Who Remembers the Children’s Gallery at the Science Museum in London?


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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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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?

On the left is of one of the tunnels with coal tubs on rails, a side-tunnel, and a lift up to the pit head at the end. On the right (the photo is taken from an old Science Museum postcard, no 40) is a ‘haulage road’ with a truck next to a conveyor belt. The tunnel is closed off at the end by wood struts marked ‘No Road’. I can vaguely remember this.

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.

This is a plan of the children’s gallery and a list of the exhibits, which was included in the 1973 guide.

These are a couple of pages from the 1973 guide. Though the cover of the guide was now red compared with the light brown cover of the earlier guide, the text inside hadn’t changed much, though it is informative. Most of the hand-drawn illustrations were the same as in the earlier guide, plus a few more up to date ones: an ocean liner, a hovercraft, and a diesel express train. But there wasn’t any colour printing, the layout hadn’t changed, and there were no photographs.

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’.

This enormous prototype diesel locomotive, DP1, and commonly known as Deltic, was built by English Electric in 1955. For its time, it had a very high power output of 3,300 hp, the highest in the world for a diesel locomotive, and an acceptably low axle load. 22 similar locomotives were ordered by British Railways for use on East Coast Main Line express passenger services. The prototype was painted a pale powder blue with cream stripes.
This enormous prototype diesel locomotive, DP1, and commonly known as Deltic, was built by English Electric in 1955. For its time, it had a very high power output of 3,300 hp, the highest in the world for a diesel locomotive, and an acceptably low axle load. 22 similar locomotives were ordered by British Railways for use on East Coast Main Line express passenger services. The prototype was painted a pale powder blue with cream stripes.


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.

On the left is a photo of the discharge as it happened © Science Museum/SSPL. I couldn’t find a photo of the demonstration area itself, but it was a bit like the photo in the centre (which is from Germany), without the people of course. The original notice, on the right, which is from 1975, certainly explains why I stood nervously behind the glass screen waiting for the bang.

Children’s Museums Elsewhere

In Britain, the first dedicated children’s museum, as opposed to galleries for children in existing museums, is Eureka! The National Children’s Museum in Halifax, West Yorkshire, which opened in 1992.

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.


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