Today, we go to museums. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I love museums. In a
day-by-day world they are a place apart -- a time
capsule, a fairyland. They seem as ethereal as the
special effects on a 2-dimensional movie screen;
but they are concrete. I'm just back from
nine, museum-dense days in London and Cambridge,
and I need to think out loud about this adventure
in Museum Mecca.
Cambridge University is scattered throughout a
renaissance town. The town itself is a
museum, even before you enter any building. Many
Colleges have their own museums. And, while the
Cambridge churches often charge admission, the
museums are free. Perhaps some theological
statement lurks in there; I do not know.
Largest is the Fitzwilliam museum. It houses all
manner of art, antiquities, and books.
Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, a primary source of
late sixteenth and early seventeenth century music,
is there. The Museum also holds most of Handel's
Twelve miles south, in Duxford, the Imperial War
Museum is primarily a superb aircraft collection.
Its huge American Air Museum is only one piece. We
spent all day at Duxford, and went away with the
sad knowledge that we'd hurried past as many
airplanes as we'd taken in. Back in Cambridge, the
Anthropology Museum alone held a huge array of
items that I'd only read and written about.
Time closed in, and we moved on to London -- far
richer still in its displays. In London's Science
Museum, one event put an amazing perspective on
British museums: we moved slowly, studying labels,
discussing specific artifacts, when a docent came
up and started a conversation. His job, it seems,
was to spot patrons with more than a passing
interest, and to enrich their visit.
He absorbed us -- spent the entire day showing us
everything. And the wealth of their
"everything" boggles the mind. Here was
the first lawnmower, Bessemer's converter and
Otto's engine, the apparatus James Joule used to
confirm the first law of thermodynamics, the first
photographic negatives, Turing's computer, the
actual rockets whose red glare we sing about in our
national anthem. All that before we'd even finished
the first floor!
We visited the Tate Museum, the Natural History
Museum, Greenwich Observatory, the Victoria and
Albert and the Florence Nightin-gale Museums. Then,
when we finally rested our tired feet in the
returning airplane, we could only marvel at how
much we'd missed.
And, after spending so much time with this rich
past, I thought of Whitehead who wrote, "A
science that hesitates to forget its founders is
lost." I certainly view that remark with
distrust, but it does contain a truth. Among the
many lessons of these nine days was this: Every
splendid thing we'd seen was given us by someone
who'd transcended the past and ventured into
We need to claim and celebrate the greatness and
beauty revealed here without being bound by
it. Celebrate the genius, not the artifact.
Each of us is remarkable. Each of us can do that
one new thing that no one in these
exhibits ever thought of doing.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Here are websites for many of museums I mention:
The person from the London Science Museum who was
so helpful was Michael Abbott.