Science Museum

Pages 248-256

Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.

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CHAPTER XIX - Science Museum

The building of the Science Museum was begun in 1914 under the auspices of the Board of Education, on a plan that in 1974 was not yet completed. Previous to 1909 the science collections had been part of the South Kensington Museum, and until the constitution of the Board of Education in 1900 had been under the authority of the Science and Art Department. Before the collections were removed into the new building, from the 1920's onwards, they had never had a home specifically designed for them, and between the 1860's and 1880's had been accumulated piecemeal in various improvised galleries west of Exhibition Road. Some elements in the collections had been removed thither from their original locations on the main site of the South Kensington Museum east of Exhibition Road (for which see plan-sheet A in the end pocket), whence they were gradually expelled to make room for the expansion of the art division of the museum, whose growth and popularity contrasted strongly with the fortunes of the nonart collections.

Both parts of the South Kensington Museum, however, had a common origin, in the early Victorian aspiration to bring applied art and science to bear on productive industry. The Science and Art Department and the 1851 Exhibition Commissioners were alike in wishing to see established in London collections illustrative both of applied art and applied science, and linked to teaching institutions. Some collections then being formed contained the germs of a 'science' museum. The Society of Arts was partly responsible, often utilizing objects made available from the Great Exhibition, and a 'trade' collection, a 'food' collection, an 'animal products' collection and a (partly scientific) 'educational' collection were thus established. By 1858 they had been made over to the Department at South Kensington, which in 1856 had itself commenced a 'museum of construction', illustrating building materials and techniques. At the same period the Commissioners of Patented Inventions, constituted in 1852, were acquiring a semi-official collection of models and machinery (largely the property of their Superintendent of Specifications, Bennet Woodcroft) in Southampton Buildings. By 1857 this also, while remaining under the Patent Commissioners' administration, had been transferred to South Kensington. It was there augmented by the 1851 Commissioners' own collection derived from the Great Exhibition, which was described by Disraeli in 1852 as 'the foundation of an extraordinary museum of industry', and valued at £9,000. (fn. 6)

The assemblage of these miscellaneous collections in one place had been effected largely by the influence of Prince Albert to form constituent parts of a coherent whole that his supporters thought of as an 'industrial university'. The 'museum' part of this complex was to illustrate the progression from raw materials through the operations of applied science and art to the finished product. (fn. 7) Plans drawn up by the Prince, by Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave, and others, show that in 1853–4 spacious museum buildings for art and science alike had been envisaged on the main 'quadrangle' of the estate, supplemented, in the Cole-Redgrave plan, by a 'museum of patented inventions' and a 'testing ground for experiments' where the Victoria and Albert Museum stands (see pages 81–5). (fn. 8) There was evidently some demand from the manufacturing towns for such an establishment, (fn. 9) and there was also a lively awareness on the part of the Prince's sympathizers of foreign institutions with a comparable aim. (fn. 10) So far as a 'science museum' was concerned, the example of the museum of the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers was much in mind. A distinguished body of British Jurors at the Paris Exhibition of 1855 called for a similar museum in London, noting the latter's inferiority to Paris in 'public museums of the objects of nature'. (fn. 9)

In fact, the difficulties attending the attraction of other institutions (particularly the National Gallery and the 'learned societies') to the main quadrangle caused the erection of a 'temporary' iron museum on the eastern extension, and it was this shed that the collections mentioned above shared as their home with the 'museum of ornamental art' and some other collections when the South Kensington Museum was opened in 1857.

The non-art collections taken together were a far more imperfect approximation to a true science museum than were the art collections to a modern museum of fine and applied art. Some limitations were the accident of history and have continued to condition the proportions of the present Science Museum: the biological, botanical and geological sciences were illustrated in collections elsewhere (at the British Museum, Kew and the home of the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street) and, whether by the strength of their own traditions, the current esteem for their subject matter or the obstinacy of their officers, resisted any absorption into a general museum of science run by the Department. But even in respect of the physical, chemical and mechanical sciences there was only a limited conception of a museum setting forth visibly the results of man's investigation of the material universe. The practical and industrial emphasis meant that the raw materials and machinery of manufacture and the means of transportation were the chief objects of interest, with a subsidiary interest in fairly simple educational appliances. The history of invention was, however, represented in some well-known monuments of the industrial age, such as Arkwright's spinning jenny, the locomotive 'Puffing Billy', and 'the locomotive that killed Mr. Huskisson'. ('It is the patriarch of passenger locomotives', the museum's director, Henry Cole, told a Select Committee on the Patent Office in 1864, 'the first of its kind, and a first of its kind is difficult to get at anywhere'.) (fn. 11)

