Ian Blatchford, Director of the UK's Science Museum Group, is on a mission to reimagine the museum, turning exhibitions into blockbusters and exporting their cultural capital abroad. Roger Highfield catches up with him on a tour of California.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in July 2017 and Ian Blatchford, Director of the UK's Science Museum Group, is on a sunlit balcony overlooking the San Diego marina. He’s gossiping with Bill Prady, co-creator of The Big Bang Theory, when the legendary film director John Landis drags him off to meet a succession of creatives at Comic-Con, the heaving annual gathering of superfans.
The next day, the energetic 51-year-old visits Disneyland, Anaheim to see first-hand how the theme park handles its vast crowds. Then he heads to Glendale, Los Angeles for a charrette with Disney Imagineers, who are working on a Science Museum exhibition that explores the symbiosis between science and science fiction.
Before flying home to London, Blatchford finds time to visit The Future, the Hollywood creative compound of singer, entrepreneur and technophile will.i.am. He’s there to discuss a recent, hugely successful event at the Science Museum’s IMAX cinema, which featured will.i.am in conversation with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
Blatchford, who chairs the UK’s powerful National Museum Directors’ Council, has clocked up a lot of air miles in recent years, to engage with new allies as much as re-engage with his old friends. “We, and Britain’s wider museum sector, are rightly celebrated as unique and powerful players in cultural diplomacy,” he says. “Britain is witnessing a period of quite extraordinary political activity, not least because of the Brexit referendum and a general election this year and it is vital that we play our part in promoting British values and ambitions.”
A new diplomatic role for UK museums
The group that Blatchford oversees includes the Science Museum, the 161-year-old institution in London’s South Kensington, plus four other museums across the north of England, each dedicated to a different aspect of science, technology and industry. Together, they attract more than five million visitors each year.
The Science Museum Group also has a growing portfolio of touring exhibitions. Launched in 2013 with an explosive show about the Large Hadron Collider atom smasher, these have now been seen by more than a million people worldwide.
Internationalism is second nature to the Science Museum Group, Blatchford says, “because cross-border collaboration is at the core of the history and future of innovation in science, technology and engineering.” In London, for example, the Science Museum recently hosted an exhibition entitled Leonardo da Vinci, The Mechanics of Genius, curated by Universcience in Paris and the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MUST) in Milan. In Manchester, in 2016, the Group’s Museum of Science and Industry played a pivotal role in the EuroScience Open Forum, the largest interdisciplinary meeting in Europe.
Engineers and trainspotters from around the world have also been flocking to the group’s museum in York to see the Flying Scotsman. The world's most famous steam locomotive started taking passengers again in February 2016 after a decade-long, £4.2m refit.
Celebrating the UK’s special scientific relationship with Russia
More inspiration comes from the Group’s most important recent acquisition on behalf of the nation: the Soyuz spacecraft used by Tim Peake on his Principia mission, as the first British astronaut of the European Space Agency. In late 2017, Blatchford sent the blackened and battered Russian-built craft on a new mission, touring his museums with a VR landing experience to wow audiences across the UK.
The Science Museum also deepened its cultural bonds with the Russian scientific community as 2017 brought the UK/Russia Year of Science. “We signed a partnership agreement with the largest space museum in Russia, the Tsiolkovsky State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics in Kaluga; and the museum’s ground-breaking ‘Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age’ exhibition closed in Moscow after a long run and rave reviews,” said Blatchford, who, for his contribution, received the Pushkin Medal, the nation’s highest cultural honor, from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
To top it all, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, made a special journey to South Kensington in 2017 to celebrate her 80th birthday and an exhibition in her honor at a gala concert in the museum. Tereshkova greeted Blatchford like an old friend, presenting him with a gift and giving him a bear hug – “she almost cracked my ribs!” he protests. Throughout her birthday celebrations in the museum, Tereshkova continued a running joke about how she would like to accompany Blatchford into orbit, and how they would sing duets as they ventured forth in a joint mission to Mars.
A global strategy to encourage the scientists of tomorrow
That is by no means the end of Blatchford’s global reach and influence. At Rio de Janeiro’s Museum of Tomorrow, a spectacular new science center in the city's harbor, he secured a partnership memorandum in the presence of the UK secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, during the 2016 Summer Olympics.
He has also been darting back and forth to India. As a result, the British and Indian prime ministers jointly announced the Science Museum’s 'Illuminating India' exhibitions, which began in October 2017 and run until March 2018.
“Moving further East, we made a significant start on forging relationships in China,” he adds, “with presentations at a major symposium in Shanghai for the nation’s science and technology museums and partnership meetings in Beijing, Hong Kong and Wuhan.”
Blatchford says that the work of the Science Museum Group is rightly celebrated worldwide because of the UK’s key role in the rise of science, from the industrial revolution to astonishingly creative individuals such as Isaac Newton, Ada Lovelace, and Alan Turing to the discovery of the atom-thick wonder-material graphene (the subject of an exhibition in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester).
The Group also has a unique role to play in developing a new generation of scientists. With the biggest informal learning effort of its kind in Europe, it now attracts more than 600,000 children in booked educational groups. Blatchford is passionate that by coming up with galleries and exhibitions that are both smart and popular – he likes to talk of “dumbing up” – museums can ignite curiosity about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “If we are to thrive in the new economy, we need more young people to make these career choices.”
Roger Highfield is the former editor of New Scientist magazine and Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.