Museums, Science and Nature in review 2012: Skeletons, superhumans and sunflowers:

By Ben Miller | 21 December 2012
A photo of a man in a suit peering inside a lamp
Lightbulb discoveries at the Museum of Science and Industry© Chris Foster

From Alan Turing to overstuffed walruses, it’s been quite a year in Science and Nature. Here are some of the memorable highlights...


a photo of a partially eclipsed lunar body
"Fingers crossed for a clear night," prayed Andrew Kuhne, of the National Waterfront Museum, kicking off the year in Swansea by inviting dozens of visitors to look at the stars from the Courtyard Garden.

A local volunteer, Ron Whalley, fires up one of only two examples in the country of the earliest electric light at MOSI, where one lucky visitors wins a vintage motorbike from the venue’s exhibition of Harley-Davidsons.

A pair of brilliant scientists were honoured: an exhibition at the Science Museum marked the 70th birthday of Stephen Hawking, and an art collection in Dundee was dedicated to polymath forefather D’Arcy Thompson.


a detail of an abstract painting of swirls and shapes
© Courtesy UCL Grant Museum of Zoology
The Art by Animals exhibition at the Grant Museum compared ape creativity with the scribbles of infants. "It starts to raise very interesting questions about the nature of human art,” said co-curator Mike Tuck.

Hefty rock the Tissant was the latest addition to fall to earth at the Natural History Museum. “Arguably this is the most important meteorite to have fallen in 100 years,” pointed out Dr Caroline Smith, the museum’s meteorite curator.

Backed by the UK Border Agency, a display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum highlighted the growing illegal trade in rhino horn. Kangaroos, humpback whales and leatherback turtles whizzed through the Natural History Museum at Tring.

Alan Turing's legacy was remembered for the first time on the centenary of the master code-cracker’s birth with a group show combining old and new technologies at Lighthouse in Brighton, and the Colossus machine at the National Museum of Computing.


a photo of three smiling people with sunflowers
© Chris Foster/MOSI
An uplifting development for Alan Turing’s birthday in Manchester – groups from across the city used 3,000 sunflowers to help solve one of the few codes he didn’t manage to unravel before his death in 1954.

The Royal Observatory attempted to Measure the Universe, coinciding with a once-in-a-lifetime transit across the face of the Sun.

March was festival month: Vince Cable launched Newcastle Science Fest, National Science and Engine Week explored Our World in Motion, Plymouth University welcomed an Insect Film Festival and AV Festival featured a glass brain and spinal column which pulsated electromagnetic light and reacted to human contact.

Brains, at the Wellcome Collection, were lovely rather than interesting, a term which could also be applied to the Fears, Foes and Faeries, assembled by collector William James Clarke more than a century ago, including an 18-foot giant squid in Scarborough.

Turing's centenary formed a major show at the Manchester Museum. The Natural History Museum presented a major outdoor wildlife photography show, and the Science Museum hosted a 600-year-old alchemy tale and a Wasabi Alarm used to save lives in Japan.


a photo of people interacting with a digital artwork in a gallery
© Photo: Brian Slater
Facebook bots and self-sustaining orgasms were two of the delights of FACT’s Robots and Avatars show in Liverpool. But there was gentler fare at the Jackfield Tile Museum, where the International Garden Photographer of the Year display was vivid and spectacular.

Animal Inside Out, at the Natural History Museum, was a slightly creepy exhibition by Gunther von Hagens, who preserved animal corpses, allowing them to be displayed with forensic veracity.

A giant sea lizard, stone carving and an expert-led jamboree based on rocks were a few of the highlights of a Cultural Olympiad programme, Maritime Mix, announced around the south-west’s Jurassic Coast.

“Our world is by turns preposterously loud, pin-drop quiet, highly-charged, intense and frequently overwhelming,” explained Esa-Pekka Salonen, the leader of an orchestra the public were invited to conduct at the Science Museum.


a photograph of two women in saris submerged to their shoulders in water
© Gideon Mendel
The effects of global warming in faraway countries – and closer to home – were rarely brought into as high-resolution view as they were by Drowning World at Somerset House. Gideon Mendel’s photos showed individuals coping with flooding in India, Haiti and Pakistan, as well as Australia and Britain.

Sustainability theories took centre stage in an iPhone-friendly work of art at Chelsea College, while the likes of Jeremy Deller, Marcus Coates and duo Semiconductor headed for Galápagos via Liverpool’s Bluecoat.

Supersized nano-particles made for an illuminating close-up at the Magna, and the Ulster Museum allowed a plethora of true-scale dinosaurs to run amok in one of the best Prehistoric shows of the summer.

Sussex announced plans to gain a biosphere reserve on the same list as the Amazon rainforest, and a dream came true in Northern Ireland as residents won funds to buy 130 acres of nature reserve land.


a circular image of a seahorse in the ocean
© Lynette Wallworth, Produced by Felix Media, co-produced by Forma and Bridget Ikin (2012)
Ants, sharks and hippos combined for a show which stopped the judges in their tracks in the Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year outing to National Museum Cardiff.

A five-year expedition around the oceans and seas of Papua New Guinea and the Great Barrier Reef, working with cinematographers, musicians and marine biologists in Indonesia and Florida, resulted in an amazing Planetarium show by artist Lynette Wallworth at the Royal Observatory.

Sculptor David Nash opened a series of monumental works at Kew. “An exhibition of this kind really helps to convey a simple but vital concept; that we are part of the web of life and nature responds to how we care for it,” observed Steve Hopper, the Chief Scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Thinktank’s £2.8 million Science Garden opened with 42 exhibits, numerous fun zones, a human-sized hamster wheel, an elasticated squirter and a pair of huge propellers in Birmingham.


a photo of a pair of spectacles, a hearing aid and a pair of false teeth suspended on strings
© Wellcome Collection
The Wellcome’s Superhuman display illustrated the often strange ways in which our bodies have been advanced and enhanced across centuries of innovation.