In the following period up to the early 1870's the art collections flourished at the expense of the non-art collections. By 1865 the 'animal products' collection was moved to the former refreshment rooms of the 1862 Exhibition (later the Southern Gallery), that is, west of Exhibition Road, where the museum of construction was housed in the western arcades of the Royal Horticultural Society's garden by the following year: the former collection, together with the 'food' collection, was removed to the Bethnal Green Museum in 1872.' The 'education' collection remained east of Exhibition Road but was moved from one temporary home to another. The Department did not neglect to add to these collections from time to time, and would have found a place for them in the abortive schemes for comprehensive rebuilding that it produced between 1860 and 1874. But it was on a museum of machinery or inventions that ambitions for a true science museum chiefly centred, perhaps taking as its nucleus the 'patent museum'—a collection not limited to models illustrating patent specifications. The Patent Commissioners themselves, viewing their collection as 'the foundation of a great national museum', had called on the Government in 1858 to establish at South Kensington 'a permanent and spacious building for the Patent Office Museum' with room for expansion. (fn. 13) Cole was an enthusiast for a very large, comprehensive, international 'museum of scientific inventions', not less extensive than that of the Conservatoire, which he and Fowke reported on as a model in 1865 (and which already possessed a site of more than five acres). (fn. 14) Given the expansion of the art collections, a site west of Exhibition Road seemed indicated. An enlarged 'Patent Museum' was one of the suggested occupants of the disused 1862 Exhibition building in 1863, (fn. 15) and when that building was demolished a 'Patent Museum' was one of the two definite uses of the site which the Government specified in the architectural competition for a museum complex there early in 1864. (fn. 16) This was supplied in the design of the successful candidate, Francis Fowke (fig. 31 on page 204). That summer a Select Committee of the House of Commons (after calling before it a number of very eminent engineers but few scientists) reported on the future of the Patent Office, Library and Museum. Noting the wide variety of opinions on the purpose of 'a Museum connected with the mechanical arts' (that it should be historical, generally educational, directly instructional for students and inventors, and so on) its conclusion was that, with the patent-specification objects removed elsewhere, its purpose should be 'to illustrate and explain the commencement, progress, and present positions of the most important branches of mechanical invention; to show the chief steps by which the most remarkable machines have reached their present degree of excellence; to convey interesting and useful information, and to stimulate invention'. (fn. 17) This generous aim came to nothing. Fowke died, there was a change of Government, and by 1867 It was only the other use of the site—for a natural history museum—that the Government was prepared to finance. (fn. 18) In 1869 there was a possibility that that museum might go elsewhere and Cole wanted the site used for a 'Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers'. (fn. 19) But in 1870 the whole area in question (some twelve acres) was finally dedicated to natural history.

Meanwhile the reality of the 'Patent Museum' was that it remained in the iron museum but, because of a disagreement between Cole and Woodcroft about the terms of admission, separately entered through an annexe. There it stayed until c. 1886.

From the 1870's onwards another, powerfully sponsored, movement towards a respectable science collection developed: it was no more successful in animating the Government than previous efforts, but somewhat changed the emphasis and expanded the scope of the proposed museum. It sprang from the increasing concern of eminent (but not, perhaps, very numerous) persons at the country's deficiencies in technical and scientific instruction. Its proponents related a 'science museum' closely to the requirements of scientific education, but at a higher level than in the 1850's. In seeking to meet the needs of teachers for access to exemplary and reference collections of apparatus it broadened the scope of such a museum from materials and industrial machinery to the instruments of scientific demonstration, experiment and research.

In 1870 a Royal Commission under the Duke of Devonshire was set up by Gladstone's Government to enquire into the state of 'scientific instruction and the advancement of science': members included Sir John Lubbock, Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, Bernhard Samuelson and T. H. Huxley. Its Fourth Report, dealing with the nation's scientific collections, was published in January 1874. By then, manifestations of 'science' at South Kensington were becoming a little more palpable and coherent: the great natural history museum was beginning to rise fronting Cromwell Road; scientific invention had found a place in a recent sequence of exhibitions in the 1851 Commissioners' new galleries, and in Exhibition Road an imposing block of laboratories and classrooms was newly occupied by the central Science Schools of the Department, where Huxley was professor of biology. In their report the Royal Commissioners found that the Department's scientific collections now included, in addition to those already mentioned, naval models, economic entomology and forestry, and fish culture. (fn. 20) (fn. 1) Regretting that 'there is at present no National Collection of the Instruments used in the Investigation of Mechanical, Chemical or Physical Laws' they recommended that 'the National Collections should be extended in this direction': they stressed such a collection's utility for science teachers who wished to inspect apparatus and also (with emphasis) its value in improving the skill of scientific-instrument makers. They regarded a 'Museum of Mechanical Inventions' as less relevant to their own enquiry but 'called attention' to the 1864 recommendation and suggested that the new collection that they wished to see created, the Department's collections ('subjected to a critical revision') and the 'Patent Museum' might be united under a minister of state. (fn. 22) In the next month (February 1874) the Conservatives returned to office under Disraeli. No action was taken on the recommendation.

