B35 is a small and unassuming room in the basement of Blythe House, an object store in west London used by the Science Museum Group, V&A and the British Museum.
Once you step inside its large metal door, however, the walls are lined with more than 350,000 black and white photo negatives, colour transparencies and prints on paper, spanning the 1880s to 2003.
Over the past five years, our team has studied, packed and transported around 300,000 objects from Blythe House to a new collection management facility at the Science and Innovation Park in Wiltshire.
The vast majority of the Science Museum Group’s objects that filled Blythe House were historic objects from X-ray machines to spanners.
The photography archive in B35 nearly matched this number of objects in a single room, and they also needed to be studied, packed and moved safely.
Teams have worked hard to improve our records for these photographs, helping support our staff and the public to explore these collections for themselves. Recording information about these items is incredibly important and sharing collections is at the very core of what museums exist to do.
Our work has enabled important photographic negatives, such as the Ian Allen Collection of transportation photography, to be catalogued helping improve future public access to these items.
Some of the photographic items in B35 intersect in brilliant ways with other aspects of the Science Museum Group Collection.
James Gillingham was a prosthetic limb manufacturer in Chard, Somerset in the 19th century, and one of the first to take photographs of his work.
Gillingham started off as a boot and shoemaker, until 1863 when he made a prosthetic limb for a local man in Chard who lost an arm firing a cannon for a celebratory salute.
Gillingham made this limb for free, and used his knowledge of shoemaking and leather work to mould the limb to the body, much like a pair of well fitting shoes.
In 1868, The Lancet described Gillingham’s prostheses as “strong, light and durable”, and as a result, Chard became a major centre of the British artificial limb industry. By 1910, he had helped restore mobility to more than 15,000 patients.
Our orthopaedics collection already holds an incredible selection of prosthetic and orthotic limbs, many from the time period that Gillingham was working, and the photography supplements this. We have roughly 560 of Gillingham’s negatives, including one of a Miss Gammon wearing lower leg prosthetics.
As one of the first prosthetic makers to take pictures of his work, we are able to see the objects themselves, as well as the people (like Miss Gammon) he made them for.
The rest of the material in B35, which forms the Science Museum Photography Archive, consists of images of the museum itself. These include photographs and negatives from the 1880s when the Science Museum was part of the South Kensington Museum, right up until 2003 when our in-house Photography Studio went digital.
These photographs include original images of collection items from throughout the museum’s history taken when first acquired, to different views of permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions, some which closed decades ago.
These images offer a glimpse into the stories and objects we have shared with visitors throughout our history.
This photography archive also helps our curators piece the chronology of past exhibitions and object displays together. These show trends from the times, feature prominent visitors such as the late Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and could potentially prompt new ideas for the future.
These images will join our Corporate Archive so that researchers, colleagues and the public will be able to share and celebrate the long and illustrious history of the Science Museum as we look to the future of the Science Museum Group and our collection’s new home at the Science and Innovation Park.