I heard the results two days before my planned visit to review the Cambridge Museum of Technology, which turned out to be the joint winner (with the University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology) of the Large Museum of the Year award. I had last visited the venue, which is in the city’s former sewage pumping station, five years ago when it was drawing up plans for the lottery bid that led to this redevelopment.
Industrial museums have always had an image problem and niche appeal. They are often based in former industrial premises, such as mills and mines, which are difficult to conserve and maintain. The museums are usually dependent on volunteers, mostly older men who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the technology but may lack interpretive skills for working with visitors, particularly children.
Heavy working machinery that dates back to the steam age can also reinforce an atmosphere of grime that few people today remember experiencing first hand. For millennials, technology just means smartphones and digital streaming. Even the technology of the mid-20th century can seem irrelevant, while Victorian and Edwardian tech is regularly refashioned as steampunk or known as the backdrop to Peaky Blinders, a gangster TV series set in 1919 in Birmingham.
Industrial history in museums is redolent of a male working environment that usually excluded women and it can now seem like a curious “men in sheds” hobby. Old-fashioned industrial museums often have limited visitor appeal, which may threaten their survival. Planning the future of a museum dedicated to preserving the heritage of the industrial past is hard enough, so to imbue the story of bygone technology with contemporary relevance is a real challenge.
The Cambridge Museum of Technology has worked hard to change traditional perceptions, most recently through a redevelopment programme largely financed by a National Lottery Heritage Fund award. The project has injected new life into this under-resourced independent venue by installing fresh displays, improving access and facilities, and restoring a decaying boiler so that the museum can run its historic stationary steam engines again.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of the development is its novel approach to what an industrial site museum can be. This is particularly striking in a city whose main museum offering has traditionally been based on the prestigious but sometimes less than welcoming academic presentations of the university collections.
“The redevelopment has realised the founders’ dream of creating a museum that celebrates Cambridge’s technological innovation,” says Pam Halls, the curator of the venue. “We are no longer a historic building with industrial oddments, but a real museum of technology.”
The Heritage Fund grant was critical as a jump start for the change in the museum’s development strategy, but having two able female curators and a knowledgeable female engineer as an education consultant – leading a team of largely male volunteers – for the project has been just as important. You can’t change the culture of a museum by throwing money at it, but a creative approach to engaging with technology, old and new, can work wonders.
Surprisingly, considering the city’s prowess in technological and scientific development in spin-off high-tech industries, this has never been properly celebrated before in the city’s museums.
The University of Cambridge has nine museums, but there has been a curious reticence about presenting modern scientific, technological or engineering achievement in any of them. The Museum of Technology, the Museum of Cambridge (formerly the Folk Museum) and the Centre for Computing have all struggled as independents, without the resources of the university behind them or any financial assistance from the local authority, which has neatly avoided taking on any museum responsibilities.
The Cambridge Museum of Technology is appropriately based in the old Cheddars Lane sewage pumping station, built by Cambridge City Council beside the River Cam in 1894. The town’s sewage was flushed to this site, then pumped to a sewage farm in Milton, two miles outside the city.
Household rubbish was collected and brought to the Cheddars Lane site by cart, where it was burned in destructor furnaces, which created the steam that powered the engines that pumped the sewage to Milton. The sewage farm used its valuable product as fertiliser to grow crops to feed the horses that pulled the rubbish carts to the pumping station.
It was an efficient waste-disposal cycle of reuse that supported the city using the available technology. With the original steam equipment and machinery still on site, together with successive gas engines and an electric motor, the pumping station provides a practical demonstration of technological change over time.
The story this represents has not become irrelevant, but makes a vivid comparison with contemporary issues of waste disposal and environmental damage. Little thought was given to this when the old pumping station closed in 1968, superseded by an electric one built next door.
Looking to a tech future
The surveyor recommended the demolition of the building and disposal of the equipment, claiming that it was “not old enough to have any historic value”.
Fortunately, engineers from Cambridge Scientific Instruments and students from the university’s engineering department formed a group to save the engines. This campaign grew into the museum development across the site, which was run by volunteers on the council’s premises.
The venue has been developing over 50 years, expanding its collecting remit to wider areas of technological and industrial development than just waste disposal. The recent lottery award and a partnership with the Pye History Trust has enabled it to create an exhibition building on site, which opened earlier this year. This displays the products, development and people of key Cambridge firms.
The Pye group, later part of the Philips electronics empire, was particularly significant to Cambridge as the biggest private-sector company in the area. It had around 8,000 employees locally and more than 25,000 across the UK, designing and manufacturing electronic and scientific products.
New displays also cover the renowned Cambridge Instrument Company and Chivers, once the country’s largest jam maker. Neither exists as a manufacturer today, though new high-tech firms are thriving in the local vicinity.
Presenting the Large Museum of the Year award in November, Liam Wiseman, the museums relationship manager at Arts Council England, complimented the venue on its transformation. “It not only meets the expectations of a 21st century visitor, but as a leading repository of information about Cambridge’s industrial past, places itself at the heart of Cambridgeshire’s heritage offer,” he said.
The venue is developing programmes celebrating women in science, technology, engineering and maths, and finding creative ways to engage visitors and partners. This is as much a project about the future of science and technology as the past. The museum has more to do, including the restoration of the engineer’s house next door, but this is already an exceptional achievement and it is moving in the right direction.
Oliver Green is an independent historian and a research fellow at London Transport Museum