London emerged as a centre of science in the 17th century. The Science Museum's new permanent gallery tells that story.
I had one shiver-down-the-spine moment in the new Science City gallery. There, about half way through, sits a reflecting telescope from the 17th century. It's just the kind of object you'd expect to find in a history-of-science exhibition, but with one difference: this was made by Isaac Newton himself. Proper impressive.
Science City 1550-1800 has its fair share of A-list artefacts, from George III's personal scientific instruments (some of which are shown at the top), to a microscope of Robert Hooke and other relics of the all-important Royal Society. But this exhibition is at its happiest discussing the work of 'lesser' people. Case after case celebrates the work of the London craftsmen who toiled with brass and glass to create the tools that would drive the Enlightenment. This is an exhibition as much about making as doing.
London itself also figures prominently. Items include some Great-Fire-charred stones from Old St Paul's Cathedral, a display on the Monument to that fire, a model of a pile-driver used for the construction of Westminster Bridge, and a lightning conductor also from St Paul's. You can also explore the city in different ages, using a giant touchscreen of period maps.
Map-play aside, this is quite a traditional display. Interactive exhibits are few, cases of objects are many. Somewhere in-between is the trio of audio-described objects (a speculum mirror, a sundial and a pair of gears).
Using hearing and touch to examine an artefact, rather than reading a label or digital display, is a delightful and memorable way to learn about an object. More please.
Overall, this is an enjoyable and well-presented gallery for those already interested in the history of science, but will probably do little to spark a flame in the newcomer to the subject.
It also feels like a missed opportunity. The '1550-1800' dates allow a focussed exhibition, which draws well on existing collections. But cutting things off at the turn of the 19th century is like mounting an exhibition to Doctor Who and stopping at Jon Pertwee. Perhaps one day the museum can rip out the under-used cafe and continue the story, with the likes of Fleming, Faraday, Davy, Wilkins, Franklin, Maxwell, Kelvin and Darwin.
Science City 1550-1800 is on the second floor of the Science Museum and is free to visit.