The Whipple Museum of the History of Science will be closed from 4 July 2018 to January 2019. Find out why below…

The Whipple Museum’s Main Gallery today, with the Grand Orrery front and centre.

Enter the Whipple Museum of the History of Science and you can’t help but be struck by the architecture of the Main Gallery. The eye is drawn upwards to the ceiling, with its Jacobean hammer-beam roof-trusses — a fancy name for those prominent, decorative features that support the structure of the roof.  These are original to the room – a room which dates to 1618 and has had a number of different functions in its long life. It was built to be the first Free School in Cambridge – now the Perse School – before housing the Fitzwilliam Museum collection; it was then converted into laboratories and finally became the home of the Whipple Collection. Track the illustrations and photographs of the room through the centuries and it’s the ceiling that reassures you that this is still the same building.

The Perse Hall (current Main Gallery) in the 1800s

A beautiful room, with an interesting history, that showcases an outstanding collection. But that ceiling is causing us a bit of a problem. To be more precise, the wooden frames of the skylights are rotten, causing leaks and – in the longer-term – tending towards failure. The University has now located the funds to deal with this problem and the skylights are to be replaced over the summer. However, this is not a straightforward process.

The Fitzwilliam Collection at the Perse Hall

Due to the height of the ceiling, a crash deck will need to be installed for the duration of the Main Gallery skylight repairs. For both the safety and accessibility of the collection, the entire gallery needs to be de-installed, which has significant knock-on effects for our object storage. In short, we have a huge 3D jigsaw puzzle to solve.

However, the length of our closure presents us with an exciting opportunity to tackle all manner of other issues. We will be making improvements to other windows in the Main and Upper galleries, upgrading the lighting, making access improvements, changing our Main Gallery displays, undertaking object conservation work, and — most dramatically to the eye – an overhaul of our flooring. This change to our flooring will involve all of our other galleries and further deinstallation of our displays later in the year. The 3D jigsaw puzzle only increases in size and complexity.

The Perse Hall when used as an electrical laboratory by the University, 1910

Moving collections requires care, precision, and exemplary documentation. But a certain amount of creativity has also been involved in conjuring usable space into existence. This is our current conundrum: finding pockets of secure storage in our already tightly packed museum. And let’s face it, large objects like the Herschel Telescope and the Grand Orrery don’t make life easy for us!

Perse Hall after it became the Main Gallery in 1956

When the project starts, there is the dreaded possibility of pre-existing (but currently contained!) asbestos delaying the project – something which can only be assessed when the crash deck is in. Hopefully nothing disruptive will be found, but the length of our closure (from 4th July 2018 to January 2019), gives us the time to tackle that puzzle in a different way, if needs be.

To keep you informed of developments in this work, we will be updating our website and writing further blog posts. Learning and outreach work will continue throughout the closure – further details of events and teaching opportunities can be found on our website.

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