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

A brief history of the Science Museum

A change in the underlying philosophy of the Science Museum can be said to date from about 1960. The emphasis began to shift from technical education informed by historical exposition, to a more broadly-based policy of preservation of historical artefacts placed in their historical and social context.

The galleries became ever more selective as the proportion of stored items increased. Some expansion at South Kensington was still possible and the East Block gallery light-well was 'infilled' in the late 1970s. Some of the new space housed displays of the Wellcome collections of the history of medicine, acquired in 1976. Among the many special exhibitions held during the 1970s and 1980s were several on broadly-based themes rather than specific subjects. Among these were 'Science and Technology in Islam' (1976), 'Exploration' (1977) and 'Science in India' (1982).

Launch Pad, first opened in 1986, was another new development in the understanding of technology. By means of specially-designed interactive 'hands on' exhibits, visitors, and especially children, could discover the ways things work through their own use of them. Its popularity was such that it has been expanded several times and a completely new Launch Pad in a new location opened in 2007.

Physical expansion occurred outside London with the establishment of what were at first called 'outstations'. The National Railway Museum, York, was opened in 1975 and the National Museum of Photography (now the National Media Museum) in Bradford was opened in 1983. A large former airfield at Wroughton, near Swindon, was acquired in 1979 both for storage and to allow the development of collections of larger full-size objects such as aeroplanes and commercial road vehicles.

A major change in the management of the Science Museum and its sister museums ocurred in 1984 when they were devolved from direct Civil Service control to administration by a Board of Trustees. The phrase 'National Museum of Science and Industry', which had been in use as the Science Museum's subtitle since the early 1920s, was now adopted as the corporate name of the entire institution.

Westward expansion at South Kensington began again in 1996 with the sponsorship by the Wellcome Trust of a new building to be called the Wellcome Wing. This was opened by HM The Queen in June 2000 and houses exhibitions of present and future science and technology. Also opened at the same time was a new gallery, 'Making the Modern World', on the ground floor in the space previously used for Land Transport. This gallery, subtitled 'A cultural history of industrialisation from 1750 to 2000', represents a new style of permanent gallery, drawing its exhibits from across the Museum's collections to illustrate the chosen theme.

The history of the Science Museum over the last 150 years has been one of continual change. The exhibition galleries are never static for long, as they have to reflect and comment on the increasing pace of change in science, technology, industry and medicine. Even if this sometimes means the removal of some well-loved objects to store, we can be certain that some of their modern replacements will become cherished in turn. Whatever the future holds, the Science Museum will be in the forefront to illustrate, explain and interpret it for all our users, whoever and wherever they are.