Science Museum launches app to allow virtual access

20 December 2013

An iPad app that gives unprecedented virtual access to the Science Museum’s collections was launched there on 19 December.

Science Museum launches app to allow virtual access
Picture credit: Science Museum/Touch Press


Journeys of Invention allows virtual visitors to see inside several objects that are off limits to touch in the real world and to interact with them, as well as to view numerous photographs, documents and archive films that are never normally on display. These accompany the 80 featured objects, which are organised into 14 guided “journeys” created by the museum’s curators.

The app was made in partnership with award-winning developer Touch Press. Its senior producer, Jasper James, described how together they had had to make difficult choices among the museum’s more than half a million objects to tell the stories of scientific discovery and invention. The 80 pieces chosen are on display in the museum, so filming them had to be done at night, he said.

The process included taking photos inside the Apollo 10 command module using a 360-degree camera fed into it on a pole, as even the photographers were not allowed to touch anything inside. The result allows viewers to swipe and look around the capsule, to pinch and zoom to look closer and to hear audio of the crew on their journey.

Interactive elements include encoding and sending messages using the Second World War Enigma machine, and focusing a magnified view of a flea using Robert Hooke’s early microscope.

Science Museum lead curator and co-author of the app, Andrew Nahum, said using it was like having a curator take you on a series of guided tours through some of the museum’s most magnificent objects. Speaking at the launch, he said these were more than relics or mementos. “They are, if you like, embodied arguments. An orrery, for example, has shown many more people than those who have read Copernicus that the Earth moves round the Sun.” The iPad “enables us to shake off the shackles of geography” he said, connecting together exhibits in disparate areas of the museum that would be difficult to explore in one physical journey.

Co-author of the app and museum curator Boris Jardine said he and Nahum had divided work on Journeys of Invention equally. He is essentially a historian of science and Nahum a historian of industry and technology, he explained. While developing the app he worked on no major exhibitions, instead finding that the work had opened up new avenues of research, as so often happened with new displays.

Many objects in the museum’s collection are too fragile to generally be on display, he said, but the app enabled people to see some of them all round and examine them closely. The appearance of moving images in the app is produced by taking around 720 hi-res photos of them in small steps and stitching them together.

The museum receives around 4 million visitors a year, but the app extends the global audience to those who cannot travel to its exhibitions, he said. “This is so much more interactive than we could do in the real world”.

  • Journeys of Invention is available from the App Store. The Connected and New Science journeys are free, with the whole app including 12 other journeys available to download for £6.99. It has been developed for Retina Display and is designed for iPad2 and above.

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