What happens to loan objects?

A stretch of red wall in the exhibition with a quote on the far left, and then a a number of frames containing exhibition text and images from Hooke's Micrographia.Earlier in 2015 the National Library of Wales took on two loan objects from MHS, which feature in their exhibition ‘The Secret Workings of Nature’: Robert Hooke and Early ScienceIn this guest post Dr Geraint Phillips, the Exhibition Curator, tells us a little about the exhibition and the combination of artifacts, images and ideas within the display area.


Our exhibition, ‘The Secret Workings of Nature’: Robert Hooke and Early Science, at the National Library of Wales, was conceived to mark the 350th anniversary of the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia. It explores the significance of Micrographia within the context of the Scientific Revolution and seeks to show how the rise of modern science was made possible by the invention of the telescope and the microscope. The exhibition features early books and manuscripts from our own collections together with two loan objects from MHS: an English hand held refracting telescope from c. 1680 (inv. 15115) and a John Marshall compound microscope, c. 1700 (inv. 46463).

The exhibition is situated in our rare materials display area and contains four cases, covering astronomy and the telescope, The Royal Society and the Baconian method, the development of mathematics, and the rise of biology.

The telescope sent on loan to the exhibition rests in the centre of the case on a pillow, with a letter displayed to its right.

The hand-held refracting telescope inside the exhibition case.

The earliest item is a copy of the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde’s The Castle of Knowledge (London, 1556) a treatise on cosmology which includes an early and subtly favourable reference to the Copernican theory of a heliocentric cosmos. We have placed the telescope between Recorde’s book and our copy of Galileo’s Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Florence, 1632) in order to show how modern science began in 1610, when Galileo pointed a refracting telescope at the heavenly bodies, proving Copernicus right and establishing that Aristotle could be proved wrong.

This display case on astronomy also includes a letter, dated 1782, from the great eighteenth-century botanist, and President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, describing William and Caroline Herschel’s construction of a forty foot telescope for the exploration of deep space.

If the invention of the telescope enabled Galileo to prove that the earth moves around the sun, the development of the microscope introduced the challenging idea that there is more to the visual world than the eye can register. The potential of the microscope was brought home to the general reader in 1665, with the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia. Our copy of the book has been opened to show Christopher Wren’s startlingly accurate drawing of a flea, now one of the icons of scientific literature.

A picture of the microscope on loan to the National Library of Wales inside the exhibitions display case, with an image from Hooke's Micrographia to the right.

The John Marshall compound microscope next to the National Library of Wales’ copy of Hooke’s Micrographia

The Marshall microscope, with its accessories, sits alongside Micrographia, in a case which also includes books by Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Following the publication of Micrographia, there was a huge demand for compound microscopes among gentleman amateurs, and English instrument makers, such as John Marshall, obliged by copying Hooke’s design.

We believe that the inclusion of these two beautiful loan objects from MHS has greatly enriched our exhibition. And we are very grateful to Lucy Blaxland, Collections Manager at MHS, for bringing them to Aberystwyth and facilitating the loan. On a purely aesthetic level they complement our own books and manuscripts, and give balance to the display. We also hope that they have enhanced our visitors’ understanding of the world of 17th-century science by showing how the ideas expressed in our books and manuscripts have their origins in practical experimentation using physical apparatus. Above all, they underline our exhibition’s fundamental theme: that great advances in science are often brought about by the invention of ways of seeing what had previously been unseen.


By Dr Geraint Phillips

Christmas has come early for MHS!

Astrolabe Inv14645

We have written before about the different ways that new items come into the Museum’s permanent collection – through auctions, donations and other routes. An important source of new material is that given by private donors, and the Museum has been fortunate to receive two recent donations in this way.

Astrolabe Inv14645

Single Plate Universal Astrolabe, European, 15th Century with Later Additions (inv. 14645)

medieval European astrolabe, pictured above and to the right, was given anonymously and will be added to the existing collection of astrolabes which is already the largest and most important in the world. So why add yet another astrolabe to the collection? Is it just a specialist desire to complete the set?

Astrolabes are fascinating ancient devices which capture the apparent movements of the sun and stars in the sky. They were used in astronomy, time-telling, astrology and religion across cultures, time and places. But the latest arrival is an unusual design which the Museum does not have. It includes a universal plate for use anywhere on Earth, providing important new evidence of the transmission of advanced Islamic innovations to 15th-century Europe.

More than that, this new acquisition is an example of a medieval device that has been adapted and reworked in the 16th century: it tells a story of the Renaissance recycling rather than rejecting the Middle Ages. So yes, there is something of the completing-the-set mentality in our excitement at its arrival.

A second recent donation helps tell the story of the development of Elliott Brothers, an innovative British firm founded in the mid-19th century, and with origins in the late 18th century. The company produced instruments for navigation, surveying, calculating, telegraphy, optics, and mechanical and electrical engineering, for clients including the British Admiralty and War Office and the East India Company.

