Construction of the East Block, Science Museum, London, 9 May 1919

Museum History

A brief history of the Science Museum

The Science Museum as an institution has been in existence for about a century and a half. It has its origins in the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in Hyde Park in the huge glass building known as the Crystal Palace. The popularity of the exhibition ensured a large financial surplus, which its patron Prince Albert suggested should be used to found a number of educational establishments on the land available nearby. The first of these was the South Kensington Museum, opened in 1857 on land which is now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum.


The South Kensington Museum’s first building was an iron-framed structure clad in sheets of corrugated iron. Its ugliness and factory-like character soon caused it to be known by its nickname, the ‘Brompton Boilers’. It was opened to the public on Wednesday 24 June 1857 after a private view by HM Queen Victoria the previous Saturday evening. It was principally a museum of the industrial and decorative arts, but also included a few miscellaneous science collections such as Animal Products, Food, Educational Apparatus, and Building Materials. Within the building was a separate exhibition of machinery organised by Bennet Woodcroft, the Superintendent of the Patent Office. As well as contemporary apparatus, the Patent Office Museum also included historical items such as an early Boulton and Watt beam engine and Symington’s marine steam engine of 1788. The locomotives ‘Puffing Billy’ of 1814 and Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ of 1829 were put on display in 1862.

A collection of ship models and marine engines was formed by the South Kensington Museum in 1864 and soon added to. The general expansion was such that during the 1860s the Science Collections were gradually moved across Exhibition Road into buildings originally constructed for the International Exhibition of 1862. These collections continued to grow, but by a sequence of sudden additions and changes rather than by any consistent planning. A major step forward came in 1876, when an exhibition, the ‘Special Loan Collection of Scientific Instruments’ was held. It was a great occasion. Instruments and equipment from many countries were displayed and public lectures given on the progress of science world-wide. At its end, many of the exhibits were retained to form the basis of what are now scientific collections of international importance.


In 1883 another change of emphasis occurred when the contents of the Patent Office Museum were formally transferred to the South Kensington Museum. At about the same time a Science Library was established which ever since has served the needs of Museum staff, college students and the general public. From 1893 the Science Collections had their own Director but were still administered as part of the South Kensington Museum. The accommodation was by now quite inadequate and the scientific community argued strongly for new and appropriate buildings what was becoming a nationally-significant museum in its own right.

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