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By Nick Wyatt on

25 years on: Treasures of the Science Museum in Japan

In 1998, the Science Museum delivered an ambitious, ground-breaking touring exhibition that took many of its most important objects to Japan. Treasures of the Science Museum showcased objects that had never left Britain before. Its Project Curator, Nick Wyatt, now the museum’s Keeper of Library and Archives, explores this project, and describes more recent cooperation with Japan.

The exhibition took advantage of a period between the clearance of the old transport gallery and the installation of the Making the Modern World gallery. A project team was assembled in early 1997 and three venues were chosen, in Kobe, Kitakyushu and Tokyo. There followed much negotiation concerning object selection, design, the text for labels, the bilingual published catalogue and arrangements for transport of the exhibits. The signing of the contract was marked by a meal at a leading London Japanese restaurant followed by obligatory karaoke!

Over 60 objects demonstrating British contributions to science, technology and medicine were selected. The oldest was the Standards of the Realm, a set of weights and measures dating from 1497 to 1601, such as this bushel measure. The newest was a wool jumper made from the first fleece taken from Dolly the cloned sheep.  This had been acquired after the exhibition was underway and exhibited in London before being flown to Japan and displayed in Tokyo.

The smallest exhibit was a bottle of artificial dye, thought at the time to be a sample from 1856, but has since been dated to 1906. The largest was Stephenson’s Rocket Locomotive, which became emblematic of the exhibition, featuring on advertising and on the cover of the published catalogue. Specialist locomotive movers were employed to prepare and pack it, and they had to remove its chimney for transport. All the objects had bespoke crates made for them.

Stephenson’s Rocket in its packing case

Other objects included the original Orrery, Arkwright’s spinning machine, Budding’s first Lawn Mower, Babbage’s trial model for his difference engine, the first Rover Safety bicycle, Logie Baird’s original television apparatus and the apparatus used to discover polyethylene.

Some objects demonstrated the historic links between Britain and Japan, including one of the three paintings displayed, the Launch of the ‘Fuji’ at Blackwall, from 1896. Another object was the Gray-Milne seismograph by James White, 1885, based on the work of the seismologists John Milne and Thomas Gray. Milne had spent many years in Japan, teaching in Tokyo and has been called the ‘father of seismology’, a claim recently reassessed by our Curator of Earth Sciences.

The first lawn mower, displayed as part of Treasures of the Science Museum

The exhibition was held from 21 March to 17 May 1998 in Kobe City Museum; from 31 May to 12 July 1998 at the West Japan General Exhibition Centre Annex, Kitakyushu City; and finally, from 22 July to 30 August 1998 at the Tokyo International Forum, It was opened here by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Imperial Prince and Princess Tomohito, and the British Ambassador, Sir David Wright.

‘Treasures of the Science Museum’ at the Tokyo International Forum, July 1998

The exhibition was popular with Japanese visitors and a successful demonstration of international cooperation with many partners, including the exhibition sponsor and leading Japanese newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, and the National Science Museum in Tokyo (now the National Museum of Nature and Science). The Science Museum’s Director at the time, Sir Neil Cossons, noted in the catalogue, ‘It is a high honour and a rare privilege for us to have the chance to place it [the exhibition] before Japanese audiences.’

Several Japanese newspapers covered the opening, in the Yomiuri Shimbun and the English language Daily Yomiuri and also in the British press, including the Financial Times and the Daily Mail, with the headline ‘The Rocket flies off to promote modern Britain.’

Advert for ‘Treasures of the Science Museum’ in Kitakyushu

Treasures of the Science Museum was a key part of wider celebrations, Festival UK98, which involved other museums and cultural events. Festival UK98 was a springboard for strengthening collaborative links between the UK and Japan. Since then, the Science Museum Group has loaned further objects to Japan, including items for a display on Japanese railways and paintings sent by the National Railway Museum in 2003-2004.

Collaboration has continued more recently, with the museum working closely with JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, to explore the loaning of space objects from Japan and opportunities for collaboration on research into the history and current practice of space exploration. We have also co-hosted a series of online seminars exploring different aspects of the development of space exploration in Asia.

We hope that the Science Museum Group will continue to benefit from close cooperation with Japan for many years to come.