas had not been directly influential and he speculated on why this might have been: ‘Unlike Galileo, Leonardo seems not to have been particularly aggressive in the face of prejudice against the developments he probably regarded as sound but dangerous to his safety if he pushed them too diligently’.[9] What O’Dea can have imagined was dangerous about Leonardo’s mechanical ideas, his consideration of fossils notwithstanding, is far from clear, but the remark reflects the prevailing emphasis at the Museum on what were seen as progressive contributions to the making of modern science. A genius he may have been, but had Leonardo played an effective part in that history?

What emerged from O’Dea’s discussion with the Director was nothing more decisive than an instruction to Gilbert to circulate the proposal around senior officers in other departments. For the most part they were not enthusiastic – John Chaldecott, Arthur Stowers, William Church, Fredrick Skinner and Henry Calvert demurred in turn for one reason or another: display space was limited; workshop staff were occupied; Leonardo was irrelevant to the development of science; and so on.

A completely different tone was struck by Frank Greenaway,[10] who in a firm hand dashed off the retort that his colleagues had ‘missed an essential point’: Leonardo, as he put it, would be ‘News’ in 1952. Here was an opportunity that others would be keen to grasp:

The artistic and literary worlds will make much of him…to look beyond the limits of the object in hand, they will use the study of Leonardo’s own achievement to illustrate wider aspects of the period and general truths of historical development. … If, of the other hand, the imagination of the Museum is limited to the practicability of moving object X from case Y to case Z we had better keep out of the arena.[11]

With that challenge on the file, F A B Ward and Philip Sumner in their turn could hardly do other than give Gilbert some qualified support. Greenaway had tried to change the historical agenda. The other keepers saw the Museum’s mission as presenting the development and the content of science today; whatever his individual accomplishments, if Leonardo had not contributed to that historical progression, he was scarcely relevant. Greenaway, on the other hand, took a more historical view. Leonardo’s place in the Renaissance was of interest in itself and did not depend on present-day science, while his anniversary was a signal opportunity for cultural impact. His suggestion was for an exhibition on ‘Leonardo and the Science of his Times’.

Gilbert tried again in October 1950. He had a new Keeper in Arthur Stowers and a new Director in Frank Sherwood Taylor. His prospects must have looked brighter: Sherwood Taylor was a historian and intellectual, with a mission to humanise the sciences after two world wars had made the dangers of a narrow, technical, unthinking, dehumanised focus on science all too evident (Simcock, 1987; Greenaway, 2004). Leonardo might well be an attractive subject, bridging the humanities and the sciences. In the previous round Stowers had judged that Leonardo had had ‘no influence on the development of Motive Power’ and, more tellingly, had raised a doubt about the value and legitimacy of making models from his drawings: ‘I am doubtful whether many of Leonardo’s devices were actually used in practice, and many sketches are not sufficiently clear to make models from them.’ Nonetheless, Gilbert began to revive his scheme by preparing for Stowers an accurate summary of the file so far, which he is unlikely to have done without being asked.

Gilbert admits that, having consulted eleven officers responsible for collections in subjects of interest to Leonardo, ‘In many cases the response was not enthusiastic because L da V’s stature as a scientist and inventor has only been appreciated in modern times and it cannot be shown that his ideas had much influence on the development of science and technology’.[12] So, Greenaway’s alternative historiography had not prevailed. Gilbert goes on to subsume Stowers’s doubt about the legitimacy of making models into the same question: ‘Consequently it is thought that the effort involved in constructing models of machines, which have never in fact existed outside L da V’s M.S.S., would be better employed in some other development of the collections.’ In other words, if no machines had been made, if they had got no further than drawings in private manuscripts, what justification was there for committing Science Museum resources to their explication through the making of models? We might assume this was not Gilbert’s attitude, but it was a fair summary of the consensus among his colleagues.

At least Donovan Chilton had offered a stratagem to cover one of the dangers of making models. He thought that full-size constructions, such as those in the Italian exhibition, might give visitors the wrong impression that the machines had in fact been made in Leonardo’s time and here were reproductions of them. Any models constructed should be small, ‘so that it is clear that they are only realisations of the notebook sketches’. This would also help with the other issue raised by Stowers, since ‘small scale models would also avoid the difficulty of representing detail which is conjectural’.

Gilbert found himself facing the possibility of, at best, rather a small exhibition, which he thought would be inappropriate to the range of Leonardo’s work and to the whole idea of celebrating the anniversary in the first place. It was clear that the departments were not going to divert sufficient resources to realise an exhibition to match the occasion. His rather surprising answer was to propose a much larger exhibition, hosted at the Science Museum but organised in collaboration with other bodies: his shrinking project would re-emerge as a contribution to something much more ambitious. The first step would be to approach other institutions, with a view to setting up ‘a representative committee to organise the exhibition’.

Stowers passed this suggestion to Sherwood Taylor, with Gilbert’s list of possible collaborators, explaining the muted interest in a quincentenary exhibition from Leonardo’s marginal influence on the physical sciences and adding the telling remark that he did not appear in the index of ‘your book’, The World of Science. The absence of empathy between Sherwood Taylor and his senior curatorial staff is well known and this little remark from Stowers exemplifies his problem. His colleagues seemed oblivious to distinctions that would have been obvious to Sherwood Taylor. The World of Science was a general science textbook and was not concerned with history. The only names in the index came with eponymous phenomena, such as ‘Heaviside-Kennelly layer’ or ‘Newton’s rings’. On the other hand, Sherwood Taylor’s A short history of science, published in 1939, had several references to Leonardo, including a short but positive section specifically devoted to him and a reproduced drawing. 

Sherwood Taylor agreed to the suggestion of writing to possible collaborators and Gilbert and Stowers prepared a draft letter, choosing the British Museum as the first recipient and asking whether there were any plans for an exhibition.[13] The Science Museum could offer a few models, a selection of photographs, and staff assistance with an appropriate section of a general exhibition.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150403/002