Psychology at the Science Museum
As part of its ongoing commitment to promoting public engagement with psychology and its history, the British Psychological Society
has had a long and fruitful relationship with
the Science Museum in London. The Society sponsored a BPS research associate, Geoff
Bunn, at the Museum from 1999 to 2002, and a full-time BPS Curator of
Psychology, Phil Loring, from 2009 to 2014.
Their work helped to significantly strengthen the Museum’s psychology collections, and also to make those collections more visible and accessible.
Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology
In December 2013 this major BPS-supported temporary exhibition opened. It explores the way our understanding of human psychology has evolved since the 1700s. Tracing the links between minds and nerves, it brings together science, medicine and human stories through an array of over 160 objects never before seen on public display. The exhibition will run until late 2014.
Mind Your Head
The Museum has one permanent exhibition dedicated to psychology: ‘Mind Your Head’
, on the fourth floor, opened in 2001 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the BPS. However, objects of interest to psychology can be found throughout the Museum, from the cybernetic tortoise
in ‘Making the Modern World’ on the ground floor to alms boxes from Bedlam in the fifth-floor History of Medicine Gallery. To help locate some of these objects, the Museum and the BPS have produced a ‘Psychology Trail’ handout.
‘Who am I?’
The ‘Who am I?’
gallery on the 1st floor of the Museum’s Wellcome Wing focuses on the way that contemporary neuroscience and
genetics are changing our understanding of ourselves. It includes display cases
and interactive exhibits on topics of great interest to psychologists and students
of psychology: dreaming, intelligence, face recognition and many others. The whole
gallery was most recently updated in 2010, and it includes one case which is
updated six times a year.
‘Brought to Life’
The Museum's acclaimed web portal for the history of medicine, 'Brought to Life'. The enlarged site includes a major section on the history of Mental Health and Illness
authored by BPS Curator Phil Loring. It includes a general introduction plus four short historical essays on asylums
, and women
. Each essay is hyperlinked to dozens of shorter passages on significant people and technologies, ranging from King George III
(and his hair
) to SSRIs
. The section also features photographs and descriptions of almost 200 objects from the Museum’s psychology and psychiatry collections, most of which have never before been exhibited. These are fully searchable, and the high-quality photographs are freely downloadable for personal, non-commercial use, teaching and research.
The section also features a special interactive ‘game’
created by the BPS Curator in collaboration with a web designer. This interactive allows users to explore changes in psychiatric testing and diagnosis via three re-animated tests from the museum's collection.
On the last Wednesday of every month, at Lates
, the Museum opens until 10pm, for adults only. It provides an excellent opportunity for curators to show off objects that are not usually on display.
At past Lates, the BPS Curator has presented objects ranging from medical vibrators (for treating hysteria) to ECT machines. A conversation with the Curator about historical IQ tests, recorded live at the Lates in May 2010 was featured on the Guardian’s
‘Science Weekly’ podcast
. The IQ bit begins about 22 minutes in. (The podcast also features psychologist Kevin Dutton talking about persuasion.)
In 2012 and 2014 the BPS sponsored three special evening events for curious adults at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre
. The first, ‘Casino IQ’, used a casino-night format to bring audience members
inside the history of IQ testing. Audience members put on conservation gloves
and tried out actual subtests from historical IQ tests such as Stoelting
form-boards, the original Stanford-Binet test, the original Weschler, and the
first British Ability Scales.
The second, called ‘The Next Big Thing:
Psychology’, invited seven university-based psychologists at various stages in
their career, from PhD student to senior scholar, to promote their own research
as the next big thing. Each researcher discussed his or her own work in about five
minutes, with small groups of visitors around a café table. After the
psychologists had rotated around to all the tables in the room (like
speed-dating), the audience’s top three favourites were then invited to pitch
their work in one minute. The winner: Daniel
from London South Bank University, for his work on group identity in
addicts. Many thanks to him and the other brave participants:
- Johanna Spiers, Birkbeck University
- Katie Slocombe, University of York
- Keon West, Goldsmiths, University of London
- Sonja Carmichael, City University London
- Tom Manly, Medical Research Council
- Vivien Ainley, Royal Holloway, University of London
The third event, ‘Who’s Driving Brain Research?’. brought together four scientists
working across the spectrum from single neurons to social behaviour. Each made
a 10-minute presentation on the future of brain research, followed by an open
Q&A with the audience. The participants were:
- Bhismadev Chakrabarti, Associate Professor in
the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading
- Catherine Loveday, Principal Lecturer,
Department of Psychology, Westminster University
- Kate Jeffery, Professor of Behavioural
Neuroscience and Director of the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience,
University College London
- Michael Hausser, Wellcome Trust Principal
Research Fellow and Professor of Neuroscience, University College London
A short film showing highlights of the event will be available on YouTube.
Psychology items from the Science Museum’s collections have been featured on
a number of broadcast, print, and online publications. Highlights include:
- BBC Radio 4, In
Search of Ourselves: The Story of Psychology (25-part series airing from
April 2014), BBC Radio 4, All in the Mind, 10 December 2013
magazine, history of vibrators, October 2012
- BBC TV, The
One Show, history of IQ tests, 11 September 2012
- Time Out
London, The Sex Issue, 9 November 2009
Growing the psychology collections
At present the Science Museum holds an unrivalled collection of tests of mental and manual ability. Many of these come from the BPS’s former library of psychological tests, others from psychological clinics and centres such as the Maudsley Hospital. It also has an extensive collection of artefacts representing mental health care in the UK. Many of these were acquired when mental hospitals closed in the 1980s and 1990s under ‘Care in the Community’.
Further, it has also collected a variety of experimental apparatus from
university psychology departments around the UK, including the laboratory of pioneering
early 20th-century psychologist (and former BPS President) Beatrice Edgell of Bedford College, London.
This material was kept safe by the BPS for many years before being donated to
the Science Museum.