Posted by: Kash Farooq | February 1, 2013

The Royal Institution: Can we just give it to the National Trust? Or the Science Museum Group?

I wasn’t going to write about this but have started feeling that I was missing out on all the fun!

Royal Institution of Great Britain

Royal Institution of Great Britain (Credit: user “Gryffindor”, Wikimedia Commons)

So, the Royal Institution have said they may have to move from their home in Mayfair London. Their £22 million project to “to re-fit the 18th Century buildings, and provide an upmarket restaurant and bar” have left them with a debt of £7 million. Their annual income doesn’t match their outgoings and they are in trouble.

For more details about this, see the BBC article. And there are links with various differing points of view at the bottom of this post.

This week I have discovered that people can actually visit the Royal Institution. I didn’t know. There is a museum!

From the RI’s “Who we are” section:

The Royal Institution is an independent charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science.

Well, I’d suggest they aren’t doing that very well. In fact, they are doing that terribly. I’d only (ONLY) heard of the RI through the fantastic Christmas Lectures. And I’d read about people like Faraday and Davy working there. That’s it. I didn’t know anything more than that. I had never heard of the RI Channel.

Whenever I have some spare time in London, I try to do something sciencey. I do some Googling and look for something geeky to do. In 4-5 years of doing this, I’ve never discovered that you can visit the RI and wander around. None of my friends have mentioned this as a place to visit.

I used to work in London during the week (returning up north at the weekend). I was always on the look out for sciencey things to do in the evening. I found loads of fantastic free (or very cheap) Sci Comm events that were perfect; things like Skeptics in the PubPubSciScience LondonWellcome Collection.

I didn’t know that the RI had science engagement evening events at the RI. Having just had a look at their website now, there are loads. Not as cheap (or free) like the events I mentioned above, but they certainly exist.

Did everyone else know this? Is it just me? Perhaps my Google-fu was lacking. It’s as though they were trying to keep it a secret.

The British Science Museum does things brilliantly – I was a regular at the Science Museum lates (last Wednesday of every month). Free to get in, no kids, wander around the exhibits with a drink in hand, perhaps go to a talk, perhaps do the pub quiz.

Why isn’t there a RI lates? Oh, perhaps that wouldn’t work with their new “upmarket restaurant and bar”. Or perhaps there is a lates night and, again, my Google-fu failed me.

[Can I just say…what the?!? Who decided that a place that is “dedicated to connecting people with the world of science” needs, more than anything else, an upmarket restaurant and bar? Unless the only people they want to connect with are people that are suitable for the upmarket restaurant and bar.]

I’ve been on Twitter for a while. Today was the first time I have ever seen an RI tweet in my timeline (this may be confirmation bias). I didn’t even know they had a Twitter account. It’s as though someone has recently thought “we’d better start doing that engagement stuff we’re supposed to do”.

Having got all that off my chest….I think that the RI needs to be saved. I don’t want it to be sold and turned into a hotel (or whatever).

Why?

For the history. Yes, I’m on that side of the “discussion”.

When I visited the home of Sir Isaac Newton (which is now a National Trust property)….without wanting to sound too sentimental…it was moving. It was fantastic wandering around imagining Newton doing the same. This is where he formulated his law of universal gravitation! This is where he split light with a prism! This is practically where modern physics was born!

I imagine visiting the RI would give me the same feeling. 10 chemical elements were discovered there! All the work that Faraday did on electricity was done there!

So, I’d like it preserved as a cultural heritage site. We already have places important to engineering preserved as cultural heritage sites, and places like Newton’s Woolsthorpe Manor. So why not the RI?

And it definitely needs to be opened up the public better. Why not let, for example, Science London have their meetings there? (I’m not suggesting that they want to have their meetings there, or need a venue, I just picked a SciComm organisation at random).

This is probably rather naive, and it’s probably a bit more complicated than that, but I’d like the building to be given to the National Trust. Or to Wellcome. Or perhaps even bring it into the Science Museum Group.

Whatever happens, just get it away from whoever decided to create an upmarket restaurant and bar.

Related articles and audio

Image from Wikimedia Commons.


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