It isn’t often that you see your boss’s face light up like a kid in a sweet shop, but when Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, walked in to Power Hall at theMuseum of Science and Industry in Manchester (MOSI) on Tuesday morning, the noise and steam coming from the working engines certainly had him smiling. He will have to wait for his next visit to get in to the Air and Space Gallery, where our pilot President will, no doubt, want to get in to the cockpits of some of the planes built in the North West in the early twentieth century.
Paul and others from the Society were in Manchester this week to meet with Fellows and Research Fellows from across the North of England. We took the opportunity to pop in to MOSI and meet with the new Director, Jean Franczyk, to talk about ways in which the Society and the Museum can work together. For me, this was a bit of blast from the past. Growing up in Manchester, MOSI was the place that we got taken at least once a year on a school trip. At 10am on Tuesday, I smiled as a Roman Centurion met a group of primary school children to take them off to the Castlefield Roman Fort remains, before carrying on with their whistlestop tour of Mancunian history through the museum (we bumped in to them later learning about James Joule). I remembered being shown through the cotton production process, and the noise reverberating through the hall as the machines clattered their way along (maybe the Luddites were just after a bit of peace and quiet?). And most memorably, I remember being taken to the ‘sewers’, and being treated to the delightful smell of 1830s sanitation – or lack thereof. We were spared the sewers this time, though I am assured that they remain a big draw for school children!
MOSI has moved on a lot since my last visit there as a teenager. With their incorporation in the Science Museum Group (SMG), there are plans for this development to continue. MOSI is the only site in the SMG on historical premises (the world’s oldest surviving railway station), and they do a great job of telling the story of Manchester through the Industrial Revolution and beyond, but, as I told Jean, my school trips to the museum were always off the back of history lessons rather than science. Telling contemporary stories about science, and inspiring visitors with a love of science as well as pride in former glories are major priorities for MOSI in the coming months and years. Exhibits on computing and the Mancunian success story of Graphene are good building blocks for this blend of past, present and future. Next month’s Manchester Science Festival should also go some way to bringing today’s science alive for the widest range of audiences across the North West.
But thinking about my day job, which mostly involves working with Fellows of the Royal Society and others to make a case for sustainable investment in and good management of research, I think that the historical side of MOSI’s remit is invaluable. Walking around a huge museum dedicated to the building blocks of a city’s prosperity, you learn an inspiring story of how the Manchester of today sprang from innovation and invention, manufacturing and science. A story of how running with big ideas, and backing them with investment and enthusiasm, led to dramatic social, economic and political change. Today’s policy makers might like to have a few reminders of their childhood school trips – they might be inspired by a vision of what a similar approach could achieve today.