Museum of History of Science scours its storeroom for an eccentric look at Eccentricity

By Richard Moss | 20 May 2011
satirical cratoon of a man breaking wind
Detail from a satirical print by James Gilray, 1802 titled Scientific Researches! - New Discoveries in PNEUMATICS! - or an experimental lecture on the Powers of Air© Courtesy the Museum of the History of Science
Exhibition: Eccentricity: Unexpected Objects and Irregular Behaviour, Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, until October 16 2011

For its latest exhibition, the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford has been dusting off some of the more curious relics hiding in its store, resulting in a wonderful parade of bizarre and unfathomable items ranging from a Chinese typewriter to a box of dust.

Little wonder, then, that these curious objects – with the possible exception of Nostradamus’ astrolabe – are normally kept out of sight of the visiting public. As the museum readily admits, most of them “don’t fit easily” into a conventional history of science.

But as with the most interesting museum objects, it’s the human stories they tell which bring them alive. Why else would a museum of science have a beer mat, a crimping machine or a teapot?

Among the many tall tales, visitors will learn about the eminent Professor Buckland’s penchant for eating anything and everything, including a French King’s heart. Or the story of the first Guerrilla Gardener, Miss Willmott, a celebrated botanist who secretly scattered seeds for her namesake plant ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ in every garden she visited.

Many of the items have come to the museum as a result of bequests – which frequently offer entire collections or a scientist’s entire laboratory full of equipment.

One such gift is remembered by Tony Simcock, Archivist at the Museum, who in 1967 helped select items from the private laboratory of the experimental physiologist JS Haldane. 

“We were told we could take anything except the lawn-mower - the room had been used for 30 years as a garden shed,” he says. 

“Things rescued included scientific instruments, papers of the famous philosopher and geneticist JBS Haldane (JS Haldane's son), and a stale sandwich, which I eventually and with heavy heart threw away.”

A full programme of lectures, tours and eccentric events are scheduled alongside the exhibition.

  • Open 12pm-5pm Tuesday-Friday (10am-5pm Saturday, 2pm-5pm Sunday). Admission free.
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