Holidays with a history

From the Leviathan telescope in Birr Castle to the former ‘Bedlam’ in London, many museums in Ireland and England offer unique insights into the history of science

If you want to try a slightly different tourist attraction on your holidays, why not explore one of the following museums dedicated to the history of science? This month I’ve chosen a few examples from Ireland and England with suggestions for other parts of Britain, Europe and the US to follow next month.


Birr Castle Science Centre: On the grounds of Birr Castle you can see the remains of Leviathan, once the world's largest telescope, built by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse in 1845. The Science Centre has exhibitions on the sciences that were of greatest interest to the Parsons family. This includes the pioneering work of Mary Rosse and Mary Ward in photography and microscopy. Open 9am to 6pm during the summer. Tickets €4 (child), €7.50 (concession), €9 (adult), €25 (family).

National Science and Ecclesiology Museum, Maynooth: Scientific and religious objects may seem strange museum-fellows today, but this collection reflects the scientific interests of a number of past lecturers at St Patrick's College, Maynooth. The majority of the scientific materials come from the collection of Nicholas Callan, who lectured in natural philosophy (physics) and built batteries during the 19th century. However, the collection contains many objects from other time periods and other sciences including early communications/radio equipment and many microscopes. And if that's not enough, you can see Daniel O'Connell's death mask. Open Wednesdays (2 to 4pm) and Sundays (2 to 6pm) during the summer.


Ye Olde Hurdy Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio, Howth: A fascinating miscellany spanning centuries of radio communication and its forerunners and housed in a Martello tower overlooking the bay. The tower itself had been a Marconi station for wireless telegraphy in 1905. Open 11am to 4pm daily during summer. Tickets €5 (adult), €3 (concession) and children free.


Museum of the History of Science, Oxford: The museum is housed in the Old Ashmolean Museum, purpose built in the 17th century to house a miscellany of objects collected by Elias Ashmole. That collection has since been combined with the university art collection and moved to a building dating from 1905. Among the highlights of the museum are a collection on Marconi and wireless radio, a chalkboard with Einstein's lecture notes from 1931, and a collection of orreries (clockwork models of the universe). Open 12pm to 5pm daily except Mondays. Admission free.

Whipple Museum, Cambridge: The museum is associated with the university's Department of the History and Philosophy of Science and houses a wide ranging collection of scientific instruments. The core of the collection was amassed by Robert Whipple. Among the highlights are Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine 1" (considered an early computer), a "Victorian parlour" filled with scientific objects for home use, a 17th century globe marked with the routes of famous explorers and chemist Alexander Crum Brown's knitted models of abstract mathematical ideas (no joke). Open 12:30 to 4:30pm, Monday to Friday. Admission free.

Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham, Kent: Located on the site of the Bethlem Royal Hospital (founded in 1247 to care for the mentally ill and made notorious as "Bedlam"), the collection explores the history of mental illness and of its treatment in Bethlem and elsewhere and also displays artwork produced by the mentally ill. Open 10am to 4pm, Wednesday to Friday and the first and last Saturday of every month. Admission free.

Wellcome Collection, London: A combination of a permanent exploring the history of medicine with objects from Henry Wellcome's collection with contemporary exhibitions and events looking at contemporary medicine and society. Objects in Henry Wellcome's collection are truly miscellaneous from surgical instruments to hollow porcelain fruits housing erotic figures. The temporary exhibition is A museum of modern nature exploring our present relationship with the nonhuman world. The Wellcome's online materials are so good that you could happily pass a wet day at home immersed in them. Museum open Monday to Wednesday and Friday 10am to 6pm, Thursday 10am to 8pm and Saturday 10am to 4pm. Admission free.

There is a wide range of medical museums in the London area also worth exploring, from Alexander Fleming's laboratory to the Freud Museum. See

Juliana Adelman lectures in history at Dublin City University

Juliana Adelman

Juliana Adelman

Juliana Adelman, an Irish Times contributor, lectures in history at Dublin City University