The British Museum: Ming and Germany

The British Museum has a couple of big exhibitions on at the moment, about China’s Ming dynasty and Germany.

The bigger one is undeniably Ming: 50 years that changed China, being held in the museum’s shiny new gallery. It did a solid job at contextualising what the Ming dynasty was and why 1400-1450 was so important (Beijing as the new capital, the Forbidden City, Zheng He, etc.) and the emperor’s involved, and while there were some very nice objects on display, it felt pretty antiseptic. The object that I heard the most people talking about was a lovely scroll depicting the Xuande emperor playing football, golf, and polo as part of military training exercises. You could’ve made a whole exhibition out of that…


Germany: memories of a nation doesn’t sound like the most gripping exhibition, and its subtitle “A 600-year history in objects” tellingly tries to link it to the museum’s superpowered “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. It also belies its lack of focus; the subtitle might as well have been “Some interesting stuff from Germany.” Yet it was interesting – hundreds of coins showing the Germany’s early fractured nature, interesting manufactures, Napoleon’s hat, modern artworks, wartime propaganda, and so on.

The gallery was packed full, which was rather uncomfortable given its tight confines (particularly compared to the vast spaces of the Ming exhibition). Initially, I was surprised – surely China is way more interesting and cool than Germany? – but then again, Germany is incredibly important to the UK. We feel like we know so much about it compared to other countries, perhaps because the history taught in schools is so obsessed with WW1 and WW2, but it turns out that the vast majority of people, myself included, really know very little about any part of Europe. And with Germany effectively powering the European Union, and with popular sentiment pitted so firmly against the EU, it’s hardly surprising at all that the exhibition would be popular.

So: more European exhibitions, please!

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.

Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?

I visit the Science Museum in London at least twice a year, so I was interested to read an interview with their new Director, talking about how he’s going to change the place:

A month into his job, Professor Rapley is sitting in his South Kensington office, telling me that broadly the museum’s collection celebrates “the advances in technology since the Industrial Revolution, right up to, but not quite including, today”.

He wants to turn that on its head. “Its image is that it looks backwards through its collection. It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children. Where we want to go with it, the tag line is, ‘the museum of the future’.” He would like the museum to be sufficiently up-to-date that someone seeing, say, a climate-change sceptic on TV, might think, “I’m confused about climate change. I’d better go to the Science Museum and see what they’re presenting in order to help me make up my mind.”

Prof. Rapley is spot on when he says that ‘it’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children’. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing (and I suspect he agrees), but I’m pleased with his desire to make the museum more up-to-date for adults. Unfortunately, I remain to be convinced that he’ll be able to accomplish this.

Every single science museum I’ve visited (including ones in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Sydney) tries to stay up-to-date with scientific developments with exactly the same methods:

  • Scientific news stories shown on computer touchscreens and big TVs

Basically useless. If you’re an adult in a science museum, you probably know a little about science, and you will know how to use the internet. So why bother coming in to a museum to read about science news on a computer, when you can do that at home?

  • Quarterly, or perhaps monthly, standing displays on scientific issues

Not current enough – people forget about stuff after a month, certainly three months.

  • Short talks from scientists, a few times a day

Not only do visitors need to be aware of when the talks are happening, but they need to be there on time and have the patience to sit through it. This is an unlikely confluence of events.

  • Guys dressed in white labcoats sitting behind a desk, ready to answer scientific questions

Who talks to these guys? what are you supposed to say? ‘What are your views on stem cells?’ No-one expects someone to be knowledgeable in every scientific discipline, so that further dissuades any questions.

So, you can see why I am very doubtful about the ability of the Science Museum to stay up-to-date. Continue reading “Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?”


Now with photos!

I’ve been to a lot of science musuems. Off the top of my head, I’ve visited major museums in London, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam and Sydney – and a host of smaller places besides. As I’ve written before, I don’t go with the intention of actually learning anything; the intended audience for science museums is rather less knowledgable than I am (conversely, I learn more from history museums). Instead, I love to see the different ways in which people are trying to explain scientific concepts. It’s never an easy task, and some museums are better than others in this regard, but what I do learn are interesting ways in which you can engage, educate and entertain a diverse audience.

The Exploratorium in San Francisco isn’t just next door to the Palace of Fine Arts, where we held the Perplex City live event last week – it shares the very same structure. Despite this, I didn’t even get a chance to look at its front door until some days after it was all over. I resolved to make a proper visit though; while I didn’t know much about it, I’d heard it mentioned over and over again, and it surely had to be good, sitting in the world’s creative and technology capital.

Picture a science museum. It probably has an imposing, classical facade, with a wide lobby. Inside, there are a number of areas which you can visit, so you dither in front of a map and go to Physics. It’s a middling-sized area, with a mix of banners, wall posters, computers and various exhibits. Tourists drift around, and children zip between the hands-on exhibits, frantically pressing all available buttons when they can get to the front. Their parents follow around in tow, occasionally studying the wall posters or poking at the computers. Some of the hands-on exhibits don’t work, and there seems to be an awful lot of reading to be done.