The secretary of the Department was now a close friend of Huxley's, Colonel J. F. D. Donnelly, R.E., who in the next quarter of a century strongly developed its work for scientific and technical education. To stimulate governmental action, the Department sponsored an important loan exhibition of scientific instruments in the Commissioners' Western and Southern Galleries in the summer of 1876, associated with public lectures. In July an impressive memorial by a numerous and distinguished body of scientists, urging the establishment of 'a museum of pure and applied science' in terms similar to those used by the Royal Commission, was submitted to the Department's political head, the Duke of Richmond. (fn. 23) Simultaneously the 1851 Commissioners made a significant move. The chairman of their Board of Management, Lord Spencer, was a believer in the cause of the science museum, and the Commissioners now offered to sell to the Government a large site for such a museum (to include also a library and laboratories). They themselves would contribute £100,000 to the cost of building it. The site, at first along the west side of Exhibition Road, was soon changed to one running between that road and Queen's Gate, about on the future line of the Imperial Institute. (fn. 24) The scientists' memorial and the Commissioners' offer were both recommended to the Treasury by the Department, (fn. 25) and an attempt, partially successful, to preserve the loan collection was made by the Duke of Devonshire and others: (fn. 26) contributors to the fund included Cole, Donnelly, Huxley and Norman Lockyer, all of them connected with the Department. Friends of the Department urged that the desired museum should be created under its auspices. (fn. 27) In 1878 the 1851 Commissioners renewed their offer, together with a suggestion to make over to the Government the Eastern and Western Galleries and arcades and their interest in the Albert Hall. With the Horticultural Society's garden at its centre, 'the finest quadrangle in the metropolis' would be at the service of technical education. (fn. 28) Disraeli's Government, however, was becoming involved in war in southern Africa and Afghanistan and by the beginning of 1879 had evidently decided against this domestic commitment. (fn. 29) In March 1879 the Treasury told the Commissioners that their offer was unacceptable, and the Department that the development of the science branch of the South Kensington Museum must be left to its 'normal growth'. (fn. 30)

In the following year Gladstone returned to office but for the science collections it was unfortunate that his First Commissioner of Works in 1880–4 and 1892–4, G. J. Shaw-Lefevre, was unsympathetic to the Department, as was the Permanent Secretary 1874–86, A. B. Mitford, and did nothing to lessen the doubts about South Kensington's methods and personnel felt in the Treasury. The Department's political head, the President of the Council, was, however, now Lord Spencer, and he and the Vice-President, A. J. Mundella, fought for the science collections; the museum of the Conservatoire was still a reproach; and Lord Spencer was clear that resources had been spent disproportionately on the art collections. (fn. 31)

In 1881 the Science Schools in Exhibition Road were reconstituted in a nearer approximation to a general college of science, under Huxley as Dean, and its council of professors was given an advisory oversight of the collections. (fn. 32) These were now increasingly viewed as auxiliary to advanced science teaching. All the collections, apart from the 'patent museum' and the 'education library', were now west of Exhibition Road, and the patent museum followed after it was made over to the Department by an Act of Parliament of 1883 (Plate 57a, c, d). (fn. 33) The Department felt obliged to turn a deaf ear to Treasury protests at its continued occupation of the Commissioners' Western Gallery until a regular lease was concluded in that year, (fn. 34) and Lord Spencer and Mundella vehemently rejected as 'a fatal mistake' the Treasury's suggestion that the collections should be reduced and the objects retained from the 1876 loan exhibition dispersed: 'the mischief will not be remediable . . . if, while a Royal Commission [under Bernhard Samuelson] . . . is travelling over Europe to report on the question of technical instruction, [the Government] break up the nucleus of, instead of forming, a collection . . . at the very foundation of scientific education and progress'. (fn. 35) The Department's science professors had reported that little 'weeding' of the collections was possible. A small interdepartmental committee under Sir Frederick Bramwell was set up, representing the Department, the Treasury and the Office of Works, to report on the scope of the collections and make recommendations for rehousing them north of the Natural History Museum. (fn. 36) Donnelly, for the Department, found the Treasury and Works representatives very trying, and told Huxley that their 'simple ignorant cussedness . . . cannot be imagined—much less described'. He suspected that 'the enemy are going to kill us with kindness' by assessing the building requirements at an alarming level. (fn. 37) The report, in 1885, stated that the primary purpose of the collections was 'to provide apparatus and specimens for the instruction given in the Normal School of Science, and for the teaching of science generally throughout the United Kingdom'. Noting that the only access to the collections from Exhibition Road was along 'an unsightly wooden passage' the committee found that 'new buildings are absolutely required' and had had the Office of Works' surveyor prepare plans for a long building with three-storeyed blocks presenting 'ornamental elevations' to Exhibition Road and Queen's Gate: executed piecemeal it would finally have covered four and a half acres. Mitford (later Lord Redesdale, and neither simple nor ignorant) submitted a dissenting report. The favourable judgment of the professors on the collections was of little weight ('prophets who have been invited to bless are seldom so uncivil as to curse'); the collections, chiefly the diversion of the idle, were of small practical utility ('it is not by wandering through endless galleries . . . that a man will learn the builder's trade') and should, except the patent museum, be rehoused with the art collections east of Exhibition Road: in fact, 'the gradual encroachments of the Science and Art Department have been a misfortune'. (fn. 38) Huxley and his colleagues published a rejoinder, (fn. 39) but early in 1887 the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, observing that the committee was 'not unanimous', declined to provide the £220,000 or so estimated necessary for the work. (fn. 40) In the next few years the old 'educational' and 'construction' collections and some loan objects were dispersed. (fn. 41)