Another unnerving show with nods to sci-fi came at the Royal West of England Academy, and artist Kelly Richardson enveloped audiences in an eight-screen installation soundtracked by animals, insects and a lyrebird imitating a car alarm on Tyneside.

The RSPB wanted help to save the Cockney Sparrow in London, while Jeremy Deller was on the trail of bats around the Olympic Stadium site.

A hotting-up Cultural Olympiad programme heralded glacial climes on a floating island based on an expedition to a High Arctic archipelago. Granted permission by the Governor of Svalbard, Nowereisland sailed onto our coast from international waters.

Three exhibitions caught the eye: acclaimed photographers portrayed dramatically altered landscapes in Uncommon Ground, Exhibition Road took an awesome array of science art to the street beyond the Science Museum, and Daring Explorers inspired young minds with tales of Victorian adventurers at the Natural History Museum Tring.


a photo of a colourful rock crystal
© National Museums Scotland
A male jawfish off the coast of Florida provided the first glimpse of this year’s Environment Photographer of the Year in London. "He couldn't have been more co-operative," said photographer Steven Kovacs.

Dutch artist Melvin Moti explored the fluorescent light of rocks at the National Museum of Scotland, which were as colourful as a "crazy stiff carbon" bike you could try at the V&A Museum of Childhood during the Olympic Games.

Treefest, the annual festival of all things bark-based, returned to the National Arboretum with live sculpting.

Ever-reliable for an idiosyncratic exhibition, the Grant Museum revealed a show of the unseen, including a skull-less monkey, pig and monkey teeth, an eight-legged puppy and birds and plums in jars.

The final 50 in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year show went on display. Giant otters, flying foxes, lion packs, magic mushrooms and Tanzanian cheetahs were a few to watch out for.


a photo of a man holding a small metal bull
© Seth Jackson
The eerie lighthouse at Cromarty, in Inverness, was lit up by Stephen Hurrel and Mark Lyken, a pair of science artists whose compositions triggered water movements, working with scientists to decipher how the spaces we inhabit affect patterns of human and dolphin behaviour.

At the other end of the coastline, artist Kurt Jackson was on a mission to photograph every bull in the parish of St Just, laying on a display of local ephemera at the county’s central museum as part of a BBC backed project.

Australian-based photographer Martin Pugh won the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition for a portrait of the Whirlpool Galaxy. “It captures an astonishing range of details – the beautiful spiral structure, dark lanes of dust and the way the pink clouds of hydrogen really stand out,” said an admiring Dr Marek Kukula, who was on the judging panel.

On the bicentenary of poet Edward Lear’s birth, the Ashmolean featured his artwork. Exotic animals and birds sat proud. “He was one of the greatest of all natural history illustrators,” said Senior Curator Colin Harrison.


a photo of US medics tending a wounded soldier on a beach
At the University of Padua, in Italy, a circular academic amphitheatre is the oldest dissection classroom still in use today. Somehow, the Royal College of Physicians managed to procure ancient anatomical tables from there, telling a gristly tale of veins, nerves, arteries and dubious corpses, thought to have once been owned by “lynx with a knife” Sir John Finch.

More medical interventions appeared in the Imperial War Museum North’s Saving Lives exhibition, which offered personal testimonies from those involved in frontline medicine during conflicts stretching back to the fields of the First World War.

Menageries were on the minds of National Museum Cardiff – where a new natural history gallery revealed the surprising similarities between domestic dogs and wolves – and at Essex's Fry Art Gallery, where depictions of all creatures great and small adorned the walls.

The Manchester Science Festival was on typically good form, returning with everything from book readings and Turing exhibitions to technology debates and sculptures made of teeth.


A wedding photo overpainted with skeleton motifs
© Marcos Raya
Death was on the mind of the Wellcome in one of the best shows of the year, drawing from the collection of Canadian Richard Harris. Carved death masks, anatomical studies, flea market photos and prints by Rembrandt, Dürer and Goya all featured.

Forests appeared in two exhibitions in Sussex. At Eastbourne's Towner, you could walk through one created by Tate installation deviser Olafur Eliasson. In Horsham, Steve Gubbins crafted a Forest of Rainbows.

Adie Blundell summoned alchemists, doctors, hypochondriacs, ancient mariners and a wolf in sheep’s clothing in a faintly macabre show at Coventry’s Herbert.

The 2.5-tonne Dekatron was rebooted to become the world’s oldest digital computer at The National Museum of Computing, completing a three-year labour of love courtesy a team of volunteers.


a photograph of electro static
© Alexandre Burton
A fizzing end to the year at FACT, where Winter Sparks was a playground of Tesla coils. The human nervous system was mirrored, and Noisy Table allowed visitors to “hack” a ping pong table.

There was more interactivity in the form of Wave at the Museum of Science and Industry. Signune Hamann’s gesturing figures ranged from the everyday and comforting to the historical.

Former Manchester biology student Johan Oldekop returned to the city with All Other Things Being Equal, an artistic and socio-economic look at the current situation in the Amazon rainforest and the surrounding communities.

Darwin collaborator Alfred Russel Wallace died in 1914 and the Natural History Museum announced how the story of this intrepid naturalist will be told, with help from comedian Bill Bailey.

Turner Contemporary will have a giant overstuffed walrus to look forward to next year. It’s leaving the Horniman Museum – where it has moved only once within the same gallery since 1901 – as part of a Hayward touring exhibition, Curiosity, Art and the Pleasures of Knowing.

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