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A Visit to London’s Science Museum

The main space gallery contains a plethora or rockets, engines and planetary probes.


If it’s the school holidays again and if you’re looking for a way to prize the kids away from their screens, the London museums are always good value.

I recently read a piece by some numpty columnist saying that we all secretly hate museums. Well the opposite is true for me. I absolutely love museums and always have. I refuse to apologise. I grew up with trips to the Science Museum and have the fondest memories of glass cases full of models that came alive when you pressed a button, of towering steam engines and of course … telescopes and rockets!

Sadly for me the Science Museum has changed over the years to become more of an ‘exploratorium’ than a traditional museum. Doubtless that columnist is thrilled, but I’m sad to see the gallery full of ship models and the flight galleries with their dusty old planes disappear.

The museum now seems to be in transition, with a lot of empty floor space and some pretty chaotic displays that remind me of an Enlightenment ‘cabinets of curiosities’ – a step backwards into the nineteenth century.

The Science Museum still has lots of space and astronomy exhibits, but apart from the main space section, they are thinly spread throughout the museum. So I thought I’d collect them together here so you can hunt them down a bit more easily if you find yourself in South Kensington with an hour or two to spare, perhaps while the children are doing the Exploratorium thing.

First, I’ll go through the basic tourist information – skip the next section if you’ve been before.

How to get there

The Science Museum is part of a cluster in South Kensington that include the Victoria and Albert (much less stuffy than it sounds and great for art, sculpture and design), the Natural History with its famous dinosaurs and the less well known Geology Museum.

South Kensington has a tube station and is just a few stops from the West End. Then it’s a short walk up Museum Road. There’s also a tunnel that connects the station with the Natural History and V&A directly – good when it’s raining but maybe not late at night.

Alternatively you could try walking. I regularly do this now and really enjoy it. If you’re coming in from the north, the walk from Kings Cross, St Pancras or Euston takes less than an hour and can be varied to take in Oxford Street, Hyde Park, or even Trafalgar Square and then the Mall and Buckingham Palace. You could easily fit in other museums and galleries en-route and make a day of it: the British Museum, National and Portrait Galleries and Wallace Collection are all vaguely on the way, depending which route you take.

You could doubtless devise interesting routes from other mainline or tube stations. London is a pleasurable place to be out and about in now, so very different from the grim and grimy city of my youth.

Ground Floor

Main Space Galleries

For space and astronomy fans there is the obvious section on space – it’s right behind the steam engines on the ground floor and you can’t miss it. I won’t dwell too much on it here, except to say it has lots of good stuff on rockets and probes with plenty of interesting models and displays from Goddard’s experimental 1920s liquid fuelled rockets through Apollo to Cassini.

‘Making the Modern World’ galleries

In the large hall behind the space galleries are a hotchpotch of interesting exhibits loosely brought together under the title ‘Making the Modern World’. This hall contains lots of astronomy and space displays, hidden among jet cars, steam trains and experimental aircraft. The first astronomy item is on the right at the very start – a case containing Caroline Herschel’s telescope, William Herschel’s mirror grinder and the speculum mirror from his great forty-inch telescope.

Herschel’s original 49” mirror for his forty-foot reflector

Immediately past the Herschel display is a staircase on the right. Take it and you arrive in a long mezzanine gallery that leads towards a gleaming DC4 airliner hanging from the roof. The cases along this gallery have a multitude of astronomy and space arcana, from a model of the Paris telescope (the largest refractor ever made) to an Airfix Saturn V kit identical to the one you had (yes, I wish I’d kept mine too) and one of Nasmyth’s original lunar surface models.

Nasmyth’s 1870 model of the Lunar crater surface around Maurolycus

Model of the Paris Exposition Telescope – the largest refractor ever built

Airfix kit of the Saturn V – like the one I had!

Back on the ground floor of the hall, at the back, towers a V2 rocket, with a panel removed showing the engine. As you doubtless know, the V2 was a Nazi ‘vengeance’ weapon before being liberated by the Americans and Soviets to become the forerunner of all liquid fuelled boosters, Saturn V included.

1945 V2 Rocket

To the right of the V2, along the wall, is perhaps the most haphazard display case you’ll find in any museum. But there among such worthy items as an original Soda Stream are a couple of vintage telescopes. The most interesting is a beautiful 1885 Cooke refractor on a massive alt-azimuth mount that’s partly hidden betwixt a plate camera and a barrel organ! Sadly, the display doesn’t say anything more about this fine telescope, but I’m guessing it’s a four-inch. Nearby is a handsome spyglass.

1885 Cooke Refractor

At the back of the hall is one of the museum’s highlights for space enthusiasts –the Command Module from Apollo 10. Take a moment here. That capsule has been around the Moon, something no object on Earth has done since the early Seventies and which is way beyond current capabilities.

Before we leave the ‘Making the Modern World’ hall, it’s worth taking a moment to seek out the cases set against the opposite wall. Here you’ll find various astronomy exhibits, including a Dollond transit telescope and a model Sputnik.

Apollo 10 Command Module (yes, the real thing!)

First Floor

The Science Museum’s main astronomy display is tucked away above the front of the ‘Making the Modern World’ hall. To be honest, it’s not the most attractive display and again all sorts of objects seem to collide randomly in the cases, but there is some interesting stuff up here.

To start with you are confronted with Nasmyth’s canon-like 24” telescope, with which he made the most detailed maps of the Moon and the 3D model we saw along the mezzanine gallery. The telescope is significant for its design: the first of its kind that uses a third mirror to place the eyepiece conveniently at the altitude pivot. From the look of the holes at the top of the tube, it used to be a Newtonian; presumably Nasmyth got tired of wobbling on a step ladder (if you own a giant Dob’ this will sound familiar).

Nasmyth’s 24” reflector

Behind the Nasmyth reflector is an oblong space with cases on all sides. The left hand case contains all sorts of items, including a Newtonian made essentially from junk and a Zeiss planetarium projector.

The main display has another giant speculum as its centre-piece – this time it’s the mirror from the 72” Ross telescope, then and for many years the largest in the world.

Speculum from the Ross telescope

Nearby is a tall case full of brass telescopes – mostly table-top Georgian or Victorian Cassegrains and refractors by the look of them - that reaches to the roof. For those like me with a closer interest in telescopes it could do with being at eye level.

Perhaps my favourite part of this gallery is the case set directly behind the Nasmyth display. This houses a replica of Galileo’s early refractor and Newton’s first reflector. Alongside is a copy (original, by the looks of it) of Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius (‘Starry Messenger’) in which he set out his early observations of the Moon and planets.

Models of Galileo’s and Newton’s early telescope alongside a copy of ‘Siderius Nuncius

Incidentally, if you choose to walk to the Science Museum from Kings Cross or St Pancras, you’ll pass another freely viewable copy of this book – at the British Library on Euston Road. The same permanent exhibition also has an original letter by Galileo amongst its treasures. Galileo, you’ll discover, had beautiful handwriting.

That’s about it for the astronomy and space exhibits that I know of at the Science Museum, although if you carry on through the astronomy gallery you come to the clock section which contains some splendid mechanical chronographs for those of a horological bent. Meanwhile, the new ‘Communications’ gallery hides the odd satellite model.