Psychology at the Science Museum
As part of its ongoing commitment to promoting public engagement with psychology and its history, the British Psychological Society currently sponsors a five-year curatorship at the Science Museum in London. The role of the BPS Curator of Psychology is to strengthen the Museum’s psychology collections, and also to make those collections more visible and accessible.
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. Request one by contacting the BPS Curator.
‘Brought to Life’
In April 2010 the Museum expanded its website for the history of medicine, 'Brought to Life'. The enlarged site includes a major new section on the history of Mental Health and Illness authored by the BPS Curator. It includes a general introduction plus four short historical essays on asylums, nervousness, trauma, 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.
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. Feedback is welcome; please contact the BPS curator.
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. Mental Health Month is the planned theme for the Lates on 25 April 2012, which will feature a variety of events and speakers linked to psychology. If you’d like to directly participate, don’t hesitate to contact the BPS curator. Hope to see you there!
At past Lates, the BPS Curator has presented objects ranging from medical vibrators (for treating hysteria) to ECT machines. In May 2010, at a Lates dedicated to ‘Genius,’ he showed historical IQ tests. A conversation with the Curator recorded live at the event 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.)
‘Who am I?’
In June 2010 the ‘Who am I?’ gallery on the 1st floor of the Museum’s Wellcome Wing re-opened following a complete renovation. It includes display cases on topics of great interest to psychologists and to anyone: dreaming, intelligence, face recognition, and many others.
Things to come
In 2012 and 2013 the BPS will be sponsoring special evening events for curious adults at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre. For more details, please contact the BPS Curator.
The BPS Curator is actively contributing to several exciting upcoming exhibitions. A show on pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing will open in June 2012, with a section on 1950s therapies designed to combat homosexuality. A BPS-sponsored temporary exhibition, on a topic still to be announced (watch this space!), will open in June 2013. An exhibition on the history of robots, scheduled for 2014, will highlight cybernetics and cognitive science. And planning is underway for a complete redevelopment of the Museum’s permanent history of medicine galleries. The BPS Curator, who has been involved in this redevelopment from its earliest stages, is committed to integrating psychology and mental health throughout the new galleries.
Growing the psychology collections
At present the Science Museum holds an unrivalled collection of tests of mental and manual ability, some of which come from the BPS’s former library of psychological tests. It also has an extensive collection of artefacts from mental institutions in the UK. Many of these were acquired when those institutions closed in the 1980s and 1990s under ‘Care in the Community’.
The BPS Curator of Psychology is always looking to acquire new objects. The goal is both to build on the strengths of the existing collection and to fill in certain gaps. For example, the collection includes a range of ECT machines and their accessories (such as mouth-gags), but few artefacts related to the other ‘heroic’ somatic therapies like malarial fever, insulin coma, metrazol, or lobotomy.
The curator is also particularly interested in acquiring objects related to animal research, learning disabilities, and today's mental health care.
Contact the BPS Curator of Psychology
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