Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

21 February 2014

Beautiful Science-- Now Open!

Johanna Kieniewicz can finally get some sleep, but not before she puts up this blog post!

With great fanfare and much twittering (#BeautifulScience), our Beautiful Science exhibition opened yesterday. Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight looks at the past and present of data visualisation in science, telling stories of both discovery as well as the way we think about the information that makes up our world.



 Thus far, the exhibition has received some wonderful coverage. Rather than repeating what others are saying about the things that the exhibition contains, we thought we'd highlight a few informative and interesting posts about the exhibition.


"An august institution, yes of course, our national library, so I suppose I was rather expecting a staid parade of the editiones principes of the great masters, leavened with the odd choice manuscript, and a morning of gentle savouring and genteel pleasure.  Not a bit of it.  The modern BL has fully embraced digital." 

We couldn't agree more. We are both a physical and digital library. Our science collections range from the depths of history to the present day, and we are keen to provide access to digital old things and physical new things (and vis versa of course!)


  • On the Guardian H-Word blog, Rebekah Higgit asks the very valid question of what makes a science exhibition. After all, science has been embedded in various guises in previous library exhibitions. She picks up on the fact that this is not really a history of science exhibition-- but something that comes from a contemporary perspective, looking back. She notes:

"The British Library is the perfect institution for discussions between science, arts and the humanities to take place. While defined as a “science exhibition”, visitors to the display and participants in the accompanying events programme should be encouraged to see the aethestic and the historical in it too – just as the science of the Tudor or Georgian eras should be recognised as part of their history."




  • In The Observer, Nicola Davis highlighted how data visualisation has changed life and saved lives. Touching on exhibits, such as Florence Nightingale's Rose Diagram and John Snow's Cholera Map, she highlights the very tangible importance of data visualisation.

"From scientists to consumers, there's no escaping the onward march of big data. But as Beautiful Science shows, if we embrace the power of graphics, fresh insights to modern challenges may be glimpsed. And that could be massive."


  • Writing for Forbes Magazine, Jonathon Keats takes interest in the works by John Snow and William Farr highlighted in the exhibition.  He argues that

"Technological advances clearly distinguish the new visualizations, many of which are interactive and all of which benefit from stores of data that Victorian scientists could scarcely have imagined. Yet the older charts and maps ­– especially those of William Farr and John Snow – remain pertinent in the age of cloud computing precisely because they are more limited in scope. While Google Flu Trends is vast and ever-changing, we can easily assess what Farr and Snow were doing. Their successes and failings can help inform how we produce and consume contemporary data visualizations."


  • Similarly, on the Nature Of Schemes and Memes blog, Alex Jackson latches on to what I said about the parallels between today's explosion of infographics and something similar that happened in the Victorian era.

Informative pieces featuring some of the fantastic graphics from the exhibition have also been featured in The Independent, The Daily Mail and The Londonist. If you are not UK-based, you can also take a look at this piece that featured on the BBC World Service.

So far, it has been fascinating to see the exhibition through the eyes of others. Those of us involved in the exhibition have been so immersed in it for so long that it sometimes seems as though we can't see the forest for the trees. It is really interesting to see fresh perspectives on the exhibits we've selected that provide new insights on the exhibition as a whole, as well as individual displays. We do hope you come along to Beautiful Science-- and be sure to let us know what you think!


Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight is on display in The British Library until 26 May 2014. The exhibition is free, and is sponsored by Winton Capital Management


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