Huxley's sombre prophecies of industrial warfare with Britain's rivals were, however, being heeded, and under this influence The Times published in July 1887 a strong article on the value for the nation's educational rearmament of its mechanical, physical and chemical collections (rather than its older biological or botanical collections). Mitford's doubts were dismissed: it was imperative that a science museum removed from the present 'filthy, repulsive, unwholesome sheds' should be reorganized to inform the scientific instructor, for instance, of 'the best experiments or observations on which to base his teaching'. (fn. 42) The 1851 Commissioners, largely under the guidance of their Honorary Secretary, the scientist-statesman Sir Lyon Playfair, also renewed their efforts. They could no longer themselves build the museum but in July 1888 offered to the Government a four-and-a-half-acre site on the south side of the new Imperial Institute Road for £70,000, or little more than a third of its estimated value, (fn. 43) plus the freehold of the central part of the Southern Gallery (the old 1862 refreshment rooms). Early in 1889 the Treasury, accepting the 1885 definition of the collections' purpose, asked a small and distinguished committee of scientists to report if their bulk could be reduced. Again the committee found little scope for reduction. The collections were in two broad divisions. That of instruments and appliances (largely built up subsequent to the 1874 report and partly derived from the 1876 exhibition) was, as Huxley testified in evidence, very extensively used for teaching: so also, though less extensively, was the other older collection of machinery (incorporating the patent museum). The committee thought the collections' value should not, however, be assessed solely by their utility for teaching. (fn. 44) The Treasury thought the site bigger than necessary, and would have abandoned the Queen's Gate frontage to private houses. But early in 1890 Lord Salisbury's Government agreed to buy the land, which it did in March. (fn. 45) From 1893 the 'Science Museum' had its own Director, independently of the 'Art Museum'. (fn. 46)

In 1891, however, the Government's attention had become concentrated on the enlargement of the main South Kensington Museum buildings, and secondarily on new laboratories and classrooms for the Royal College of Science. One scheme would have housed the science collections on the principal part of the newly acquired site with the college departments at the east end, (fn. 47) but teaching requirements soon predominated. A Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1898 recommended that the collections should be primarily 'educational' with no undue preponderance of 'historical' over 'effective' exhibits. (fn. 48) Advocacy of the claims of the museum tended, in fact, to merge into advocacy of laboratoryteaching, (fn. 49) and when for a time economical considerations threatened to crowd the new college buildings on to the site east of Exhibition Road it was suggested by the Treasury that the 'scholastic' parts of the science collections should be separated from the rest and be placed there also. (fn. 50) This was resisted, but the building from 1900 onward of the new physical and chemical departments of the Royal College of Science reduced the share of the four and a half acres available for the science museum, particularly as in 1899 the Government told the British Museum that the extensive grounds of the Natural History Museum to the south would not be encroached upon. (fn. 51) To make matters worse, in 1905 the south corner site in Imperial Institute and Exhibition Roads was rather casually appropriated for a Post Office and meteorological office (fn. 2) (plan c between pages 54–5). (fn. 52) Southward of it, there was a plan to devote the Exhibition Road frontage to a new much-needed building for the Royal College of Art. (fn. 53) It was necessary for advocates of a science museum once more to mount a campaign in its support. (They would have noted in 1906 that the German Emperor had laid the foundation stone of Von Seidl's impressive Deutsches Museum of science in Munich.)

Sir Norman Lockyer, the professor of astronomical physics in the Royal College, was an active propagandist in 1907 in his periodical Nature, and, as an 1851 Commissioner, goaded that body to further effort. (fn. 54) Its Board of Management was then inclined to torpor, and rebuffed him, (fn. 55) but another Commissioner, a 'patient and tactful' worker in the same cause, was the chemist and Liberal Member of Parliament, Sir Henry Roscoe. (fn. 56) In 1909 he led a powerful deputation of scientists to Asquith's well-disposed Education minister, Sir Walter Runciman, now controlling the collections in succession to the Science and Art Department. It stressed the contrast with the science museums of Paris and Munich. (fn. 57) The outlay needed was assessed at £306,000. It was now thought the Commissioners would give £200,000 towards it. (fn. 58) Cross-currents of motive were, however, at that time (1909–10) causing a crisis in the Commissioners' affairs, and the effect was to reduce their offer, made in the summer of 1910, to the £100,000 of 1876. (fn. 59) This, however, sufficed, although in the end the Commissioners contributed only about £35,000 (see page 72). The Board of Education, which wielded greater weight in the determination of governmental policy than the old Department, had already appointed a committee under the industrialist, Sir Hugh Bell, to advise it on buildings for the Science Museum (and for the Geological Museum). (fn. 60) It was a momentous step, for there was now an effective will to act on positive recommendations.

