Centuries-old globes displayed in the Whipple MuseumNutfortuna

The Whipple Museum of the History of Science holds a collection of scientific instruments, apparatus, models, kits, prints, diagrams, photographs, books and catalogues. If it is related to science, you name it and they've got it. This makes it my favourite museum out of the brilliant selection we have here in Cambridge, as you can see something new and unexpected on every visit – from a collection of calculators, to a giant model frog, to a unique 360-degree view of their wide range of globes.

However, the Whipple Museum is currently undergoing renovation. Its main hall was originally constructed in 1618, as the first Cambridge free school. In the 19th century, the building housed the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection, before being sold to the University of Cambridge in 1890. The Cavendish Laboratory was built next door, and the main hall became an electrical laboratory and then the Department of Physical Chemistry, as still marked by the carving above the department’s front door. In 1956, the hall became the permanent home of the Whipple Collection – previously, Robert Stewart Whipple's collection of scientific instruments had been shifted around the basements and side-rooms of Cambridge.

Given the long history of this building, the original features need a little maintenance from time to time. Its distinctive ceiling is held up by ornate roof-truces, yet the frames of the skylights had become rotten and would over time weaken the entire structure. The flooring, lighting and windows were also long overdue a replacement, producing a major project which has demanded what is effectively a game of Tetris on a vast scale to move all of the museum objects between galleries. The renovation is now in its final stages, with new flooring currently being laid in the museum’s side galleries, and the exhibits beginning to be reassembled in the main hall.


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Although the museum closed last July, its activities have not by any means stopped. Museums are not just the buildings which house their collections – they are part of a community, both of local and national museums and of visitors and local residents. The Cambridge Museums undertake lots of work in the wider community, and it is this that the Whipple has focused on during its closure, through outreach visits to schools and other museums’ events. As a history of science museum, the Whipple has many links to Cambridge’s other museums, from demonstrating old microscopes at the Museum of Zoology to exploring how astrolabes are used in arctic navigation at the Polar Museum.

So do not fear – if you just cannot wait to cast your eyes on some magnificent scientific instruments, the University Library is hosting an exhibition on 200 years of the Cambridge Philosophical Society from the 8th of March. If you fancy making an evening of some history of science, the Museum of Zoology will be hosting a ‘late’ on the 22nd of March celebrating this 200th anniversary, in collaboration with the Whipple Museum and complete with wine!  The Whipple Museum itself will reopen in April.

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