This basically describes about 70-80% of the science museums I’ve been to. They’re perfectly fine, but nothing special. The better museums have more interactive exhibits and are slightly more freeform.

Now picture the Exploratorium. Continue reading “Exploratorium”

Free, as in Beer

As a big fan of museums, I’m always eager to hear news of how well they’ve been doing since the government scrapped admissions charges. Today it’s been announced that since the charges were scrapped in 2001, visitor numbers have increased by 75%, or 6 million. Considering that it used to be fairly pricey to go to a museum, I’m not at all surprised.

The interesting part of the article is not the increase in visitor numbers, which anyone could have predicted, or the fact that the government has decided to make the change permanent. It’s the fact that the Conservatives would like to give museums the ability to charge what they want, and furthermore, they’d like to charge foreign tourists to enter. Since the Conservatives have zero chance of winning the next election, I’m not particularly fazed by this stunning show of stupidity, but it does warrant some thought.

Presumably the Conservatives simply want to roll back the changes so that along with allowing museums to charge for admission, they’d also remove their VAT exemption, meaning that we’d be in exactly the same position as three years ago – lower visitor numbers, and museums have pretty much the same money they always did. Clearly, a great result, which also happens to ignore the fact that every museum I’ve visited has some kind of premium annex (from IMAX to big dinosaur exhibitions) that makes them a fair bit of cash. There’s no doubt that museums require more funding, but reintroducing admissions charges is not the way to go.

It’s charging foreign tourists that’s the most laughable suggestion. Exactly how would this work in practice? Are museums supposed to check the nationality of every single visitor, so people would have to bring ID, not just for themselves but also for their children? Apart from the additional queues and costs this would cause, any tourist with half a brain would be able to get around it somehow (I can already think of a few ways). Besides, I’m always told by foreign friends visiting the UK how impressed they are that museums in this country are free; it leaves them with a lasting good opinion and makes them more likely to recommend the UK to their friends and relatives back home.

So, in conclusion – keep free admission, give our museums more money, and the Conservatives are stupid.

Strike Back

A recent conversation:

Him: I need to get a new mouse for my computer – the right button doesn’t work any more.
Me: Hmm, that sucks. I guess it means that you can’t-
Him: Yeah, I can’t crouch in Counterstrike any more, I can hardly play it now.


Me: I was going to say, ‘write essays as quickly’ but Counterstrike is just as good.

The Lord of the Rings exhibition I went to on Saturday was smaller than I had imagined, but in all fairness that’s not all that much more they could have put there; on display were practically all the principal costumes and suits of armour, various models, props, videos, casts, drawings and paintings. Since it was the penultimate day of the exhibition, it was fairly crowded but not so much that it wasn’t possible to get close up to the cases. Surprisingly enough, very few people actually looked at the One Ring (embedded in a pillar of perspex so people can’t get their hands – or fingers – on it), which gave me plenty of time to dance and cackle evilly around it.

Afterwardes, we wandered around the Science Museum for a couple of hours. I was not all that impressed with some of the areas and there was the usual problems of exhibits having writing too dark to read or hopelessly outdated information. The new Wellcome Wing, which was very high tech and shiny and blue, practically had the opposite problem. While it was very up-to-date, there were far too many computers around and far too little direction or purpose to the exhibits. Its only saving grace was its top floor, where it had group computer games and surveys. I couldn’t help thinking what wonders could be done in the Science Museum if their money was spent a little differently.

Take The Sword Of The King

Tomorrow I’m off to London with a motley crew of friends to see the Lord of the Rings exhibition at the Science Museum, one day before it leaves this country and heads to New York. I’m definitely looking forward to it; I wasn’t that keen on The Fellowship of the Ring, and while I enjoyed The Two Towers, I was a little uneasy about the changes in the storyline. By the time of The Return of the King, I’d accepted that the story wasn’t going to be the same as the book, so I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. In fact, I’m listening to the soundtrack (which I bought, not downloaded) right now.


Continuing my epic journey around the globe to Contact all Culture listees that are the furthest away from me (despite having not met most of the guys in London) I spent a fun day going around Melbourne with Claire.

First up was the ScienceWorks museum outside the city centre. I’ve made something of a hobby of visiting science museums in the last few years; I’m not really learning anything from them, but I do find it interesting to check up on what kids are learning these days and how the public perceive science. Being a good-for-nothing student, I got in for free although I did pay $2 to get inside the special Formula 1 section. This was interesting enough although more aimed at kids – just like the whole museum, really.

