The Science Museum began its life as the Patent Office Museum, an exhibition of patented machinery and apparatus hosted in the South Kensington Museum, which had opened in 1857. The collections included some of the exciting new machines that had been on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851, but they also included some significant historical items. Through the efforts of the Bennet Woodcroft, the first superintendent, the collection grew to include the world’s earliest engines and locomotives, with the likes of Boulton and Watt beam engines (1780s), Puffing Billy (1814), and Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ (1829). The collections continued to grow to include scientific instruments, and many were eventually moved into buildings across the road.
Figure 1 – Entrance to the Patent Museum, 1863
Credit © Science Museum. Science & Society Picture Library
Figure 2 – Scientific Collections at the South Kensington Museum. 1860.
Source: Getty Images.
Separation from the South Kensington Museum
In 1899 Queen Victoria renamed the South Kensington Museum ‘The Victorian and Albert Museum’. It was not until 1909 that the science collections were officially separated as a new institution under the name the ‘Science Museum’. This separation had come after years of lobbying from the likes of Norman Lockyer, the founder of the science journal Nature, and Robert Morant, a civil servant. They had strongly advocated for a museum that was dedicated to science and industry. A year after its opening Hugh Bell was appointed as Chairman and he oversaw the first extensions to the site, which were hindered for a time by the First World War; the East Block was thus not opened until 1928. A children’s gallery was opened in 1931 complete with working models – an example of some of the earliest museum interactives. During the Second World War the museum was closed, and many of the collections were stored elsewhere. After the War many of the old buildings were demolished and new extensions were built. The 1970s saw the expansion of the institution to sites outside of London. The sites include The National Railway Museum in York, the National Museum of Photography (now the National Media Museum) in Bradford, and a storage facility at Wroughton, near Swindon.
Opening times/ access:
Entry to the Museum is free. Some exhibitions require a ticket.
Open daily: 10.00–18.00 (last entry 17.15)
Closed: 24–26 December
Find out more:
B. Robertson, ‘The South Kensington Museum in context: an alternative history’ Museum and Society, 2, No. 1 (March 2004), pp. 1-14
S. Forgan, ‘The Architecture of Display: Museums, Universities and Objects in nineteenth
Century Britain,’ History of Science, 32 (2004), pp. 139-162.
Shots of the machine shop at the Science Museum (1951): British Pathé –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9XiKoUycAw
The acquisition of John Glenn’s Space Capsule to the Museum (1962): British Pathé –