Material from the early production at Elliott Brothers has been painstakingly assembled over a number of years by Mr Ron Bristow, a retired engineer and manager with the business. Although the Museum already holds material from the company in its Elliott Collection, Ron Bristow’s items complement this by revealing more about the early stages of the business, as he explains:

The Elliott Brothers company collection, now in the Museum, had no items from before about 1850, even though the business began in about 1804. So I wondered what they did and what they made in those years.

Mr Ron Bristow with Museum director Dr Silke Ackermann

Mr Ron Bristow with Museum director Dr Silke Ackermann

Using addresses traced by Dr Gloria Clifton in the Directory of British Scientific Instrument Makers, 1550-1851, Ron Bristow began to seek out early Elliott Brothers material, acquiring items from antiques fairs, friendly dealers, and auctions. After collecting objects from most of the early company addresses identified in the Directory, Ron decided that the material should remain together as a collection in its own right:

I always had in mind that the examples I had found should remain as a single collection and I am very pleased that the Museum of the History of Science is able to accept it in a safe and accessible way, where it will complement the company collection of later material.

Although many of the mathematical and drawing instruments in the Bristow Collection are quite standard, they offer examples of instruments made by several generations of a single craft dynasty. This illustrates developments in design and manufacturing style or technique, as well as the transmission of skills, first from craftsman to craftsman, and then to the skilled workforce of the larger company.

Both the astrolabe and the 28 items in the Bristow Collection will be accessioned to the Museum’s permanent collection, which continues to grow year by year. Excitingly, the Museum is also in the process of organising a new exhibition in the entrance gallery opening on 19 January 2016. This will allow for the display of these wonderful new acquisitions, and demonstrate the continued vitality of collecting in the modern museum, and the donations, grants and benefactors that make it possible.

There will also be two evening events in February and March to celebrate these objects. On Tuesday 9 February we will be hosting, Beyond the Archive, a conversation illuminating the back story the Bristow Collection with the donor, Ron Bristow. On Tuesday 8 March Dr Stephen Johnston will present the first research results on the European astrolabe, and its relationship to Renaissance recycling in Recycling the Astrolabe. You can book a free ticket to these events through our Eventbrite page here.

Capturing the invisible

X-Ray diffraction

This weekend sees the international launch of this year’s Big Draw, an initiative to encourage people of all ages to draw. It’s happening across Oxford on Saturday 19 September, and we are getting involved with a rather unusual take on drawing…

PrintFor our X-Ray Line event we are interested not in the things that are easily seen and drawn, but in things which are normally invisible. Atomic structures, subatomic particles, crystal lattices and chains of molecules: these are structures revealed only through special processes, but which provide great inspiration for the creation of drawings and sculpture.

The idea of making the invisible visible comes from our current special exhibition, Dear Harry, which looks at the life and death, in World War One, of Henry Moseley, a physicist whose work on the X-ray spectra of elements in the early 20th century helped to determine atomic number and bring new rigour to the periodic table of elements.

Ushering in Moseley’s work was the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895, which led to a whole new field of experimental techniques including X-ray spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography. This opened up an invisible world of atomic and molecular structure.

Electron density model of penicillin molecule (inv. 17631) resulting from crystallography experiments carried out by Dorothy Hodgkin in Oxford

Electron density model of penicillin molecule (inv. 17631) resulting from crystallography experiments carried out by Dorothy Hodgkin in Oxford

The forms, structures and patterns revealed by these techniques have inspired artists and designers to create a variety of works, notably by the Festival Pattern Group for the 1951 Festival of Britain. For the Big Draw launch we’ll be looking at these forms and inviting visitors – especially adults, but open to all – to use a range of source materials to help construct a three-dimensional model reflecting molecular structures.

There are some wonderful images that derive from those early X-ray experiments in crystallography and spectroscopy prompting wonder and philosophical speculation – they are great images in themselves. Our X-Ray Line event is deliberately intended to appeal to adults – why should kids have all the fun! – Chris Parkin, Education Officer at the Museum

Cloud chamber - Tom Cox

Cloud chamber by Tom Cox

There’s drawing too, of course. Shadow drawings will be created through a light projection and screen, suggesting an analogue to the experimental process of interrogating structure with light, or indeed X-rays. And the Museum’s camera obscuras will be set up outside the Bodleian’s Weston Library, pointing at some of Oxford’s famous architecture, so visitors can experience the magic of drawing with this simple yet powerful optical tool.

Chladni plates

Chladni patterns will be revealed by Annie Wright

We have some collaborators coming along as well. Two artists from Oxford Brookes University’s MA course in Social Sculpture will be presenting related themes from their own work.

Tom Cox’s ‘Temporal Becoming’ is a piece which invites participants to experience the mysteries of the cloud chamber and the patterns induced in it by tiny charged particles. Annie Wright is interested in elemental composition and hidden patterns in materials and will be demonstrating the intriguing phenomenon of Chladni patterns.

So head to the Museum on Saturday 19 September, investigate the invisible and hopefully become inspired to create some drawing and sculpture of your own.