There were a few interesting exhibits in the Formula 1 section, such as a little air hockey car crash table, a Simon Says game that bore a strong resemblance to Dance Dance Revolution, and an F55 driving arcade simulator. I did pretty well on the arcade game, managing to finish the race; mind you, I was driving with all the assists on. Claire didn’t fare so well and apparently had some difficulties with the accelerator…

Things that stand out in my head from the rest of the museum: the big steam pump in the sewage station that, if in a Stephen Baxter novel, would probably have been the engine for some space rocket; the ‘journey of a poo’ computer exhibit in the sewage building; the rowing and wheelchair exhibits in the sports section; the strange talking cat in the James Cook section; and the jump measurement exhibit where, on my second go, I managed to jump a startling 9mm high (it was a bug, I swear!)

All in all, the ScienceWorks place was pretty good value for money, costing me about 70p, but it’s very much suited for kids and school groups.

For lunch, we went to the Botanic Gardens, a pleasant enough place where we talked about how the world would be far better if we were dictators. From there, it was a short walk to the Shrine of Remembrance building which was very grand, and then into the city centre. I was surprised to see that Eddie Izzard was in Melbourne that day for his Sexie tour, but seats cost $62 and I figured that I didn’t really want to go on my own; maybe I’ll go back in the UK.

As we were walking back from the Ticketmaster place, I spied an arcade, and immediately dragged Claire to be indoctrinated into the ways of Dance Dance Revolution and thus join the grand pantheon of Rich, Lal, Eccles and myself. I have to say that Claire gave it a good go and I think she was pretty good by the end of the game, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an experience she won’t repeat any time soon.

Federation Square wasn’t far away so on the recommendation of a friend we checked out the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. This was a quite a new building and still hadn’t been fully completed; however, we did manage to see the Remembrance exhibit. I made some comments to Claire about how I feel modern art can often be hit and miss, and sometimes inaccessible to those who are not completely familiar with it. It’s a difficult subject for me; while I enjoy walking around modern art galleries like the Tate Modern, a lot of it just passes me by, while there are only a few that really make an impact. Maybe it’s supposed to be that way.

Coffee, and then we fought our way through the traffic to park at Melbourne University and search for a good place for dinner. A suitably good pizza place was discovered and I detailed my plan to hold a huge world Culture List event if/when I become a millionaire. It is something I have thought about not inconsiderably, and consists of two alternatives: plan A is the Culture Convention, which will take place in international waters on board a refitted warshiop, and plan B is the ‘Pied Piper of Culture’ in which I will traverse the globe, collecting various listees and terrorising the locals.

So, it was a fun day and tomorrow I’ll be going into the city centre again to check out the Melbourne Museum and the Imax, and maybe do a spot of shopping.


Had a great day in Sydney today. Clear skies as usual, and in the morning I hopped on the Monorail for a quick ride around. It’s not wonderfully fast or smooth, but it’s worth a try if you’re here. Following that, I visited the top of Centrepoint Tower, which is about 250m tall and looks out over the entire area; photos will be posted eventually, but it all looked good. There was a surprising amount of smog around; nowhere near as much as London, but I guess anything other than ‘none’ would’ve been surprising given my ultra-clean impression of Australia thus far.

When you buy a ticket for Centrepoint Tower (aka Sydney Tower) you get a free ride on the Sydney Tour. This is a little like a themepark tour, but for Australia, so you get to sit around watching little holographic dioramas (not as cool as it sounds) with headphones on, walk through painfully fake caves with aboriginal art, and then finish up with a low-definition movie while being moved around on actuated seats.

It only lasts 35 minutes, but let me assure you, they are 35 minutes that are a total waste of your life. I feel sorry for the tour guides, myself; after each of the sections, our guide would ask, ‘So did everyone enjoy that?’ After a long, uncomfortable and rebellious silence, someone from the back would mutter, ‘Yeah.’

I escaped as soon as I could, and met up with a friend for lunch in Chinatown. Here’s a piece of impromptu advice for finding good chinese restaurants: if it’s full of English/caucasian people, it’s bad. If there’s a queue of chinese people waiting outside, it’s good. This restaurant had a really long queue of chinese people outside.

We then wandered over to the Powerhouse Museum; this place is great, it has a very modern and cultured feel to it, and has all sorts of exhibits, from scientific to historical. There are nice art exhibits dotted around it to break things up, and it passes the key test: everything works. A final bonus is that it cost a little over �1 to get in as a student.

A pub in the centre initially provided a good spot for her to interview me on some game thoughts, until they turned the music up, and I also got the chance to try out some Australian beer. To round things off, I went to a Japanese restaurant in Newtown that she’d recommended, called Asakusa, which I in turn would happily recommend to everyone else. Maybe I should’ve gotten used to this by now, but for the price of a normal meal in the UK, I got vast quantities of yumlicious seafood and a starter that was actually visible to the naked eye.

Shop names spotted on the walk back home: ‘Better Read Than Dead’ (a bookshop) and ‘D’ough!’.