Whipple Museum of the History of Science

The Whipple Museum is one of nine venues making up ‘University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Gardens’ and is nestled between four larger institutions. Being so spoiled for choice in Cambridge means it can be easy to overlook the Whipple’s charming collection of curiosities, but its comparatively understated nature offers a real sense of discovery and I would thoroughly recommend a visit.

Now I am sure your first question, as was mine, is who or what is a Whipple? Well in this case it refers to Robert Stewart Whipple (1871-1953) who presented his collection of 1000 scientific instruments to Cambridge University in 1944. It is this donation that formed the nucleus of the Whipple Museum. This has gradually been added to, building up an array of beautiful historic equipment, which people have used over the ages to try and better understand the world around them.

Having worked in Cambridge for a few years, I had heard tales of this fantastic collection but had never managed to visit. With the Whipple having just completed a six-month renovation, I finally took the opportunity.

Unlike many institutions that shout their presence and barrage you with information, discovering the Whipple is part of its appeal. A back entrance takes you through a series of small winding passages, which have an almost labyrinthine feel, but even the main entrance is not imposing. It is situated on Free School Lane, a small side road just off of Pembroke Street, and is housed on the old site of the Perse School. When I visited, I found a family standing at the door seemingly too timid to open it and unsure if they were in the right place. However, after I plucked up the courage, they followed me in.

Once through the door you make your way up a small flight of stairs and turn left into the Main Gallery, a high-ceilinged room with intricate timber trusses, that was once used as the school hall.

The gallery treats you to a myriad of items used to study the heavens and the microscopic world, with a series of beautiful brass microscopes and telescopes, which would make anyone nostalgic for a bygone age.

The first item that grabs your attention is a Grand Orrery, built in 1750, a circular display around 1.5 meters in diameter, which forms a mechanical model of the solar system. When cranked, the planets would rotate as if in orbit and demonstrate celestial bodies in motion. However, the piece has two notable omissions, Uranus and Neptune, which in 1750 had not yet been discovered. This story is continued at the far end of the Main Gallery, which is dominated by an impressive 10-foot-long ‘Newtonian Hershal Telescope’, clad in a mahogany frame. This was made by Sir William Hershal, who discovered Uranus in 1781, after the Orrery was built. These pieces encapsulate very nicely the story of the Whipple Museum as a whole; how our understanding of science has developed over the ages, in tandem with the instruments we use to study it, but that the past and present are linked by a curiosity to learn more.

Another key theme the Whipple Museum collections convey is how scientific research and discovery has always gone hand in hand with teaching and passing on newfound knowledge to others. At the very back of the Main Gallery you reach a section dedicated to models, used to demonstrate complex principles in an engaging and often ingenious way. For example, an ophthalmotrope, consisting of two eyes attached to a series of weights on strings, demonstrates how muscles of the eyes control their movement – pull a string and see the eye move! Some of my favourite pieces though were models of glass fungi. These disease-causing microbes are usually associated with decay and disgust but ultimately, when blown up in scale for all to see, are truly beautiful and incredibly intricate. The lecturer who made these models knew this and aimed to share his fascination with others, creating them out of glass tubes melted together with a Bunsen burner.

Delving deeper into the Museum you reach the Special Exhibition Hall, at the far right of the Main Gallery. When I visited, the display was on ‘Astronomy and Empire’, which continues the theme of star gazing, but this time adds more context. Here you explore the instruments, practices and tools used by those sent around the world in the service of the British Empire; such as an array of elaborate sextants, which were used for sea faring navigation and played a part in discovering, trading with and even claiming new lands. This display reminds us that scientific advances are rarely isolated from rest of the world and the history of scientific study the Whipple preserves shows us much more than just an expansion of knowledge over time. Technology has always been tangled up with connecting populations, shaping cultures, and determining seats of power.

Off to the side of the Special Exhibition Hall you find the Learning Lab, a space where group visits and younger audiences can arrange a more hands on interaction with the collection. Appropriately for a Learning Lab, there are also more items on display used over the years by students and their teachers. Chief among them is a giant anatomical model of a frog, coloured to highlight its skeletal and muscle structure, which was used for teaching at the Cambridge Zoology Department until the mid-1960s.

For the final part of the collection you head through the back of the Special Exhibition Room and upstairs to the attic, where you find the Upper Gallery. As you walk in you are invited to immerse yourself in the world of a replica Victorian Parlour. You can investigate cabinets of toys and items from the time, or even try on one of the available outfits to really feel the part!

After a spot of role play you then reach the globe exhibit just beyond. This impressive collection fills the room with globes of all shapes, styles and sizes, with examples across the ages, from medieval times to the modern day. The exhibition explains that globes have been used for many different reasons, from education or simple decoration to demonstrating possession of territory and power. However, for all these differences the collection again highlights key similarities between the past and present, that as humans we have always endeavoured to better understand the world around us, the planet we live on and our place within it all.

Globes Gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge

Ultimately, the Whipple Museum reminds us why people study science; to expand our knowledge and share this information with others. The collections make you appreciate how far we’ve come but, for me, also triggered a definite tinge of sadness. In a digitally dominated world with an app for everything, these heavy hand-crafted mechanical instruments are now a thing of the past. We should be mindful that the limitations of technology, have historically fostered creativity and driven innovation in fascinating directions. The ‘Astronomy and Empire’ exhibit also shows how scientific advances and discoveries can become entangled in complex and often negative endeavours. However, at its heart, the Whipple Museum should remind us all of what can be achieved with simple, shared curiosity.

If your curiosity has also been peaked by this taster, why not go and visit this wonderful museum for yourself.

Practical notes

Museum information: http://www.sites.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/

Location: Free School Lane, between Bene't Street and Pembroke Street, in the centre of Cambridge, CB2 3RH.

See a map and more details on how to get there on the Museum website: http://www.sites.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/visitorinformation/

Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 12:30 – 4:30pm. Closed on bank holidays.

Admission: Free, although donations are always welcome.

Also keep an eye out for special events (http://www.sites.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/events/) or enquire about group visits (http://www.sites.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/groupbookings/), which unless stated otherwise are also free of charge and open to all.

Facilities on site: Due to its small size the Museum has only one toilet and facilities for storing coats and bags are also limited as there is no lockable storage. Unfortunately, the Museum does not have a space in which groups can consume food or drink.

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M.P. Hayes