A demonstration of this was a request by the Office of Works to the British Museum in June 1910 to move the 'spirit building' of the Natural History Museum so that the Science Museum might be built without undue fire-risk up to the boundary line indicated by the Government in 1899 (Plate 74b; plans c, d between pages 54–5). (fn. 61) In August the Treasury accepted the Commissioners' offer. (fn. 62) For nearly a year, however, the problem of the spirit building prevented progress and a controversy between zoologists and other scientists raged in the public press. King George V took a sympathizing interest in the difficulties and the luminous intellects of a Liberal cabinet committee weighed the claims of the Natural History and Science Museums. (fn. 3) (fn. 63) The problem disappeared in June 1911 with the discovery that the Science Museum could be safely placed near the spirit building if its south wall was windowless. (fn. 64)

In July 1910 the Bell Committee had issued a preliminary report, recommending the Exhibition Road-Queen's Gate site. (fn. 65) In March 1911 it issued a fuller report, and a second part in April 1912. It followed earlier committees in stressing the museum's practical usefulness for scientific and technical training, and the merit of displaying 'appliances which hold honoured place in the progress of Science or in the history of invention'. But it emphasized also the museum's broader role in giving the common visitor 'an opportunity of obtaining at least general ideas on the subjects which the Collections illustrate'. The inclusion of new branches of science as they developed was important—for example, electrical engineering and oceanography. The general architectural form was outlined, in which the committee was aided by Sir Henry Tanner of the Office of Works and the past and present Presidents of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Ernest George and Leonard Stokes. Simplicity was recommended, and direct access to the different parts. Side-lit galleries, some 35 feet wide by 20 feet high, were preferred, with windows as broad as possible and rising to the ceilings. Two or three large top-lit halls with 'factory-light' glazing might be included, to house with adequate dignity the larger monuments in the history of invention, and to serve the visitor as points of orientation. The least possible division of the floor-space was recommended, and no particular provision was considered necessary for the display-requirements of the various sections of the museum, which were thought not to differ much. (fn. 66) In the later report (probably in conformity with some preliminary plans for the eastern part of the site by the Office of Works) the committee recommended a four-storeyed arrangement, and the introduction of a central hall surrounded by open galleries. (fn. 67)

The committee thought it best to limit building to the eastern third initially, to enable practical experience so gained to be utilized in designing the rest. (fn. 67)

In July 1912 the President of the Board of Education, doubtless mindful of the important architectural competition that had been held for the Victoria and Albert Museum's completion, as well as the current competition for the Board of Trade's new offices, asked the First Commissioner of Works to enlist 'the very best architectural brains' by a similar competition. Lord Beauchamp, although anticipating 'the hostility of the Profession', was adamant that his department should retain the designing of its first major educational building at South Kensington. (fn. 4) (fn. 68)

One of Tanner's assistants, (Sir) Richard Allison, was chosen architect. (fn. 69) In the summer of 1912 he visited the science museums in Edinburgh, Brussels, Paris and Munich. Following the example of the last he chose reinforced concrete on the Coignet system, and in October produced sketch-designs. The cost of the eastern block was expected to be upwards of £ 150,000 at 6½d. a cubic foot—or a considerably cheaper rate than some of the mid-Victorian buildings of the South Kensington Museum. (fn. 70) The museum in its entirety might cost £400,000. (fn. 71) After revision (that made the ornamentation more 'severe') and exhibition in the House of Commons, the design was approved in March 1913. (fn. 72) It was more heavily rusticated and modelled than the executed version and more lavish in Portland stone, with granite proposed for the entrances. (fn. 73) Work was delayed by a strike but began in the summer of 1914. (fn. 74)

The contractors, Messrs. Leslie of Kensington, completed the carcase, despite the shortage of steelworkers, during the war years, and by 1918 it had been given a temporary front to permit its occupation as governmental offices. (W. R. Lethaby was interested by this façade 'with the "style" left out', which repelled Sir Reginald Blomfield.) (fn. 75) It remained until 1925, as opinion within the Board of Education in 1921 (when the anticipated cost of completion of this eastern block had risen to £397,000 (fn. 76) ) was that 'economical, utilitarian and educational' considerations gave greater priority to the immediate makeshift fitting-up of the central section of the eastern block for museum use. (fn. 77) This eastern block was now itself being visualized in three parts and its architectural completion, especially in respect of the easternmost section and façade, was deferred, partly in the hope that building prices would fall. (fn. 78) Some collections were brought in from the Western Gallery (north of Imperial Institute Road) in 1923. (fn. 79) In 1924 the Labour Government's President of the Board of Education, (Sir) Charles Trevelyan, determined to put the work on the eastern section and Exhibition Road front in hand. (fn. 80) By that time the architectural design had been simplified and cheapened and the anticipated cost of completion reduced to some £294,000. (fn. 81) But in the following year it became known to the Office of Works (and to building firms) that the work on the central section had involved the contractors, Messrs. J. E. Johnson, in 'very large losses'. Far from falling, building prices were thought to have risen by a quarter since 1921–2, and although tenders for the eastern section were so high that the Treasury intervened the Office of Works was allowed to accept the lowest (from Messrs. Galbraith) in the belief that a continuance of rising prices and impending labour unrest would make postponement uneconomic. The estimated total cost was now £313,300. (fn. 82)

