What Price Science? (£0, apparently)

In my last rant I got upset about short-sighted imbeciles putting financial barriers in front of access to the institutions that are needed to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Fortunately it is not all bad news and I’d like to plug some great institutions who are doing it right.

Top free science destinations in London:

  • The Wellcome Collection (Free)
    I cannot recommend the Wellcome Collection highly enough. It regularly stages exhibitions on what might not immediately seem like the most promising of medical subjects and every time it weaves them into a historical, social and human context in a way that tells a compelling story. Upstairs there is a reading room where you can lounge around and read their books. Also, Henry Wellcome may have been a bit mad.
  • Science Gallery London (Free)
    So lets say a bunch of scientists opened an art gallery and it was… a bit weird. But weird in a good way. Science Gallery started in Dublin as an alternative to normal science museums and has now expanded internationally.
  • The Royal Institution Faraday Museum (Free)
    In the basement of the Royal Institution there is a small museum dedicated to work of Michael Faraday and also many other discoveries made at the Royal Institution. There are also some exhibits on other floors. Unfortunately, they charge to attend their famous public lectures in the iconic lecture theatre but you can watch them on YouTube for free.
  • The Natural History Museum (Free. Charges for special exhibitions)
    The Natural History Museum tells the story of the Earth and the life on it. The queue for the bag check is annoying, and some people are only there for the ice rink, but once you are get in you are in no doubt that this is the real stuff. From the staircase a statue of Darwin keeps a beady eye on affairs and scares all the creationists and flat-earthers away.
  • Gresham College (Free)
    2019 will mark Thomas Gresham’s 500th birthday. Gresham was a slightly dodgy financier, diplomat and spy for a succession of English monarchs. One thing he noticed on his travels was that England really sucked at the Renaissance and was falling behind the rest of Europe. (Remind you of anything?) It bothered him that all the nation’s business was done in London while all the clever people were in Oxford or Cambridge. On his death, he left money to start a college in London. Instead of enrolling students, anybody could attend lectures and there were no fees at all. England never did get to play in the Renaissance Premier League but his college did help to get the Royal Society started and it is still going after 421 years. You can still attend their lectures for free (although space is limited) and they are all on YouTube as well.
  • Grant Museum of Zoology (Free)
    The Natural History Museum is great but does it have a jar of moles? Or a walrus penis bone? Or have skeletons arranged round the upper balcony looking down on the visitors? Unlike a major national institution, the Grant Museum of Zoology has the luxury to remain true to its original 19th century oddness. It is too small for a whole day out but there are several other UCL sites of interest nearby and the Wellcome Collection and the British Museum are not far away either.
  • Horniman Museum (Free. Charges for aquarium and special exhibitions)
    OK. This isn’t entirely scientific but they do have a large natural history collection including a ludicrously overinflated stuffed walrus which has become a South London celebrity. (Note: Probably not the same walrus as mentioned above.) Also, Frederick Horniman may have been a bit mad.

Did I mention that all of these things are free? Sure, you should give them a donation if you can afford it, but the important thing is that they are available to everybody, including those who can’t.

What about the Science Museum?

I don’t like the Science Museum. It never got its mojo back after Thatcher forced it to introduce entrance fees and turn itself into an entertainment attraction in the 1980s. It is nominally free again but, if anything, it continues to get worse and worse.

The main doors are forever closed and you have to go in the tradesman’s entrance at the side. You queue for the bag check like they used to make you queue for tickets and they make damn sure to try to sell you iMax tickets while they have you there. They also try to shake you down for donations on the way in, which possibly shows that they know that you will be in a far less generous mood on the way out. The Science Museum is technically free but it takes a strong nerve to get in without actually paying anything. It feels unwelcoming, unfriendly and mercenary to the point of making you want to just turn around and walk away.

Once you get in, the museum itself seems increasingly unloved and incoherent. More and more space is devoted to cafés and gift shops. There are far too many screens. Screens do not engage people in museums. We have all the screens we want at home. People want to see actual stuff. The best things are the sections that they have not buggered up since the 1970s. There is less and less of that. It feels less like a museum with an iMax than an iMax and café complex with a few bits of museum half-heartedly tacked on. There are still a few good bits but the Science Museum was always my favourite destination as a child and I find it so genuinely distressing to see it reduced to this state that I can’t even enjoy those. The Natural History Museum works because it tells a coherent set of stories about the Earth and about life. The Science Museum tells no stories. It is less than the sum of its parts. If you go to the Science Museum thinking that science is just a bunch of odd stuff that makes no sense then you will certainly leave with that view even more entrenched than before.

So, don’t waste your time there. I’d like to think that one day they will get their scientific mojo back but, until then, other, better, options are available.

December 23, 2018. Links, London, Sensible.

2 Comments

  1. What Price Science? (£15, apparently) | Daniel Rigal replied:

    […] (If this article was depressing then, well, yes. It is and it should be. But I do have a few rays of hope and those will be in the next article.) […]

  2. Rik Howard replied:

    Thanks for articulating my unformed reaction to the Science Museum. Will check out some of the other places you mention

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