Scholarship as the key to discovery

Rare 18th century find encourages crossover between arts, humanities and science.

A renewed emphasis on scholarship at the Science Museum this year yielded both an intriguing adult alchemy exhibition and an exciting discovery.

Signs, Symbols and Secrets, which opened this Spring, was the first in 60 years to be drawn directly from the Museum’s own library and archive collections. An unexpected bonus was the discovery on a rack of a hand-painted scroll, the 23rd in a known series named after 15th century alchemist George Ripley.

Stephanie Millard, Exhibition Project Leader, says "The Ripley scrolls are extremely rare and hold vital clues to the development of alchemy. Ours is the first scroll to go on long-term display."

The 20-foot-long Ripley scroll

The 20-foot-long scroll, loaned by the Wellcome Trust in 1976, was discovered by Library Assistant Cate Watson. Cate says: "It posed such a puzzle, though the symbolic images that contained clues for the creation of the philosopher’s stone looked familiar. I suspected it was a Ripley scroll and the expert Dr Jennifer Rampling confirmed it."

Head of Collections, Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker, endorses the scroll’s importance: "If it proves to be 18th-century, it’s a treasure. Even if not, it still encourages a discussion about alchemy which makes for a crossover between arts and humanities and sciences which over time have become separated. Today our institution is underlining the message that they are all part of a bigger whole."