One factor in the high level of tenders was said to be the great demand for Portland stone in London at that time and a shortage of masons to work it. Further changes therefore reduced its employment on the front. The depth of bed was lessened, and metalwork replaced stone between the columns, thereby increasing the apparent 'influence of commercial on public architecture' that has been detected in the façade. (fn. 83) The rustication was reduced and lightened. (fn. 5) Inside, the columns in the hall were faced with plaster instead of marble. (fn. 84) The makeshift front had been removed, exposing the interior, when Trevelyan's Conservative successor, Lord Eustace Percy, informed a cabinet committee in November 1925 that the museum had 'little value from the Board's point of view' and that he wished the work suspended or other use found for the building. (fn. 85) A hasty review was made of possible lodgers—the National Savings Committee, the 'Government Chemist', the Imperial War Museum, the Geological Museum, or the 'overflow' of whales and insects from the Natural History Museum—but they were not installed and work proceeded. (fn. 86) The westernmost section was, however, left in its 'temporary' state, and so remained until c. 1949. (fn. 87) The eastern block, of less than one and a half acres, was thus brought to (partial) completion, for opening by King George V in March 1928. (Three years before, in Munich, Hindenburg had opened the Deutsches Museum, covering some three and a half acres.) The cost had been some £262,000. (fn. 88)

The building was well received by the press (Plate 75a, b; fig. 43). Commentators noted the incorporation of an elaborate system of underfloor ducts supplying power to all parts of the building, including compressed air to operate models. The pleasant lucidity and simplicity of the interior was contrasted favourably with the older museum buildings nearby. No remark seems to have been made on the application of a stone façade expressing masonry construction to a reinforced-concrete frame. The elevation (where the ornamental stone-carving was admired) won praise for its 'dignity'—an attribute much more consciously sought after in this and the Geological Museum than it had been in the old South Kensington Museum. As The Architects' Journal said, 'it is modern, but soberly British; post-war, but not fantastic, or "cranky" like certain science institutes on the Continent'. (fn. 89)

The practical effectiveness of the central section was admired by the staff of the Geological Museum, where the same scheme was to be followed. (fn. 90) The architect credited with that building, J. H. Markham, occurs in the Office of Works' records after the war superintending the Science Museum for Allison.

Figure 43:

Science Museum, eastern block, plan in 1928

Immediately on the opening of the Science Museum the Board of Education began to press for the completion of the plan. Allison and the Museum's Director went to Munich in 1931 (as the Royal Commission on museums had recommended in the previous year) and urged the adoption of a similarly comprehensive scheme. (fn. 91) In 1932–3 building of the central block was in prospect, partly as a measure against unemployment, but had been postponed by 1935. (fn. 92) Plans in 1937–8 to expand northward over the Royal College of Science site instead of westward, thus allowing room for the construction of an ethnographical museum on Queen's Gate, formed part of a scheme to make Imperial Institute Road a dividing line between museums and teaching institutions. (fn. 93) But at the outbreak of war nothing had been done. (In Munich, the Deutches Museum complex had by 1938 been extended in library and conference buildings over some eight acres.)

In 1949 the old Southern Gallery was at last demolished and the basement and ground floors (only) of the central block constructed to the design of W. Kendall of the Office of Works. The western section of the eastern block was also completed and the whole utilized for the science section of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Some of the collections, however, continued to be housed in old buildings nearby until c. 1960. (fn. 94) The upper carcase of the central block was added, also to Kendall's design, in 1959–61, and public communication opened to the north block of the Natural History Museum which formed part of the same scheme (plan d between pages 54–5). (fn. 95) The provision of this central block enabled the Science Museum to set in motion a scheme for the modernization of all its galleries. The first galleries in the central block were opened to the public in 1963 (Sailing Ships and Aeronautics), the last gallery (Domestic Appliances) being opened in 1973. The entrance from Exhibition Road was altered internally in 1966 and a new science library (previously housed in the Royal College of Science building) was constructed in Imperial College in 1966–9. But a site which The Builder in 1911 condemned as too confined (fn. 96) remained in 1974 one-third unoccupied.


