Imagine being able to visit the birthplace of the modern public museum. Well you don’t really have to imagine it, because you can make that very pilgrimage with a trip to the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. This is the oldest surviving purpose built public museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1683 displaying the collection of Elias Ashmole.
This building was created not just a museum, but a place in which knowledge would be pursued. In its early years there was a laboratory in the basement and the lectures of the School of Natural History on the middle floor. It wasn’t until 1924 that Lewis Evans donated his collection of scientific equipment to Oxford University that the museum began to transform into the Museum of the History of Science that it is today.
Today’s museum boasts an unrivalled collection of early scientific equipment and as soon as you step through the door cases full of intricately detailed brass instruments shine from glass cases. And they are still adding to the collection; one of the new acquisitions is an excellent ‘Portable Museum of Natural Substances’ dating from the 19th century; basically a box full off as many different vials and samples of naturally occurring items as possible, its original labelling boasting ‘mineral, vegetable and animal’.
Want to feel like a Muggle stepping into a world of magical devices – this is the place for you. There are so many intricate technical pieces of equipment crammed in such a small space, so much variation with such beautiful detail, that the more you look the more you see. You can also use the free wifi to get a museum tour straight to your own phone to learn more about the collection.
To get to the other floors you go up or down a large dark wooden staircase lit by the sunlight spilling in through beautifully ornate stained glass windows. Like many parts of the Oxford University campus this is a beautiful and old building. Parts of the staircase are decorated with what at first glance look like some kind of medieval torture devices, but interpretation labels inform they are actually the old mechanisms for church clocks. There is a beautiful giant pastel drawing of the moon by John Russel, a portrait artist of George III, a lead pastellist in London during the 18th century, but also a dedicated astrologer. He recorded telescopic measurements and observations of the moon allowing him to create both accurate and hypnotically stunning drawings.
The cellar laboratory feels slightly like you’ve stepped into a prop room for a Harry Potter potions class, with old fashioned cases, display old equipment and devices; it’s a harmonious union or antiques. Wall cabinet displays, that are a rich salmon pink, cage multiple examples of different types of equipment, not behind glass, but behind a mesh. I don’t envy the person who has to do the dusting, but the effect of these caged cases is aesthetically appealing.
I did not know that there was a piece of chalkboard in the world that still held an equation written by Einstein, I do now. Could I explain the formula on that board or how many of the wonderful pieces of equipment on display actually work, probably not. This museum groups like objects together, explains them as a whole and then goes into the detail of individual items. Even without the knowledge of how some of these pieces of scientific equipment work, I can truly appreciate the detail, design, dedication and genius of the humans that created these items hundreds of years ago.
It’s quite refreshing that the museum has a strong enough historic collection to just display this, rather than feeling the need to show what these items have progressed into. Especially since we are nearly all carrying a smart phone that probably combines each of these complex, antique devices into one, handheld, modern one. We all know what we have now, but getting the opportunity to see how we got to this point in material culture forms is most unusual and extremely interesting, especially since we live in a highly advance and technological world. Only a few weeks ago Google celebrated its 18th birthday, which really made me stop and think ‘there are 18 year-old out there that cannot possibly remember a time without googling’, almost instant access to information. Museums like this may not show us where we are going, but they show us where we come from and to quote from Terry Pratchett,
“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong”. (I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett)