Oxford Brookes Alternative Placement

Harriet and Jordan teaching their final sessions after their 3-week placement at the Museum

Harriet and Jordan teaching their final sessions after their 3-week placement at the Museum

Harriet Crombie and Jordan Greco are currently studying for BA in Primary Education at Oxford Brookes University. As part of their second year placement, as well as working in a school, they had the opportunity to work alongside an education officer in a museum in Oxford; they decided to visit the Museum of the History of Science. Here they would plan a session to teach to the children from their class. They reflect on their experience:

“On our first day we made our way down the stones stairs to the basement and met Michelle, the Education Officer, who took us round the 17th century building showing us the many different displays of instruments used in the past by many different people. We didn’t get long however until the first school visited, they had been studying Space, and Michelle ran a session enabling children to look at and touch a variety of objects used by Space explorers.

When planning our session we had to think really hard about what we would want the children to learn, what they could gain from their visit and hopefully take back into the classroom. As the children were learning about France this term, we decided to make this the theme of the school trip.

For us (and we think for the children!) the trip went really well- Jordan and I organised 3 different activities, consisting of a French object trail in the Top Gallery, sketching the French Revolutionary Clock in the main entrance, and creating and using sundials in the basement. To finish off the trip with a fun, whole class activity we taught the children some relevant words to the trip (such as sundial, museum, clock etc) in French to take back to their families at home.

We managed to introduce much of the trip knowledge in school prior to the day, such as talking about the French Revolution and the rising up of the people in France against the Royals so that the Revolutionary clock was more relevant to the children.  Extensions to the sundial activity would be to use them outside during a science lesson.

We both had a fantastic time in the museum made much easier by the support of Michelle, one of the education officers working there. The staff were great to work with and we really felt like we explored learning outside of the classroom. It was a very worthwhile experience and we would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity!”


MHS Publishes First eBook

The Garden, The Ark, The Tower, The Temple: biblical metaphors of knowledge in early modern Europe, an MHS exhibition held in the Bodleian Library from 2nd February to 2nd May, 1998, had an accompanying book (ISBN 0 – 903364 – 09 – 3). A small print run was made which soon sold out. It can occasionally be found to buy, with the price varying from a few hundred to over a thousand pounds (as I write this it is available for £1,128.75).

The exhibition and book, written by Jim Bennett, former director of the museum, and Scott Mandelbrote, investigate biblical metaphors of knowledge in early modern Europe.

 	 Engraved plate from Ogilby’s 1660 Bible illustrating the state of paradise at the moment of the Fall. The plate was engraved by Pierre Lombart (1620?–1681). From catalogue no.1.

Engraved plate from Ogilby’s 1660 Bible illustrating the state of paradise at the moment of the Fall. The plate was engraved by Pierre Lombart (1620?–1681).


The stories of the Garden of Eden, Noahs Ark, the Tower of Babel, and the Temple of Solomon are among the best known in the Old Testament. They were alluded to frequently during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and were often used at that time to frame accounts of the progress of knowledge. The narrative history which could be found in the Bible presented a coherent story of the growth and decline of knowledge, in which moral and spiritual factors helped to determine natural and practical outcomes.

As metaphors of knowledge, the four stories gave information about both the acquisition and the ideal state of human understanding. But they also issued warnings about the necessary difference between human and divine knowledge and suggested ways by which knowledge might be married to piety and wisdom in order to achieve an improvement in the condition of mankind. The image that they conjured up was thus both hopeful and threatening. It demanded that human beings temper material and intellectual change with spiritual or moral development. The stories seemed to many to allow for the possibility of transforming the world through the application of human intellect and endeavour. Yet they also emphasized the contemporary belief that the earth had once been a better place, and that human ignorance and suffering were themselves the products of disobedience, error, and folly. The knowledge which was needed to change human life and the natural environment for the good depended on an understanding of the dangers of moral frailty as well as of the achievements of intellectual ingenuity. That understanding could best be developed through an awareness of biblical history and a sense of the working of providence, both of which were enhanced by acquaintance with the lessons of the Garden, the Ark, the Tower, and the Temple. …

An online version of this exhibition can be found on the MHS website; a kindle version of the book has been published, February 2013, with the same content plus useful ebook functionality. An interesting and convenient publication which will also help support the Museum’s broad range of work!

