THE BLOG

Science Takes Hold of Contemporary Culture

12/08/2015 20:11 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

Science is not only thriving in contemporary culture it is beginning to dominate too, if queries made by Google users are anything to go by. New insights released by Google show that the Science Museum is the most searched for museum in the world, followed by other London cultural powerhouses, the Natural History Museum and the British Museum.

How the cultural landscape has waned and waxed when it comes to science. When I left the Victoria and Albert Museum five years ago to run the Science Museum, my leaving present was a framed image of the V&A's original doors, which were fashioned from bronze in 1868 and carried three figures from the history of science balanced by three from the arts under the inscription 'Better is it to get wisdom than gold'.

Their message was that art and science were poles of one culture in 19th Century Britain. But then, in 1893, the South Kensington Museum was divided into two institutions, the V&A and the Science Museum, and cut asunder by Exhibition Road.

Today the road is part-pedestrianized, visitors to South Kensington's museums are at record numbers and these new Google results show that after more than a century, a rift in British culture has not only healed but that science, through technology, is a dominant force on contemporary culture.

The results also provide more evidence, as if we need it, that cultural Britain is world class. No wonder, then, that the world isn't just sitting up and taking notice, it's jumping on planes and trains to get over here.

Visitors from abroad reached record numbers last year and our leading museums and galleries are both driving that growth and benefitting from it. Half of our visitors to the Science Museum last year came from overseas, with visitors from the U.S. and France leading the way, and at other venues such as the British Museum and National Gallery the proportion of overseas visitors was even higher.

I lead a group of science museums that offer world-class experiences in Manchester, York and Bradford as well as London, but when it comes to foreign visitors there's no denying the immense gravitational tug of our capital. London attracted a staggering 17.4m overseas tourists last year, with eight out of ten citing the city's historic and cultural assets as the main reason they came.

So why are our brands such beacons for Britain? Part of the reason lies in the past and rests on our magnificent heritage (Newton, Darwin, Anning, Lovelace, Dirac, Franklin... the list of heroic figures is endless in the sciences) and part lies in the present. When it comes to the latter, the most important reason is that we've greeted the tough funding situation of the past few years with ambition and imagination rather than retrenchment.

Today's visitors want to be inspired and challenged. That's why temporary blockbuster exhibitions are so important, from Matisse at Tate Modern to Hockney at the Royal Academy or our own Cosmonauts show this Autumn, which brings together the most comprehensive collection of Soviet spacecraft and artefacts ever shown outside Russia to explore the birth of the space age. The show hasn't yet opened and we've already decided to remain open until 10pm every Friday to give more people a chance to see a remarkable range of objects, from the capsule that carried the first woman into space to a single-cosmonaut moon lander.

But tourists will continue to come, and support our economy, in such numbers only if we continue to breathe fresh life into our cultural assets and celebrate them with moments such as the Queen sending her first tweet from our new Information Age gallery. We continue to aim high. By 2019 we will have transformed over a third of the Science Museum's in little over five years, including stunning new medicine galleries featuring the world's best collection of its kind, from the Wellcome Trust, and a mathematics gallery designed by Zaha Hadid. My colleagues at the other national museums have similarly ambitious plans.

Investment by philanthropists, enlightened corporations and partners such as the National Lottery and the Wellcome Trust is fuelling this cultural renaissance, but it does not keep the lights on day-to-day. To cover the costs of looking after the millions of visitors drawn to our museums and galleries for free each year and the vast collections of priceless objects we hold on behalf of the British people we need significant government funding. Such support is also vital to support the significant additional role we at the Science Museum Group play when it comes to supporting UK plc in inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, with well over half a million young people visiting in school groups each year. We believe the return on this public funding is vast, in inspiring future entrepreneurs, protecting our heritage and providing great experiences for our UK and overseas audiences. And of course those tourists are spending lots of cash when they come. In the capital alone London and Partners found that foreign visitors provided an economic boost worth £11.8billion last year.

So enjoy the cultural treats on offer this autumn. Come to Cosmonauts or Carmen. Feel proud that London's cultural reputation has rarely been so strong across the world. Feel reassured that we want this reputation to grow - we have the vision, energy and ideas to thrive. But remember that none of this is a given. Our major cultural attractions need energy, ideas and ongoing financial support if they are to continue to make waves worldwide.