It's Bye Bye Blackboard At The Museum Of The History Of Science

By Sara Chare | 26 April 2005
Shows a photograph of a blackboard with chalk architectural drawings on it including bridges and structures that span wide distances.

Leading architect Nicholas Grimshaw contributed this to the show. Courtesy Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University.

Despite thinking she'd left those days behind, Sara Chare headed over to Oxford to put in some time in front of a blackboard.

To mark Einstein Year and to celebrate the centenary of the Special Theory of Relativity, the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University has organised an exhibition of blackboards!

The inspiration for the exhibition comes from the blackboard used by Albert Einstein during his lecture at Oxford in 1931. It was preserved by the university and has been kept ever since.

With this artefact as their starting point the museum invited a number of well-known people to chalk on blackboards the same size as Einstein’s and the results are on display in the basement until September 18 2005.

Shows a photograph of a blackboard covered in equations written in chalk.

Einstein's blackboard. Courtesy Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University.

Despite my initial reaction that an exhibition highlighting the demise of the blackboard and celebrating a scientist would be dull, I find myself highly recommending it.

A range of people accepted the invitation to write something on a blackboard and the results are worth reading for their variety and the ideas voiced. There are blackboards from people as diverse as an astronomer, a pianist, a historian and even a chef.

Some have taken inspiration from Einstein, some have decided to use the medium as an opportunity to relay their own theories or ideas, and others have made political or social statements.

Shows a photograph of a blackboard with several lines of writing on it.

The five questions we should all ask ourselves by former MP Tony Benn. Courtesy Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University.

Tony Benn has set out key questions he thinks everyone should ask themselves about the nature of power and democracy and Glenda Jackson MP examines a woman’s right to vote and her responsibility to make use of that right in the form of an equation.

Newsreader Jon Snow has taken a slightly different approach from the others and has chalked his message on the importance of global warming on a slate-surfaced globe.

In addition to these thought-provoking messages, there are also the more creative-minded blackboards. Musician Brian Eno explores pictorially the theory that popular music stems from Arabic singing being bounced around the world. Artist Cornelia Parker has created a work entitled Navigating a Cliff Edge in Darkness by writing blindfolded on her board using chalk from Beachy Head.

As for me, my favourite contributions are those of cartoonist Michael Heath and Lord Patten of Barnes.

Shows a photograph of a blackboard with a image of a small child writing on a blackboard and saying Please sir, it doesn't add up to a teacher standing beside it.

A lighter offering from cartoonist Michael Heath. Courtesy Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University.

Michael Heath has chalked a cartoon of Einstein and a schoolboy and the sketch is reminiscent of those pictures drawn on blackboards by schoolchildren. As for Lord Patten, he has simply written ‘If it wasn’t for the squeaks, I would much prefer this technology to my newly acquired laptop’.

These two boards express the nostalgia that anyone who went to school at the time of the blackboard will feel.

Bye bye blackboard…from Einstein and others seems to want to explore a wealth of ideas such as science, art, celebrity and nostalgia. At the beginning of the exhibition is a panel explaining that blackboards are meant for immediate communication. The transient nature of the messages they impart is implied, as things are continually revised, erased and renewed upon them.

Shows a photograph of a blackboard with a map of the world drawn on it.

Brian Eno traces the global influence of Arabic singing. Courtesy Museum of the History of Science, Oxford University.

I don’t know for sure if the exhibition manages to explore in depth all the elements it would like to, however, it is an interesting celebration of a dying form of communication.

It's novel to see the blackboard not just as a teaching aid, covered in formulae and theories, but also as a piece of art.

It may not sound enticing, but this exhibition is one of the most interesting and thought provoking I have seen in a long time. I challenge you not to be engaged by at least one of the blackboards on display.

For those of you who think I have forgotten Einstein’s efforts…I haven’t. His blackboard is in a glass case and is central to the exhibition. It is one of the simplest boards on display and yet it is exploring some of the most fundamental questions of cosmology. It speaks for itself.

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