Behind the Scenes: Housing the Collections

  • John Liffen


The number of objects in the Science Museum’s collections in 2009 amounts to some 220,000 or so individual objects. If the number of constituent parts were to be included (for example, the hundreds of tools contained in a tool chest), that figure would be considerably higher; but 220,000, representing the number of separately accountable objects on the Museum Inventory, is a convenient estimate. Of that number, only about 7 per cent are on display in the Museum’s galleries at South Kensington; the remainder, about 204,000, are held in storage, either in a converted office building in west London or at a former airfield near Swindon, in Wiltshire. Although there is undoubtedly some ‘dead wood’ in these ‘reserve collections’, as they are sometimes called, on the whole they represent a judicious selection of significant items representing the material evidence of centuries of innovation in science, technology, industry and medicine. Yet, given any reasonable amount of resource, it is now impossible to display all this material in a normal museum setting. It is not what either the Museum’s staff or its visitors would necessarily wish, but it has become an inescapable fact of life. It is all the more noteworthy to find that as late as 1936 nearly all the objects in the Science Museum’s collections were, in theory at any rate, either freely on show in the galleries or available for inspection with little formality in basement study rooms or stores somewhere on the Museum’s South Kensington site.


Ground Floor Science Museum Manual Attendant Display Space Museum Object 
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  1. 19.
    H. Shaw, A Memorandum on the Future of the Science Museum (18 June 1943), SMD, Z 183/1.Google Scholar
  2. 27.
    This argument is developed in detail in Xerxes Mazda, The Changing Role of History in the Policy and Collections of the Science Museum, 1857–1973. Science Museum Papers in the History of Technology No. 3 (London: Science Museum, 1996).Google Scholar

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© NMSI 2010

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  • John Liffen

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