New gallery tells stories of how maths underpins the world
In 1818, the Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh sent a letter to all British consuls across the world, asking them to obtain examples of their local standard weights. At that time the UK had no universal conversion table between the many different systems of weights and measures used by foreign cities.
It took two years for all 71 sets of weights to arrive in London, where they were put in two cabinets installed in the Royal Mint. When the measurements were compared with each other, the Mint discovered that almost every previous conversion table was wrong – and that for the previous century these errors had been costing UK traders dosh.
Lord Castelreagh’s Consular Collection of Attested Foreign Standard Weights now stands in the Science Museum’s new mathematics gallery, which opens tomorrow in London. The cabinets make probably the most beautiful display in the collection. It has 71 numbered drawers, each with the name of a city from Alicant to Wismar. Some of the drawers are open, showing the shiny metal weights inside, and looking like it could be a Liberty’s Christmas window display.
Mathematics underlies all science, so for a science museum to be worthy of the name, maths needs to included somewhere. Yet maths, which deals mainly in abstract objects, is challenge for museums, which necessarily contain physical ones. The Science Museum’s approach in its new gallery is to tell historical stories about the influence of mathematics in the real world, rather than actually focussing directly on the mathematical ideas involved. The result is a stunning gallery, with fascinating objects beautifully laid out, yet which eschews explaining any maths. (If you want to learn simple mathematical ideas, you can always head to the museum’s new interactive gallery, Wonderlab).
Much of the attention on Mathematics: The Winton Gallery – the main funders are David Harding, founder and CEO of investment firm Winton, and his wife Claudia – has been on Zaha Hadid’s design. The gallery is the first UK project by Zaha Hadid Architects to open since her unexpected death in March, and the only permanent public museum exhibition she designed. Her first degree was in maths, before she turned to architecture.
Hanging from the ceiling is an aeroplane – the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’, built in 1929 for a competition to build safe aircraft – and surrounding it is a swirly ceiling sculpture that represents the mathematical equations that describe airflow. In fact, the entire gallery follows the contours of the flow, providing the positions of the cabinets below.
The Science Museum’s previous maths gallery, which had not been updated in decades, contained about 600 objects, including cabinets crammed with geometrical objects and many examples of the same thing, such as medieval slide rules or Victorian curve-drawing machines. The new gallery has less than a quarter of that number of objects in the same space.
Every object now is in its own cabinet, and the extra space means you can walk around them from all angles, as well as making the gallery feel more manageable. Rather than being bombarded with stuff, you are given a single object to contemplate that tells part of a wider story.
In a section on “form and beauty”, there is a modern replica of a 1920s chair based on French architect’s Le Corbusier’s Modulor system of proportions, and two J W Turner sketches from his Royal Academy lectures on perspective.
The section “trade and travel” has a 3-metre long replica of the 1973 Globtik Tokyo oil tanker, then the largest ship in the world. In its massive cabinet it looks as terrifying as a Damien Hirst shark. The maths link? Because British mathematician William Froode a century before had worked out that bulbous bows were better than sharp bows at the fronts of boats and ships.
I enjoyed the consular cabinet of foreign weights not just because it looked so beautiful but perhaps because of its wider message about how complicated the world is when no one agrees on anything. My other favourite exhibits were the 1933 tote machine, which looked like a Heath Robinson contraption made out of Meccano, but was used at Wembley greyhound stadium for calculating the odds of the dogs in real time. And the 1952 Moniac, which modelled the British economy using the flow of water.
The new maths gallery is a wonderfully attractive space, full of interesting and thought-provoking objects, and a very welcome addition [geddit?] to London’s museums. Go!
Mathematics: The Winton Gallery is free to visit and open daily 10am-6pm from Thursday December 8 at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London.
I’m the author of several books of popular mathematics, most recently Can You Solve My Problems? A Casebook of Ingenious, Perplexing and Totally Satisfying Puzzles.Available from the Guardian Bookshop and other retailers.