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

A brief history of the Science Museum

Work began on the East Block in 1913 but owing to the First World War it was not completed and fully opened until 1928. Its galleries reflected the museum thinking of the time. The displays were arranged by subject inside glass-topped showcases within galleries lit mostly by daylight. Object labels presumed a previous knowledge of the subject and were often unashamedly lengthy and complex.

Changes were, however, already on the way. Colonel Sir Henry Lyons, Director since 1920, argued in 1922 that in a technical museum the needs of 'the ordinary visitor' should be placed ahead of those of specialists. One of his innovations was a 'Children's Gallery' which opened in December 1931. The aim was to stimulate the interest and curiosity of children in science and technology using simple and attractive displays and a large number of working models. Scientific principles were put over using what we now know as 'interactives', for example in the design of pulley blocks or the inertia of different materials.

Elsewhere in the Museum the displays kept up with modern developments with a scheme of temporary loans from leading industries and special exhibitions on current topics. Among these were some on environmental concerns such as noise abatement (1935) and smoke pollution (1936). The permanent historical collections continued to increase, too. A national financial crisis meant that the planned expansion of the building was postponed. Lack of display space meant that by the late 1930s a quantity of older or less important exhibits had to be removed to storage.

The Second World War brought further disruption. The galleries were closed, though the Science Museum Library remained open and was intensively used. Most of the collections were removed to storage away from London and it was not until about 1950 that the Science Museum was a settled institution once more. The old 1862 buildings were now unusable so there was even less space than before. They were demolished in 1949 to make way for construction of the ground floor of the Centre Block so that it could house the Science Exhibition of the Festival of Britain 1951. Again, financial restrictions stopped any further work afterwards. Relief came in the late 1950s when an expansion of nearby Imperial College also included at long last the completion of the Centre Block to its full height.

The Centre Block galleries were progressively opened from the top floor downwards between 1963 and 1969. Most of these galleries were concerned with various forms of transport, but notable galleries on Time Measurement, Astronomy and Surveying were also included. In some instances, for example Shipping and Aeronautics, the displays incorporated modern ideas of interpretation but in others the traditional plan of display by subject using lines of showcases was continued.