Posts Tagged ‘disappearing golden ball’

The scary automatic door, the alarming burglar alarm, the spooky coal mine, the thump of the iron weights, the disappearing golden ball. Does anyone remember the Children’s Gallery at the Science Museum in London?

exhibition road, london underground, the science museum, south kensington

On the left, the Science Museum in Exhibition Road, South Kensington, which opened in 1928 replacing buildings from the 1860s. On the right, an Underground poster from 1928.

From 1931 when the gallery was first opened up until 1993 when it closed, children visiting the museum in South Kensington would turn left in the main entrance hall and go down the stairs to the Children’s Gallery in the basement.

Families would usually have got to the museum by going along the pedestrian subway – first opened in 1885 – from the Tube station in ‘South Ken’.

In the basement, there was a long thin rectangular room, which I recall from the 1950s was fairly dimly-lit, where children were free to play with working models that had buttons to press, handles to turn, and levers to pull. There were also historical dioramas and models showing the development of science and technology throughout history. I thought some of these were dull compared with what we would now call ‘hands-on’ exhibits.

 children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

Going by this photo of the Children’s Gallery taken when it opened in December 1931, there doesn’t seem to be much by way of ‘hands on’ exhibits, but it was innovatory at the time. A printed guide to the gallery from 1935 states ‘if there is anything you want to know about the exhibits ask one of the Attendants in uniform’ © Science Museum/SSPL

Whilst the aim of the gallery was to ‘inform and instruct’ children on the social, material, and even moral impact of science and technology on society, surveys carried out in the 1950s revealed that this approach was more or less lost on the children. There was a lot of curiosity and fascination about the many exhibits, but the kids were also having fun.

Consequently, when the Children’s Gallery was revamped in 1969, the historical perspective was to some extent abandoned in favour of combining instruction with pleasure in order to make the children feel that ‘science is a wonderful thing’.

The Children’s Gallery was replaced in 1986 by Launchpad, an ambitious interactive gallery for young people, which moved to the top floor of the museum in 2007. Launchpad itself was replaced in 2016 by Wonderlab, an interactive science gallery with 50 exhibits in seven zones that was 60 percent larger than Launchpad, though an admission fee was also introduced reflecting the £6m cost (school groups are free).

A Selection of the Exhibits

Here are some of the exhibits from the Children’s Gallery that I remember from the 1950s through to the 1980s. I would have liked to include others but photographs of the gallery are thin on the ground. At the end of this post are some memorable exhibits from elsewhere in the Science Museum.

children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The noisiest area of the gallery was the one devoted to Lifting. Ropes that went around pullies could be pulled to lift heavy iron weights. The fewer pullies, the more difficult it was to lift the weights, and there was at least one that I couldn’t lift. There were also jacks where weights were lifted by turning a handle. These photos seem to be from the 1940s or 50s © Science Museum/SSPL

chappe semaphore, children’s gallery, diorama, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

There were many dioramas (three-dimensional models in glass showcases) on the development of transport (photo left), communications (photo centre), and lighting through the ages. Some of these had buttons and levers such as the model of the Chappe Semaphore (the first practical telecommunications system of the industrial age invented in 1792) the top of which can be seen in the middle of the centre photo. On the right, is a display behind glass panels of vacuum experiments. Again, these photos seem to be from the 1940s or 50s © Science Museum/SSPL

automatic door, children’s gallery, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The information stand on the left says ‘Automatic Door 1933. This automatic door has been in almost constant use since it was installed in 1933. At the time most people had never seen an automatic door, and the exhibit became a star attraction in the Museum’s old Children’s Gallery. The door’s 13 ½ millionth opening in 1967 was celebrated when the photograph below was taken’ © Science Museum

There were two exhibits that could be a little scary to a young child. The automatically opening door and the burglar alarm.

With the door, you queued up, and when it was your turn you walked towards the closed red door. You’d break a beam of light shining on a photoelectric cell and the door would swing open abruptly. If you were very young, you didn’t know about the beam, and it was a bit spooky. I wanted to be trapped by the door or something. It was very popular with kids who queued up again and again to go through the door.

The door is still on display, as in the photo on the right, in the Secret Life of the Home gallery in the basement of the museum.

Nearby, there was mock safe in the wall. The idea was to creep as close as you could towards the safe from a line on the floor of the gallery. You would break an infra-red beam, and the word Burglar, in red lighting, which was fixed to the wall near to the safe, would light up with a buzzing sound. Well that’s how I remember it, and I haven’t a photo of the burglar alarm to confirm this.

Other working exhibits that I can remember – though there are no photographs – was the eclipse of the sun by the moon, a diorama of an Archimedean screw being used for irrigation, a Watt engine and hammer, a model of an electric passenger lift, a submarine periscope (the sight poked out somewhere in the ground floor above, so that’s what you saw), and an automatic telephone number selector.

Two smaller working exhibits attracted quite a bit of attention. A Van de Graaf generator from 1929, used to accumulate an electric charge, and a Wimshurt machine from the 1880s, used to generate high voltages. I can’t recall what happened when these machines were demonstrated, but there were machines like this in the X-rated Frankenstein films of the 50s.

children’s gallery, disappearing golden ball, exhibition road, science museum, south kensington

The disappearing golden ball, which was introduced in 1958, was intended to demonstrate the capacity effect, though I can’t find out what this is. © Science Museum

Another popular exhibit was the ‘disappearing golden ball’. The ball was in the middle of a raised circular table 5′ or so wide at the bottom of the stairs down to the Children’s Gallery. When you leant out to grab the golden ball, it would disappear with a click or clunk into a small socket. No matter how quick you were, you couldn’t get hold of it. I think the ball’s movement may have been activated by a motion sensor in the ceiling above the table.

The ball is still on display in the Secret Life of the Home gallery.

(more…)

Advertisements

Read Full Post »