Surprising fact: only eight percent of the Science Museum’s holdings are on show at the South Kensington museum. The vast majority of its treasures remain in storage at two sites in Olympia and Wroughton. We recently took a tour around Blythe House, where the museum’s smaller objects are held safe.
This sprawling building was built at the turn of the 20th Century as the headquarters for the Post Office Savings Bank. Following several changes of use and a period of dilapidation, it was acquired for museum storage in the 1970s. As well as looking after the Science Museum’s booty, it also houses artefacts from the V&A and British Museum.
Walking around the vast storage rooms is like exploring a museum in its most naked form. The objects are arranged in orders that make sense to curators, not punters, with little in the way of explanatory labelling or wider context. Objects scream out for attention. Here hangs a model of Concorde; there lies an ancient parking metre; and over in the corner sits an early television set. Four cavernous rooms of technological marvels stack into a geek Valhalla.
The basement space is equally beguiling. Here are stored medical items on permanent loan from the Wellcome Trust. If Willy Wonka had given up on chocolate factories and instead taken an aesclepion turn, his lair would surely have resembled this labyrinth of surreal rooms. One chamber contains hundreds of artificial limbs. Another sports antique dental equipment. A third offers a shelf full of votive penises from Roman times. As a final peculiar embellishment, some of the rooms nestle behind great iron doors — leftover fittings from the building’s days as a savings bank.
There is no Great Glass Elevator, to continue the Wonka allusion, but we were shown a service lift that starred in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This one. As well as containing millions of wonders, Blythe House itself is a real beaut, and has featured in many films and TV shows, including Minder and Sherlock. It was designed by Sir Henry Tanner, the chap behind the Serpentine Gallery, and pioneered open-plan office space. Around 6,000 people once worked in its 100-metre-long halls. Today’s staff, from all three museums, total around 40.
The Science Museum does not offer public tours of Blythe House, but those with legitimate research needs can gain access upon application.
With thanks to the staff of the Science Museum and store for being so accommodating.