Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums
Working in a museum is sometimes like being an explorer — and occasionally it even involves being a kid at heart. I’ve had tremendous fun recently because of a new acquisition: 33 little kits called ‘Things of Science.’
These marvellous little boxes and envelopes from around the world would never have arrived at the Whipple Museum if it wasn’t for a student. Museums expand their collections for all sorts of reasons — aesthetics, national or local significance, prestige etc. — and as a University museum based in an academic department, we often collect objects for research purposes. Our Curator of Modern Sciences Josh Nall can tell us more:
“The Whipple Museum’s primary function is to support research and teaching in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. We’re lucky to have a modest acquisitions budget, which helps us expand the collection and find new source materials for students and scholars to work on. The first question we always ask when we’re considering buying something is: Is there a research project in this?
We were approached by a student who was interested in studying museum objects for their dissertation. We chatted with the student, who expressed an interest in the history of science education. During the conversation our Curator and Director, Liba Taub, remembered a subscription service she had been gifted as a child. ‘Things of Science’, she remembered, would post a small box to your house once a month, containing a different science experiment, or model, with instructions and information. Liba thought that it might be a good subject to study, especially if we could get hold of some of the original boxes.”
We found that these science kits were being sold off online by people who’d received them as children, much like Liba once had. We were able to purchase thirty-three kits which will form the foundation of a student’s object-based research project in the department.
As museum technician I was the one who got to unpack these curious little kits upon arrival. I’d like to think I was every bit as excited by these mail order boxes as the children who received them originally. And to think this was before I even got to open them!
The kits we’ve acquired are a mixture of the blue boxes American children received as part of the Science Service in the 1960s and the white boxes sent out by the British equivalent in the mid-60s to early 70s. There are also a couple of manilla envelopes with more flat-pack material from both distributors.
Things of Science started as a kind of sampler kit for journalists and teachers who had to enthuse others about science, but quickly developed into something aimed at schoolchildren and students. Each unit brought new and exciting materials to your door step (such as new types of plastic, unusual fabrics, or exotic alloys that most people would normally never encounter in everyday life) and contained everything you needed to conduct a few experiments at home.
The British kits were developed for the Advisory Centre for Education and were always aimed at a young audience. There’s a tantalizing link to Cambridge as these kits were designed here and many of the leaflets were probably written by local academics and scientists.
These retro boxes have delighted me as I’ve opened each one to assess their condition and whether or not they may be hazardous or cause problems later on in the life of our collection. Something that was once completely harmless to send through the post to kids may have decayed in such a way that the researchers need to wear a mask to handle the contents today.
I think my favourite thing about them is the optimism each little information booklet conveys: this was the Space Age and anything was possible! While I haven’t been able to read everything even a passing glance at the text in these leaflets gives you an indication of how enthused the authors were about each kit. I hope they sparked many people’s imagination.
As Josh puts it: “Objects like these are a good reminder that not every object in a museum is a priceless antique. Mundane, ephemeral objects are often just as important to us, because they’re just as likely to provide a crucial window onto the world of past science.”
If you’d like to read more about Things of Science there’s a wonderful page dedicated to them here.
Jenny Mathiasson, Museum Technician, Whipple Museum of the History of Science