Wednesday, 30 April 2008

The British Museum presents ‘ThouTube’

Opening this week is the British Museum’s highly anticipated new exhibition, entitled ‘ThouTube’. Running for three months, the display offers new insight into the workings of the Royal Society, the venerable scientific institution that helped the advancement of science for several centuries. Curated by Sir Warren Mitchell, ThouTube is a fantastic exhibition that will delight and inform both adults and children alike; indeed, it has increased relevance in the age of the Internet.

The Royal Society, founded in the 17th Century, has seen most of the greatest British scientists among its members, and many scientific discoveries were first presented to these people in lectures given by such geniuses as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Ernest Rutherford. A little known fact about these presentations is that attendees to the meetings were able to make comments about the presentations on small pieces of card, which they would roll up in a cylinder and put them into a tube that took them to the ‘Message Room’. All the comments would then be stuck up on a ‘Message Board’, viewable to everyone. The comments made on this ‘ThouTube’ form the majority of the exhibits on display here.

The comments left on the ThouTube give a fascinating glimpse into the mentality of the erudite British scientist. Some of the language and content on the message boards may come as a surprise, and fans of etymology and the evolution of slang will find as much to love here as science historians. Take, for example, the pride of the collection, a newly-discovered message board with comments pertaining to Sir Isaac Newton’s speech on the concept of gravity:

Bernard Culshaw: This is interesting but I don’t quite understand are you saying that apples are evil
Sir Humphrey Humperdink: FAKE! COL!!!!!
[note: according to the exhibition literature, ‘COL’ is an abbreviation for ‘Chortling Out Loud’]
Lord David Bentley: Isaac is the best I love his work on optics check it out! DB4EVA
George St John-Thomas: This is cretinous

Note from the comments how the people reacting to the theory of gravity are not unanimously praising of Newton’s work; in fact, the ease with which it’s possible to leave a comment means that people who have absolutely no idea what Newton’s speech was about are still moved to give their ha’penny worth. The full message board in the exhibition shows that of the people commenting, less than 30% have something to say that is actually relevant and useful. Now consider a later message board, with comments left shortly after a presentation on natural selection by Charles Darwin:

Archibald Twitterling: That’s all stuff and nonsense the Bible says we were from Adam and Eve not monkeys COL you got it all wrong ROFG [note: ‘ROFG’ stands for ‘Rolling on the Floor Guffawing’]
Jonathan Swift: You guys are all laymen! Darwin is great! I know him and he is a very intelligent gentleman
Jeremy Humperdink: FAKE! COL!!!!

But while the Museum’s curators have amassed a great number of message boards that were made after presentations by famous scientists, much is to be gained from the comments that were left after lesser-known scientific talks. For example, Charles De Courcey’s speech on the regularity of elm leaf size distribution in 1853 garnered the following missives:

David Warwick: If you want to see hot geologist-on-geologist action come to the Royal Institution Lecture Hall at Seven
Ian Belmington: SPAM
Sir Gordon Ramsbottom: SPAM
James Fotheringay: SPAM
Henry Humperdink: FAKE! COL!!!!!

[According to the museum’s pamphlet on the exhibition, the word ‘SPAM’ here is a call to the administrator in the message room. It means ‘Supervisor Please Administrate Messages’. ]

The British Museum are to be commended for their wonderful new exhibit. The history of science is a very interesting subject, and ThouTube shows a side of the topic that is rarely seen. The displays are well made, and the layout of the rooms provides easy navigation. My son was particularly pleased with the interactive message board on which he could leave comments after reading the transcripts of various presentations; indeed, he now believes himself to be Charles Babbage. How that will play out remains to be seen. My wife enjoyed the cafeteria, where she recommends the beef sandwiches.

Thoutube opens on Monday and will run until the week before you decide to go, at which point you’ll look at the listings and go “Oh crap, I should have gone last week!” You must be registered to comment. Remaining character count: 500. Offensive? Unsuitable? Contact an administrator.


Anonymous said...

FAKE! COL!!!!!

Falwless said...

I recommend this exhibition very highly. I especially enjoyed the comments pertaining to Harold Neville Vazeille Temperley's lecture on lattice gases:

Nicholas Curti: THIS IS SO GAY
Cyril Domartes: stfu nich
Garson Humperdink: FAKE! COL!!!!
Joseph Larmor: COL!! he just said he smelled gas!!!! ROFG, it wasnt me!!!1

Jillian said...

Very Nice, IR. I will definately make time in my schedule for this exhibit. Of course, by the time I do, it will be over. Thanks for the great reviews; I've found them to be very helpful. In an imaginary sort of way.

Also, thanks for the comments on my Japan photos. We actually missed the Golden Temple. Dammit. Now I'll have to go again : ).

The Imaginary Reviewer said...

Mister Humperdink: As a descendant of some of the scientists featured in this exhibit, I am highly grateful to you for your input. Many thanks.

Falwless: Yes, that was an excellent section; however, without the explanation of the word 'gay' in the "your all gay" room (translation: "You're all splendid and joyous"), I feel some meaning may have been lost.

Jillian: Thanks for your comments, it's a shame that the exhibition will close a week too early, but that's always the way, I'm afraid. And definitely go to the Golden Pavilion, at all costs! It's the best thing I saw during my two years in Japan, no question.

Feisty Democrat said...

I see you've picked up my trick of mentioning famous smart people as a means to improve your blog readability level. Well done, sir! You'll need a few more tricks to get it all the way up to genius like mine, though.

The Imaginary Reviewer said...

Mathdude: I'm on my way, I hope. I take it my previous posts on the subject of The Cheeky Girls and Aqua weren't smart enough?