It’s really two museums, one old-fashioned and one progressive, that have been grafted together and embellished with a few tacky gimmicks and blatant corporate propaganda, but it’s a firm family favorite, attracting 3.4 million visits in 2015. 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. In 2015, the rare clocks and watches of London’s prestigious Clockmakers’ Museum, most dating from 1600 to 1850, were added. Upper floors are full of model ships and 1950s computers (second floor, the Information Age), veterinary medicine (fifth floor), and in the hangarlike third floor, aviation. Highlights there: a complete De Havilland Comet, which was the first jetliner (1952), a slice of a jumbo jet, 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 jet lag. He called it something much less catchy: the “difficulty of adjustment to the sudden change in time.” New is the Mathematics gallery (second floor), one of the last projects overseen by the late architect Zaha Hadid, full of lovely swooping forms inspired by the aerodynamic flow around its central object: an experimental Handley Page aircraft from 1929 that was only made possible by math (or as the English call it, “maths”).
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 an extra £11 for a gimmicky IMAX 3D cinema or £12 on motion simulator rides? Fortunately, the merits override the patronization.