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The Science Museum

Prince Albert

The origins of the Science Museum lie in the nineteenth-century movement to improve scientific and technical education. Prince Albert was a leading figure in this movement, and he was primarily responsible for the Great Exhibition of 1851 to promote the achievements of science and technology. The profits of the hugely successful Exhibition were used to purchase land in South Kensington to establish institutions devoted to the promotion and improvement of industrial technology. At the same time, the Government set up a Science & Art Department which established the South Kensington Museum in 1857, from which the Science Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum have developed.

The objects on display in the South Kensington Museum were drawn from various sources including the Great Exhibition. Most were art objects, but the 'science collections', as they were known, included models, apparatus, examples of materials, books and educational resources. The collections were boosted by an international exhibition in 1876 of scientific instruments. In 1884 the Patent Museum passed on its stock of patent models to the science collections, including priceless objects such as Stephenson's 'Rocket' and Arkwright's original textile machinery. The arts and science collections gradually assumed their own identities to the extent that the Science Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum were formally separated in 1909. A new building to house the Science Museum was formally opened by King George V in 1928. The Museum continued to expand its premises and its collections. In the early 1980s, objects from the Wellcome collection were placed on permanent display.

One of Britain's most significant contributions to industrialisation was the development of the steam railway in the nineteenth century. The extensive collections on railway history held by British Railways were transferred to the Science Museum as a result of the 1968 Transport Act. This led to the establishment of the National Railway Museum in York in 1975. A second initiative was the opening of the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford in 1983 which aims to study the art and the science of images. Collectively the three museums are known as the National Museum of Science & Industry. In 1976 the Science Museum acquired the valuable Wellcome Collection of over 125,000 objects. The Collection spans the history and practice of medicine from the ancient Greeks to present-day techniques, and is continually updated to map developments in biochemistry and genetics.

The National Heritage Act of 1983 meant that the Museum was transferred from a government department to a Board of Trustees with members appointed by the Prime Minister. A period of rapid expansion followed. New interactive galleries, such as Launch Pad and Flight Lab, were opened, supplementary exhibitions were initiated and the Museum developed a busy programme of activities and events. New Galleries in 1996 included the imaginative "Secret Life of the Home" and extensive new hands-on education facilities.