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Museum of the History of Science

Home > Oxford > Day Trips | Exhibitions | Museums | School Holiday Activities
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published March 23rd 2014
Just another beautiful Oxford building? No... a fascinating, rich collection about the history of science in the world's first purpose built museum building.

museum, history, science, oxford
Museum of the History of Science

The museum started as the founding collection of what is now the Ashmolean Museum. This originally occupied the top floor of the building, while the ground floor was a public space for teaching (lectures), and in the basement were both a Chemistry laboratory and an anatomy room, offering bespoke space for these rapidly developing disciplines. Documenting, teaching and researching science all happened in the one space.

Now the whole building is given over to commemorating the history of science, and therefore also the history of the building itself.

In the basement time stands still, the anatomy room taken up with a horological collection. In the 'Officina Chimica', Einstein's blackboard holds a commanding position on the wall.

museum, history, science, oxford, einstein, blackboard
Einstein's blackboard

It's smaller than one might have expected, but still lends an aura of magic to the room which also holds, for example, Lewis Carroll's camera. A set of Marconi radio equipment shows people precisely how much work has gone into developing our small modern radios.

Similarly, the extensive glassware shows how Chemistry was originally practised, a far cry from a modern laboratory, but for school students in particular they offer an important insight into the background of their work.

museum, history, science, oxford
Chemical glassware

A model of facial nerves is gruesome enough to attract attention if glassware fails.

museum, history, science, oxford
Facial nerve model

One cabinet recalls the original use for the rooms, containing bones from both humans and dogs, as well as glass shard, materials unearthed during excavations to restore the foundations.

museum, history, science, oxford
Finds from museum excavations

Visitors gather around a table for informal talks and demonstrations; the museum works hard to offer a great range of events, which are well-advertised in leaflets throughout.

The ground floor is dominated by the entrance desk and small gift shop. There is still room for a range of objects, including Japanese netsuke, miniature but anatomically correct skulls and skeletons.

Up on the top floor is an array of instruments for understanding the world. an abacus sits above a calculator and mathematical drawing tools are set out neatly in expensive cases.

museum, history, science, oxford, cameras
Abacus & Calculator

An astrolabe given to Queen Elizabeth I forms part of a great collection of astrolabes, from the miniature to the immense, with great discussion about how to use them and what they are for. This museum is good at offering information to unpack objects' meanings interspersed with markers to audio guides or community outreach projects, and even copies of poems inspired by the collection.

One case recalls the original cabinet of curiosities, with crocodile skin and a turtle skull attracting your attention.

museum, history, science, oxford, cameras
Cabinet of Curiosities

Even the stairs between the floors are worth pausing on. The building is, in itself, beautiful. In addition, there are exhibits such as a large pastel drawing of the moon, or clocks, hanging from the walls.

museum, history, science, oxford, cameras
Stairs at the museum

The basement also offers space for temporary exhibitions. The whole museum is well-complemented by the Bodleian's Great Medical Discoveries exhibition too, and interested visitors would be well-advised to make use of the physical or virtual resources associated with both. Since 1995 the museum has been producing online exhibitions, so it's easy to follow something up.

It may not be a large museum, but it's packed with awesome objects and great activities, providing a perfect part of a day trip in Oxford.
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When: Tuesday-Friday 12-5, Saturday 10-5, Sunday 2-5. CLOSED MONDAYS
Where: Broad Street
Cost: free
Your Comment
Great article. Is it just me or does that facial model look like Patrick Stewart?
by Bastion Harrison (score: 4|12626) 2981 days ago
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