Please note: Since this post’s original publication, our plans for the Special Exhibitions Gallery have changed, details of which can be found here.
Most of the time these two great strengths complement one another and add up to more than the sum of their parts, helping us to tell the story of how ideas can change the world. Occasionally though, our twin duties of care towards buildings and collections conflict, as in the case of the Brush Ljungstrom turbine.
You might not know its name, but if you visited our Electricity gallery between 1986 and 2016 you may have seen the Brush Ljungstrom turbine. It is a radial-flow steam turbine made by Brush Electrical Engineering Ltd of Loughborough in 1956, and was used at Doncaster power station until 1980. It represents a type of steam turbine used in power stations to help meet increasing demand as Britain’s electrical grid rapidly expanded from a local to a national level. The object is not a world first or an icon – it is a late example of a fairly common turbine type – but it is one of very few examples of its kind in UK museum collections.
For some time, the collections team at the museum have been looking into how to remove the turbine from the 1830 Warehouse building so that construction work on our new Special Exhibitions Gallery can commence there in 2017. The 1830 Warehouse is the world’s first railway warehouse, its historical significance recognised by a Grade I listing from Historic England. The Special Exhibitions Gallery will transform the museum’s ability to develop and host world class exhibitions showcasing its incredible collection.
When the turbine was first installed, the Warehouse was in a sorry state of repair, having been largely abandoned prior to becoming part of the museum. The turbine was lifted in through the missing roof and large gaps in the building structure, and then fixed into the basement with concrete. Following this, substantial work was undertaken to make the building safe and reinstate the missing floors and roof. The building was saved and transformed, but there is now no opening in it that is big enough for the turbine to fit though.
We have approached 16 highly experienced conservation and engineering companies and spoken to a number of independent experts and specialist groups. It has become clear that any attempt to remove the Brush Ljungstrom turbine would be highly technically challenging, exceptionally risky and very expensive. Based on months of work to date and expert advice taken so far, there is no reasonable option that allows the museum to build the new Special Exhibitions Gallery, avoid damage to the Grade I listed 1830 Warehouse and retain the turbine intact.
Regrettably, we are now considering the possibility that we may need to disassemble the Brush Ljungstrom turbine to such an extent that the possibility of future research and exhibition use is lost. In that exceptional circumstance, we would follow a museum sector process and dispose of it from our collection. We would retain a full record of the turbine, including photographs and a 3D scan.
When the needs of our buildings and collections conflict, there are no easy answers. The museum is only considering disposing of the Brush Ljungstrom turbine as a last resort in exceptional circumstances. The Science Museum Group Trustees will need to carefully weigh up the relative harms and public benefits, taking into account consultation with stakeholders and the public, and the advice of the Museums Association Ethics Committee and Arts Council England.
SEG image copyright: Museum of Science and Industry and Carmody Groarke
SEG image credit: Forbes Massie