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Museums and collections


The History of Environmental Science

The history of environmental science is integral to our understanding of the future, whether it be the scientific equipment that gave us the data we now use to predict probably futures, or the way society has viewed environmental and scientific change.

Celebration of science

The painting, ‘An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton’ held at The Fitzwilliam Museum celebrates the achievements of Sir Isaac Newton explaining the scientific nature of light in his Opticks of 1704. While this painting refers to his discoveries - a prism and a beam of light, central to Newton's experiments, cuts across the canvas -  it also celebrates the individual scientist and the importance of scientific endeavor through the use of an enormous urn within the Valeriani brothers' fantasy church setting and an entourage of allegorical mourners, demonstrating a somewhat theatrical interpretation of the loss to humankind of a pioneer of science.

See the painting at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton by Giovanni Battista Pittoni (1687 - 1767), Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge




Natural Curiosity

For nearly two thousand years, one of the most influential texts on the subject of meteorology was by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE). According to Aristotle, weather resulted from the cyclical movement of two exhalations: one hot and dry like fire, the other vaporous and water-like. When heat from the sun caused water to break into smaller parts, vapour rose into the upper regions of the air where cold exhalations caused the vapour to fall back to the earth.  Following on from Aristotle, the Greek scientist Theophrastus compiled a book on weather forecasting, called the Book of Signs which remained a dominant influence in the study of weather and in weather forecasting for millennia.

But as ancient civilisations have come and gone, so the natural curiosity to understand our climate has endured. Pomponius Mela, who wrote around AD 43, was known as the earliest Roman geographer. During his work he formalised the climatic zone system. Find out more about Greek and Roman civilsations and their endeavours into environmental science at both the Museum of Classical Archaeology and the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

Natural philosophers and scientists have long studied the conditions of our atmosphere using instruments, charts, and maps. The Whipple collection includes excellent examples of instruments that measure air pressure (barometers), temperature (thermometers), evaporation rates (atmometers), wind (anemometers), and humidity (hygrometers). The Museum also holds a collection of charts and maps charting weather patterns and meteorological phenomena.

These objects can be seen in the Whipple Museum’s ‘Discovery Gallery’.


Credit: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge



Explorers and Collectors

Behind the history of science are the scientist themselves, the collectors, plant hunters, explorers. 

Most famous in our collections is Charles Darwin. On December 27th 1831, at the age of 22, Charles Darwin set sail aboard HMS Beagle bound for South America. During the five year surveying voyage, Darwin collected many specimens of animals, plants, rocks and fossils. The observations he made were important in the formulation of his theory of descent with modification, and many feature in his revolutionary work ‘The Origin of Species’, published in 1859. Some of the material collected on the Beagle voyage is now housed in the Museum of Zoology and the Sedgwick Museum.

Find out more about the collections at the Museum of Zoology and Sedgwick Museum.

Use this interactive to learn about the tools and experiences Darwin had on his voyage.

Credit: Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge

Scientific Data

With new technology comes the opportunity for new scientific discovery, but for some things we are reliant on information and measurements gathered decades ago. At The Polar Museum you can explorer all of the current scientific research in to climate change from getting historic temperatures from ice cores to predicted sea level rises. However you will also discover the ships logs and meteorological measurements taken over a hundred years ago in Antarctica by explorers such at Captain Scott. Measurements of temperature and air pressure are still used today to provide baseline measurements in understanding future climate change.

See images of science activities on Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition at The Polar Museum.


Credit: Scott Polar Research Institute