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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Coal Mine
But the Children’s Gallery had a big surprise. In 1951, a reconstruction of a coal mine was opened. It was off to the left along a short passageway as you came down the stairs. There were quite a number of tunnels and side tunnels, with cutting machines, battery engines and trucks on rails, and dummies for the miners themselves. The walls looked like real coal, and there were real timber pit props and steel arch supports. To me, in the late 1950s, it was fascinating and very realistic. I loved exploring the coal mine. I read somewhere that the coal mine was always the highlight of one family’s visits to the Science Museum.
There’s very little information online about the coal mine, and very few photographs, and I don’t know when it was closed. Fortunately, there is a short and jolly British Pathé Newsreel here from 1951 about the construction of the Science Museum’s coal mine. I wonder what youngsters would think of such an exhibit now?
Guides to the Children’s Gallery
As I have said, photographs of the Children’s Gallery are very thin on the ground. The Museum did produce a couple of printed guides to the gallery, one just after it first opened in 1935, and another one in 1973, both of which were re-printed at various times.
The first image on the right is the cover of the first guide, published in 1935, priced threepence or 3d (just under 1p). I have a copy of the re-printed guide from 1946, which was fourpence. This was the year after the end of the Second World War. The second image is the 1973 guide which cost 3p.
Upstairs in the Science Museum
Upstairs, there were the beam engines in the central hall, and three or four floors of exhibits above that. At the back of the museum was another huge hall devoted to transport, with many actual full-size cars, boats, steam engines etc, plus many working models, and above this, the uppermost floor was for aircraft.
There was so much to see, but I can still remember three exhibits. In between the two main halls was Jet 1, a gas-turbine car built in 1950 by Rover, the first such powered car in the world, and which is still on display, In the transport hall was the gigantic prototype of the Deltic diesel locomotive. And then there was the demonstration that ended with a ‘big bang’.
In 1993, the Deltic locomotive was transferred to the National Railway Museum, and it is currently on display at their Shildon site in County Durham. Getting it in and out of the museum must have been quite a feat.
The big bang demonstration, which was held each day, was a very loud bang created by an electricity discharge. The colossal electrical equipment, which I now know included an impulse generator, was located somewhere on the ground floor, I think in a corner on the right as you went towards the transport hall.
Children’s Museums Elsewhere
The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) counted 341 member institutions in 23 countries in 2007. The United States has played a leading role in the establishment of dedicated museums for children with interactive exhibits focused on learning through play. Indeed the first children’s museum in the world was the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in New York, founded in 1899, with the next oldest four also having been opened in the USA.
The fourth oldest is the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis – it opened in 1925 – and according to the ACM it is the largest children’s museum in the world.
After Visiting the Science Museum
After the Science Museum, you could go to the Geological Museum next door in Exhibition Road or to the Museum of Natural History in Cromwell Road, that is if you had the energy or the time. But more often than not, I went for lunch or tea at the nearby Joe Lyons tea shop in South Kensington.
I can’t remember exactly where the tea shop was, but I know that after getting your cafeteria (self-service) meal you went downstairs into the basement to eat. A large cup of tea at a J Lyons teashop cost 2½d (1p) in the 1950s. The tea shops shouldn’t be confused with the more upmarket and more expensive Lyon’s Corner Houses.
In 1954, J Lyons was the largest catering company in the world. There were 230 J Lyons tea shops in Britain, and at one time, seven tea shops operated in London’s Oxford Street alone. Between 1970 and 1972 the tea rooms were converted into Jolyon Restaurants. However increased competition and overstretched borrowings led to the last tea shop closing in 1976, and in 1978 Lyons was taken over by Allied Breweries.