The Science Museum in London is one of my favourite places to visit. It full of artefacts and information about people and processes that have made a huge difference to our world. On my last excursion I was planning to skip multiple floors and visit those less travelled but this exhibition caught my eye. Signs, Symbols and Secrets promised to take visitors on an illustrated guide of alchemy. Containing books and small pieces of equipment dating from the 16th-18th century I decided to check it out, with only a cultural knowledge of the subject (in other words, not a lot).
All of the images in this exhibition related to the search for the legendary philosopher’s stone. This stone was rumoured to have the ability to transform mundane metals into gold or silver, the most valued and sought after elements. Loads of people got in on the act including, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and Queen Elizabeth I. Nowadays, this idea may seem like an absurd pipe-dream but the romance of the idea has lived on. Alchemy and the image of the alchemist has survived through popular culture and imagination. This was helped greatly by the element of secrecy in alchemy, where work was kept hush-hush or described through intricate codes or symbolic artworks. For example, have a look at the copy of an alchemical manuscript below from the 18th Century. It was compiled anonymously and uses small images to signify the various elements and signs.
Another aspect of the exhibition that I really enjoyed was the inclusion of rare examples of alchemical books from the period. These were beautifully crafted books with intricate, delicate designs, and illustrations detailing alchemical work and ideas. As stated above, much of the content could be made up by code or symbols but yet another layer of mystery is added as often what they were describing was allegorical. Thankfully the exhibition contained displays which breaks down a lot of this for visitors so you can see for yourself what each work means and the logic behind the way they were crafted.
One of the most impressive artefacts in the exhibition was the inclusion of a facsimile of the Science Museum’s Ripley Scroll. Only 23 of such scrolls are known to exist, and these are all believed to be copies of a lost 15th Century original. Named after English alchemist George Ripley, the scroll depicts an alchemical poem along with symbolic imagery of the central tenants of alchemical thought. For example, a picture of the dragon on the scroll is a symbol for chemical dissolution. Gold and silver are shown as the moon and the sun, while the dragon’s blood represents the new substance. As you can see the scroll is quite long so visitors may find it useful to have a look and consult the translation guide by section.
This exhibit should satisfy fans of the history of chemistry, biology and of course, fans of astronomy. Much parallel was drawn between alchemy and astronomy with ideas being borrowed and adapted for use, for example celestial astronomy was centred around seven bodies while alchemy was centred around seven metals. For philosophers, you too are included, as Aristotle’s idea of the divided universe greatly influenced alchemists and their ideas on where substances came from. Popular culture enthusiasts will also be delighted as the below artefact is a copy of a manuscript from the Science Museum’s Library, by a one, Nicolas Flamel!
Some may ask what is a discipline like alchemy doing having pride of place in the museum dedicated to science? The Museum argues, convincing I think, that such a display is important as the alchemists offered a way of understanding natural processes and matter itself. In the end alchemists did make useful discoveries concerning chemical substances and their properties. I agree and would add that it is very hard to look to the future without knowing where you have been first. Reflection can offer insight and motivation as people can see just how far science has come in the past 100s of years. Another interesting aspect of alchemy’s contribution to science, that I did not know about, concerned laboratories. Few early laboratories actually survive today and it is through the illustrations in many of the alchemy books that science historians can see how these work places were set-up and used. In turns out than rather than the popular art driven image of the lone alchemist working away in a dark, isolated place, they show that labs were often sociable places with teaching, collaboration, demonstrations and investigations all taking place.
So if you have a few minutes make sure to visit this display and see can you decipher the code of the alchemists. Entrance is free to the museum with the option for voluntary donations.
If you would like to know more about alchemy why not check out these books:
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