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A design for Tower Bridge, 1890's

​Tower Bridge design, 1800's

​Science and London Metropolitan Archives

Howard Benge

Making ice cream, baking cakes and building bridges is now becoming usual practice at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Over the past three years LMA has developed a programme of science for schools, the public and heritage professionals. We have worked with the British Science Association, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and engineering companies such as Crossrail. Everything we have developed is firmly rooted in the collections at LMALMA is home to an extraordinary range of documents about London that covers every imaginable subject. This includes science.

Schools, Colleges and STEM

Often the term STEM is used when talking about science, but what is STEM? It is the acronym used for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and is a framework used for schools and colleges to teach students these subjects. But it can also be used to engage them with real life examples of STEM, people who work in the STEM subjects (STEM Ambassadors), and think about using these subjects in a future career.

We delved into the LMA collections to find a basis for STEM workshops for schools and it didn’t take long before we found great examples in all the disciplines. Engineering is strongly represented; after all many LMA collections are about building the metropolis. Plans, sketches, ideas and enquiries are all there giving us a great overview of a developing urban landscape.

We landed on a great engineering problem posed to the City of London in the 1880s: congestion. A new bridge was needed to ease congestion on the eastern side of the City. The challenge was keeping the bridge high enough to allow the tall ships to pass underneath. This is the task we set students in the workshop Bridges and Towers, and they set to designing new bridges with this brief. Some great ideas come up, most of which are environmentally friendly and sustainable (something we don’t ask for). We show them the real competition entries from the 1880s and finally the winner - Tower Bridge. We experiment with structures (squares versus triangles) and run a competition where the winning group makes the tallest and strongest tower out of flimsy materials, ie paper and straws. Once they get the structure right (tubes and triangles) a mini metropolis starts to emerge in the education room. The workshops give students a chance to work as a team, solve problems and get some hands on practical science.

From the J. Lyons collections we look at food science and changing states. Lyons had a factory in Greenford and a laboratory in Hammersmith where they carried out many tests on new food products. Actually doing the science is key to all the workshops and in Sweet London, we make a simple ice cream, observing temperatures and freezing points. In Have Your Cake we bake cakes experimenting with ingredients. Incidentally, the cakes are “baked” in a microwave; ovens aren’t allowed in archives.

Other workshops include the problems of sewage, clean water, disease, light, and feature statistics from the Great Plague. In 2013 we ran a Science Summer College for A Level students and enrolled 20 science students from across London.


During National Science and Engineering Week 2014 we had 200 secondary students come to LMA for an Engineering Careers Day. We partnered up with engineering companies Crossrail and Thames Tideway Tunnel, as well as Women in Engineering, and linked our collections to their work. They ran activities: real engineers were there and real engineering challenges were put to the students. The feedback was positive and the companies want to work with LMA again in the future.


For teachers we run Continuing Professional Development (CPD) events, showing how we use our collections to teach STEM subjects and how it links to real life working practices. This is something teachers ask for. Working with STEMNET (the organisation that encourages participation at school and college in science and engineering-related subjects), we run networking events for teachers where they meet STEM Ambassadors and we get to showcase our programmes.


In 2013, Dr. Rebekah Higgitt, University of Kent gave a keynote speech at our Women in Science conference. The task of finding Women in Science in the LMA collections looked daunting at first. It meant thinking across collections and using different approaches. Bridget Howlett was invaluable and presented on Florence Nightingale. We used the Scientific Development Special Committee of the National Council of Women of Great Britain collection as a great case study for Women in Science. This committee focused on pertinent issues of the day, commissioning reports such as “Genetic Engineering and Our Future Inheritance” (1976) and “Disposal Facilities on land for low and intermediate level radioactive wastes: Draft Principles for the protection of the human environment” (1984).

In 2014, we invited other archives to talk about science found in their collections at the conference Opposites Attract. Presentations were given by the CERN archives, Imperial College, Bodleian Library, and Dr. Felicity Henderson who talked about Robert Hooke in the City. LMA holds Hooke’s diary, which describes his scientific thinking alongside the coffee shops he went to and who he met.

The future

For the future we are turning an eye to our medical and public health collections. Smallpox maps from the 1870s have just been conserved and digitised, thanks to a grant from the Wellcome Trust. The maps plot outbreaks of smallpox in the city to isolation hospitals and ships. They are huge, the largest measuring 5.25 X 3.20 metres. We are thinking about ways we can use the maps for different audiences. We’ve already run a public conference and are planning academic seminars for the autumn 2014. But we are exploring other ways of engaging different audiences through a range of activities. It could be in a theatre setting, or posing a challenge for young people to suppress a smallpox epidemic using real historical events and case studies. 

There is plenty more science-related material in the archives. Over the next few years we will use it to develop new programmes, attract new audiences and get more people engaged with LMA’s collections and work.

08 October 2014
Last Modified:
29 September 2017