Friday, 18 March 2016

In praise of small museums: the Whipple, Cambridge

It's a steampunk dream: cases full of clocks, regulators, astrolabes, pocket sundials, clockwork models of the universe, and even, upstairs in a plush little Victorian parlour, old children's toys like the zoetrope.

I don't think the Whipple Museum was really intended for aesthetic appreciation. It's a serious museum dedicated to exploring the history of science, and its collection of scientific instrumentation is intended to show the development of scientific thinking and practice; it's not an art gallery or an amusement arcade. But then, on the other hand, there's nothing stopping you from regarding it as either.

One of the great things about the Whipple is that it's a museum that positively encourages different approaches. For instance, in one room there are 'high density' displays - chests of drawers devoted to particular topics - and you're welcome to pull the drawers out and peruse the objects inside. If you want to take your time studying one particular subject, you can. I spent nearly half an hour looking at antique sundials, many of them incredibly elegant little works illustrated with wind-puffing cherubs or Biblical stories. There were pillar sundials, folding sundials, polyhedron sundials, sundials ranging from very simple to terrifically complex, even nocturnal dials. They are utterly fascinating.

Or there's the 'Victorian parlour' which shows how scientific ideas were manifested in children's toys and parlour amusements - the zoetrope, magic lantern, stereoscopic viewer...

Or you can sit down and read a book, or one of the many information cards scattered around the museum. This isn't just a museum for looking at things; you can read up on a subject, peruse the catalogue, or look at a theoretical text which explains the science behind the object in the case. That information isn't restricted to paper - you can look up objects on the museum's database, too.

I hadn't expected to enjoy my visit nearly as much as I did. I wish more museums would offer visitors the range of interactions that the Whipple does. This isn't a glitzy museum with lots of videos and push-button interactive displays - it's quite simply laid out in a fairly traditional style - but someone has applied serious thought to enhancing visitors' experience and helping them to investigate and understand the exhibits.

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