Science is an open book to us all

This Is Wiltshire: Barrie Hudson and assistant librarian John Underwood examine an illustration of a headlouse Barrie Hudson and assistant librarian John Underwood examine an illustration of a headlouse

I HAD a couple of hours to spare the other day, so I decided to have a look through my collection of scientific books, manuscripts and general ephemera.

You know how it is – you accumulate this stuff here and there over the years, put it on a shelf and sometimes forget you have it.

The first thing that caught my eye was my original Apollo 11 flight plan from July of 1969, a thick document signed by first moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin and used by ITN to help it guide viewers through the historic mission.

Nearby, coincidentally, was my original copy of On Sunspots by Galileo, without whom none of this space travel lark would have been possible. It’s looking good even though it’s nearly 400 years old.

I also cherish my handwritten copy of a thesis on jet engines by the man who invented them, Frank Whittle. It makes a nice companion piece to my original technical drawing of a proposed swing-wing jet aircraft by Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, the designer best known for the bouncing bomb used by the Dambusters. The things in my collection are probably worth millions, although I collect them for their fascination and history rather than their cash value.

Did I say ‘my collection’? Sorry – slip of the keyboard. I meant to say ‘our collection’ because it belongs to all of us and we’re all welcome to visit, look, read, examine and experience. It also happens to be on our doorsteps.

“It’s the national collection and it belongs to everybody,” said John Underwood, assistant librarian at the Science Museum’s library and archives in Wroughton.

“These items don’t want to be hidden away on shelves – they want to be seen. We feel very strongly about that. We want people to come and visit and use the collection.

“We have 26 kilometres of shelves and half a million items, including 10,000 journals. You don’t have to be a specialist researcher to come here.”

As most of us know, the old airfield hangars are used to store Science Museum exhibits when they’re not being used by the London Science Museum, the National Railway Museum in York, the National Media Museum in Bradford and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

The Wroughton site is in the midst of a modernisation programme, with the Second World War-era hangars being stripped of asbestos cladding and other outdated materials and made fit eventually to receive visitors.

Objects in storage include cars, aircraft, motorcycles, railway ticket machines, primitive photo booths and countless devices and gadgets from years, decades and centuries gone by.

The diligent hunter will even find the whole of the historic old Grantham station, its irreplaceable period railway architecture carefully disassembled, labelled and boxed.

“We have 11 hangars and they’re all full to the brim,” said Matt Moore, who heads the Wroughton site.

Matt’s been with the Science Museum for a dozen years, and his career highlights include showing a certain Eugene Cernan around the Apollo 10 command module at the London site. It was the first time astronaut Cernan had seen it since he rode it around the Moon in a final dress rehearsal for the first landing.

What not many people realise, and what the museum is anxious to tell them, is that the library and archives welcome visitors. Its staff also welcome groups and lay on exhibitions of treasures for those with special interests, as well as taking items to schools.

David Dawson, a 62-year-old retired head teacher, leads the educational liaison department and has visited countless schools. “It engages them in science,” he said. “When they see objects there’s a ‘wow’ factor. These things are here, they are physical and they can be touched.”

Assistant librarian John Underwood added: “Sometimes it’s the best job in the world, being able to promote these collections and bring them to the attention of the community.”

John’s favourite item is a huge and priceless multi-volume catalogue of the antiquities of Egypt, compiled by a team of artists and historians working for Napoleon a couple of hundred years ago. We’re all welcome to go and see it for ourselves.

The library and archives are open on weekdays from 10am to 5pm. There is even a free Tuesday shuttle service from Swindon Station. The only restriction on entry is that visitors are asked to book at least 24 hours in advance rather than simply coming along.

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