  • 1. In that year the 1851 Commissioners themselves tried to sponsor an 'ethnological museum' but abandoned it after an exhibition in the Albert Hall. 18
  • 2. Built in 1908–10, ostensibly to designs by the Office of Works' architect Sir Henry Tanner although Fairfax Wade, architect of the Royal School of Needlework opposite, is thought by his family to have been involved.
  • 3. Haldane, Runciman and Lord Beauchamp (First Commissioner of Works) were against the Natural History Museum's claim that moving the spirit building would reduce its scope for expansion—'After all, there cannot be many undiscovered animals left in the world'. The claim was supported by Lord Morley, who found his colleagues' proposition 'more than dubious if we look at the constant unearthing of fossils'.
  • 4. Within the Office of Works, however, Lord Beauchamp had upset Tanner by remarking that in view of the limited street frontages 'it could not be better done than in this Office. It will unfortunately give no artist a real chance'.
  • 5. In a communication called 'semi-official', an officer of the Treasury suggested that rustication should be wholly eliminated, as 'a most loathsome device architecturally'.
  • 6. Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, Third Series, vol. CXXIII, 1022: P.P., 1864, XII, Report from the Select Committee on the Patent Office, Library and Museum (hereafter R.S.C.P.O.), 19 July 1864, pp. iii–iv.
  • 7. Theodore Martin, The Life of His Royal Highness The Prince Consort, vol. 11, 1876, pp. 569–73: [Sir David Brewster], 'Prince Albert's Industrial College', in North British Review, Aug. 1852, pp. 519–58: 1851 Comm., Letters, 190: I.C., Lyon Playfair Papers, 800.
  • 8. 1851 Comm., W.A. XIX, 117: V.A.M., Guard Books, no. 2510.
  • 9. R.S.C.P.O., ut supra, qu. 2308: Archibald Geikie, Life of Sir Roderick Murchison, 1875, vol. 11, p. 191.
  • 10. E.g., Second and Third Reports of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, 1852, 1856.
  • 11. R.S.C.P.O., ut supra, qus. 2320, 2357–8.
  • 12. 12th Report of Science and Art Department (1865), p. xviii; 13th Report (1866), p. xvii; 19th Report (1872), p. xxii.
  • 13. P.P., 1859, Sess. 2, XIV, Report of the Commissioners of Patents, pp. 2–5.
  • 14. 12th Report of Science and Art Department (1865), pp. 278–80: P.P., 1872, XXV, Royal Commission on the Advancement of Science, Minutes of Evidence, qu. 9099.
  • 15. V.A.M., Lib. MSS., Miscellanies of Henry Cole 1861–6, ff. 87–8.
  • 16. P.R.O., Works 17/16/1, Jan. 1864.
  • 17. R.S.C.P.O., ut supra, p. iv.
  • 18. P.R.O., Works 17/16/2, 31 Jan., 14 Feb. 1867.
  • 19. P.P., 1868–9, x, First Report from the Select Committee on Hungerford Bridge, 10 May 1869, qu. 2241–2.
  • 20. P.P., 1874, XXII, Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science, 4th Report, p. 11.
  • 21. 1851 Comm., Minutes, 8 Dec. 1873, 12 June 1874.
  • 22. P.P., 1874, XXII, Royal Commission, ut supra, 4th Report, 1874, pp. 11–14, 23.
  • 23. P.R.O., Ed 79/23, June 1876: Précis of Correspondence relating, primarily, to the Buildings at South Kensington, in P.P., 1897, XII, Second Report from the Select Committee on the Museums of the Science and Art Department, App. no. 19, 16 Aug. 1876.
  • 24. 1851 Comm., Minutes, 24 May, 11 Aug. 1876; file 46, Aug. 1876: Sixth Report of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, 29 July 1878, pp. 33–4, 41: P.R.O., Ed 79/23, 21 June 1876.
  • 25. Précis of Correspondence, ut supra, 13 July, 16 Aug. 1876.
  • 26. The Morning Post, 18 Sept. 1876: The Examiner, 13 Jan. 1877: P.R.O., Ed 79/23, c. Nov.-Dec. 1876 and 12 Jan. 1877: Précis of Correspondence, ut supra, 19, 21 Dec. 1876.
  • 27. E.g., The Standard, 2 Jan. 1877: P.R.O., Ed 79/23, c. April 1877.
  • 28. 1851 Comm., file 68, 16 July 1878; Minutes, 29 July 1878: Sixth Report of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, 29 July 1878, pp. 41, 43.
  • 29. C.G.L.I., Proposals of Executive Committee, Jan. 1879 (Guildhall Lib. C.C.2.8(2)).
  • 30. 1851 Comm., file 68, 5 March 1879: Précis of Correspondence, ut supra, 7 March 1879.
  • 31. P.R.O., Ed 79/23, May, 3 Nov. 1881; Ed 84/56 (précis, 6 Nov. 1882).
  • 32. Ibid., Ed 79/23, 28 Oct. 1881: Second Report from Select Committee on the Museums of the Science and Art Department, 29 July 1898, qu. 739.
  • 33. 46 and 47 Vic., c.57, public.
