It’s really two museums, one classic and one far-out, that have been grafted together, but both are about the triumph of man over his environment. So many interesting exhibitions are on display here that you’ll probably run out of time. The old-school section, which began collecting in 1857 and is split over six levels, is an embarrassment of riches from the artifact archives of science and technology: 1969’s Apollo 10 command module; “Puffing Billy,” the world’s oldest surviving steam engine; and the first Daguerreotype camera from 1839. The upper floors are full of model ships and 1950s computers (second floor), veterinary medicine (fifth floor), and in the hangarlike third floor, aviation. Highlights there: a complete De Havilland Comet, which was the first jetliner (1952), and a modified Vickers Vimy bomber, the first plane to cross the Atlantic without stopping. It was flown by Arthur Whitten Brown, who promptly became the first person to report something you may be feeling now: jet lag. He called it something less catchy: the “difficulty of adjustment to the sudden change in time.”
The high-concept wing buried in the back of the ground floor is easy to miss, but seek it out. A cobalt-blue cavern for interactive games and displays, it bears little relation to the mothballed museum you just crossed through. The Antenna exhibition (ground floor) is exceptionally cutting-edge, and updated regularly with the latest breakthroughs; past topics have included biodegradable cell phones implanted with seeds and building bricks grown from bacteria. The interactive exhibits of Launchpad (third floor; heat-seeking cameras, dry ice, and the like) enchant kids. But not everything in the museum is enchanting. The gift shop (mostly mall-style toys) and guidebook disappoint. And when you’ve got the actual Model T, why charge £10 for a gimmicky IMAX 3D cinema or £6 on motion simulator rides? Information Age, an advanced, £16.5 million wing delving into the progression of communication, opened in September 2014.