A World of Invention

Panagram system of reading and writing for the blind in the Patented exhibition

Panagram system of reading and writing for the blind in the Patented exhibition

Fletcher Wallis is a physicist with a penchant for patents. His collection of corkscrews is formidable and his knowledge of their historical development is gathered in British Corkscrew Patents from 1795, published in 1997 by Vernier Press. It is the ingenuity and imagination of inventors that captivates Fletcher, and in areas far broader than gadgets for opening bottles of wine.

Having given up life as a professional atomic physicist in Oxfordshire, Fletcher has spent the past 30 years or so dealing in antiques from the history of science and technology, with a particular expertise in patent inventions. He buys and sells objects from a stall in London’s Portobello Road, but has also built up an impressive collection of his own; a small museum’s worth perhaps.

It is with a hand-picked selection of some of these inventions, drawn from the 18th and 19th centuries, that Fletcher approached the Museum proposing a small, temporary exhibition on patent inventions. Working with Fletcher, and refining his selection for display, we created Patented, a temporary exhibition running in the Museum’s entrance gallery from 15 January – 10 March 2013.

Patented is a small exhibition – only 14 objects are on display – and so by no means provides a comprehensive account of British patent inventions during the 18th and 19th centuries. But the curious variety of devices on display, along with a few biographical nuggets about their creators, does paint a nice picture of the many ways that inventors sought to make a living by conceiving, and protecting, their ideas.

By granting ‘letters patent of invention’ to an individual, the government aimed to encourage and protect new industrial inventions by giving monopoly rights to produce an invention without direct competition for a period of time. Of course, this didn’t stop people copying, ripping off or just simply lying about their ‘patent’ in order to get a commercial advantage. Not surprising, perhaps, given the onerous bureaucratic hoop-jumping needed to secure patents: up to nine separate visits to various government offices in London, with a substantial fee levied at each, before 1852.

Nonetheless, all but two of the objects displayed in Patented were definitely granted monopoly by the Patent Office. Of the two, a set of facsimiles of horses’ mouths by J. C. Chawner claims to have been patented, although no record exists; and safety stirrups by William Lennan from around 1850 may have been patented in Ireland, but again the record remains elusive, if it ever existed.

The exhibition features an example of the 1784 Bramah Lock, created by Joseph Bramah and displayed in the company’s shop in Piccadilly as a ‘Challenge Lock’. “The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced.” So read the panel in the shop’s window. It was 67 years before American locksmith Arthur Charles Hobbs managed, after 51 hours spread over 16 days, to successfully pick the lock. Hobbs subsequently marketed his own patent inviolable lock. So it goes.

There’s also a very attractive, if devilishly complex, system of reading and writing for the blind, pre-dating Louis Braille’s system by 22 years. Patented in 1813, John Casson’s Panagram uses little wooden blocks, where each face is a different shape and each orientation of the face represents a different letter. If you’re mathematically sharp you’ll already have realised that’s only 24 letters (six faces, four possible orientations of each). The remaining two letters are distinguished by the addition of a little pin. It is not easy to use. But there is a secret message written in ‘Panagramese’ on display in the Museum… Why not visit and see if you can crack it?

And while you’re there check out the strange breathing apparatus, the first stirrups to release the hapless falling horse rider and, of course, the world’s second patented corkscrew, created by the 19th-century Birmingham entrepreneur Sir Edward Thomason.

Fletcher Wallis can be contacted at fletcherwallis@btinternet.com.

By Scott Billings, Exhibitions Assistant.