Saturday, June 29, 2013

Objects of Travel Assignment 4: The Museum of the History of Science

The Museum of the History of Science is located in west Oxford, conveniently next to the infamous Bodleian Library. Opening in 1638, the ultimate theme of the museum is that of science, housing a variety of significant scientific instruments dating from hundreds of years ago up to the early 1900s. The museum is often referred to as the “Old Ashmolean” and was the first museum in the entire world to be opened to the general public. Elias Ashmole contributed his collection to the museum which was housed there until the collection expanded into what is now the Ashmolean Museum on Beaumont Street.

The layout of the museum itself has an interesting history, considering the basement was first used as a chemical laboratory, and the middle story of the museum was used for lecture rooms and demonstrations.

In 1924 the museum became a primarily science based museum and has been such ever since. Upon climbing up the steps the doors open into a surprisingly (but pleasant) single room divided into two halves. The outer wall of the left side of the room is lined with mathematical and astrological instruments. There are about six centerpieces that serve to present a wide range of the museum’s objects, something to give the visitor a taste for what they are in for. Within a showcase, there are three tiers, each with very distinct objects. Here is an example:

When glancing at the top shelf, you probably wouldn’t realize that it is actually a silver microscope that was made for George III in about 1770. The middle shelf contains some Persian astrolabes, a common astrological object found throughout the museum. The bottom shelf contains a drug jar from the seventeenth century, originating in Italy. The layout of the tiers doesn’t necessarily represent what types of objects are found on each floor, but instead shows the wide range of countries represented in the museum, as well as the types of instruments that contribute to the museum as a whole.

The right side of the floor contains a wall of microscopes and sundials all contributed by Dr. Lewis Evans. This collection was deemed the “foundation collection” of the museum that made it into the science-based museum that it is today. 

Travelling down into the basement seems to suggest the passage of time as the light gets darker, and the stone walls turn into wood. I felt like I was really travelling into a medieval lab where weird, sharp objects made me feel like I was walking into Frankenstein’s lab.

This turned out to be my favorite floor by far, considering there were objects ranging from horrifying medical instruments all the way to the evolution of cameras. There was an entire cabinet that paid homage to Louis Pasteur’s discovery of penicillin, a drug that saved so many lives during the World War and continues to show its significance today.

 Another amazing piece is a blackboard with Einstein’s equations of the expansion of the universe, written during a lecture he gave in Oxford. Winding around the basement, a very different tone presents itself as the visitor walks through a room of ancient clocks and models of the planets until coming upon a passageway that traces the evolution of insects and bugs. The theme of the passage of time at this point is almost awkwardly obvious, but necessary to the basis of the museum. 

The third floor is arranged very different from the bottom two floors, not only spatially but also within the types of objects presented. The cases are not nearly as cramped as the basement and middle floors. The level of scientific achievement is much more elevated, consisting of astrolabes and sundials, suggesting a calculating atmosphere and a higher level of scientific genius. The walls are lined with glass cabinets, chronologically oriented and categorized by country. The countries presented are from the Islamic world, Renaissance Europe, Nuremberg, London, and Paris.

Overall, the theme of the museum is clearly and effectively presented with a wide range of objects that were all significant contributions to the world of science. From the basement to the top floor the visitor experiences the passage of time from hard labor in a laboratory to sophisticated scientific instruments on the top floor. Being a biology major, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing firsthand several objects that were essential to the development of modern science and research. 

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