  • 34. Précis of Correspondence, ut supra, 11 Jan., 8 Feb. 1882: P.R.O., Ed 84/56, Nov. 1882-July 1883.
  • 35. P.R.O., Ed 84/56, 12 June, 28 Nov. 1882, 8, 28 Feb. 1883.
  • 36. Ibid., Ed 84/56, 18 June 1883, 24 Jan. 1884.
  • 37. I.C., Huxley Papers, XIV, 48–55.
  • 38. P.P., 1886, LI, Report of Interdepartmental Committee on the National Science Collections, 27 July 1885.
  • 39. P.P., 1887, LXV, Memorandum by the Committee of Advice and Reference, 22 Nov. 1886.
  • 40. Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, Third Series, vol. CCCXI, 1396–7.
  • 41. 34th Report of Science and Art Department (1887), pp. xxv, xxxi; 36th Report (1889), p. xxx.
  • 42. T. 29 July 1887.
  • 43. Seventh Report of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, 23 July 1889, pp. 5, 48.
  • 44. P.P., 1889, XXXIV, Report of the Committee appointed by the Treasury to enquire into the Science Collections at South Kensington, 23 July 1889, pp. 3–6, 10, qus. 621, 640.
  • 45. 1851 Comm., file 68, 19 Dec. 1889–11 Feb. 1890.
  • 46. Eighth Report of the Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851, 13 March 1911, p. 7.
  • 47. V.A.M., Guard Books, no. 16121.
  • 48. P.P., 1898, XI, Second Report from Select Committee on the Museums of the Science and Art Department, 29 July 1898, p. xxvii.
  • 49. Ibid., qus. 1049–50.
  • 50. P.R.O., Works 17/26/2, 31 March 1898.
  • 51. Ibid., Works 17/40.
  • 52. 1851 Comm., file 68 (1900–7): P.R.O., Ed 23/523 (1907); Works 30/5028–79.
  • 53. P.R.O., Works 17/151, 14 Oct. 1912.
  • 54. 1851 Comm., file 68 (1907): P.R.O., Ed 23/523 (1907).
  • 55. 1851 Comm., file 68, 16 Nov. 1933.
  • 56. Ibid., 7 March 1908: P.R.O., Ed 23/523 (1909).
  • 57. T. 14 July 1909.
  • 58. P.R.O., Works 17/40, 22 July, 27 Sept. 1909.
  • 59. Ibid., Ed 23/523, 18 June 1910.
  • 60. Ibid., Works 17/40, 23 March 1910.
  • 61. P.P., 1911, LX, Copy of Correspondence between the First Commissioner of Works and the Trustees of the British Museum . . . .
  • 62. P.R.O., Ed 79/2, 25 Aug. 1910.
  • 63. P.P., 1911, LX, Copy of Correspondence, ut supra: RA Geo. V O 77/8, 10–13, 15–18, 23: P.R.O., Works 17/40, Oct.-Dec. 1910, April-May 1911: 1851 Comm., file 68 (1911): T. April-May 1911.
  • 64. P.R.O., Works 17/40, 28 June 1911.
  • 65. Preliminary Report of the Departmental Committee on the Science Museum and the Geological Museum, 13 July 1910.
  • 66. P.P., 1911, XVIII, Report of the Departmental Committee on the Science Museum and the Geological Museum, 22 March 1911.
  • 67. P.P., 1912–13, XXII, Report of the Departmental Committee . . ., ut supra, Part 11, 19 April 1912.
  • 68. P.R.O., Works 17/151, 7–13 Dec. 1911; Ed 23/521, 1, 3, 16 July 1912.
  • 69. Ibid., Works 17/151, 4 Dec. 1911.
  • 70. Ibid., Works 17/151, 14 Oct. 1912: B. 13 April 1928, p. 613.
  • 71. 1851 Comm., file 68, 21 Dec. 1922.
  • 72. P.R.O., Works 17/151, 29 Nov. 1912; Ed 23/521, 14 Feb., 11 March 1913.
  • 73. Ibid., Works 33/2113–20: Science Museum photograph, SM 562: B.N. 29 Aug. 1913, p. 294.
  • 74. Science Museum photograph, SM 489: 1851 Comm., file 68, Dec. 1922.
  • 75. Science Museum photographs 1914–19: P.R.O., Works 17/151, 27 Nov. 1915: 1851 Comm., file 68, 7 June 1918: R.I.B.A. Journal, 3rd ser., vol. XXVI, p. 13, vol. XXVIII, p. 437.
  • 76. 1851 Comm., file 68, 21 Dec. 1922.
  • 77. P.R.O., Ed 23/521, Feb. 1921.
  • 78. Ibid., Works 17/151, 12 Oct. 1921.
  • 79. 1851 Comm., file 68, 17 Oct. 1927.
  • 80. P.R.O., Works 17/151, 27 Feb. 1924.
  • 81. 1851 Comm., file 68, 21 Dec. 1922, 5 Jan. 1923.
  • 82. P.R.O., Works 17/152, 19 March, 22 May, 24 Nov. 1925.
  • 83. N. Pevsner, London (vol. 11), 1952, p. 258.
  • 84. P.R.O., Works 17/152, July 1925.
  • 85. Ibid., 24 Nov., 1 Dec. 1925.
  • 86. Ibid., Dec. 1925, Jan. 1926.
  • 87. Ibid., 7 Dec. 1925: F. Greenaway, A Short History of the Science Museum, 1951, p. 17.
  • 88. T. 21 March 1928.
  • 89. The Architect's Journal, 18 April 1928, p. 547.
  • 90. P.R.O., DSIR 9/20, 15 Feb. 1928.
  • 91. Ibid., Ed 23/521, 27 April 1931: P.P., 1929–1930, XVI, Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries, Final Report, Part II, pp. 48–9.
  • 92. P.R.O., Ed 23/521, Jan. 1932, June 1933: 1851 Comm., file 68, 8 Jan., 13 March 1934.
  • 93. I.C. archives, file 1936–41.
  • 94. Information supplied by the Science Museum.
  • 95. F. Greenaway, op. et. loc. cit.: The Contract Journal, 31 Dec. 1959, pp. 1716–18.
  • 96. B. 8 Sept. 1911, p. 265.