The Two Braggs Exhibition (Warwick University August 2013)

  • Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via e-mail Print Share on Google Bookmarks
    Home History Sponsors Public Videos Extra Mystery Women Programs Sitemap Comments

    The Story Behind the Exhibition

    The idea to mount a special exhibition on the lives and works of two of Britain's most famous scientists, William Henry Bragg (WHB) and his son (born in Adelaide, Australia) William Lawrence Bragg (WLB) began in the spring of 2012, when I realized that the  centenary of their seminal work during 1912-1914 was fast approaching. There is an excellent article written by WHB in the journal Science in 1918, in which he gives a nice summary of the time and is also a tribute to his son's seminal contributions.

    Given that the 28th European Crystallography Meeting was to be held at the end of August 2013 at the University of Warwick, where a large number (over 900 in the event) of crystallographers from around the world would be present, this seemed an ideal opportunity to run the exhibition alongside.

    Over a period of 18 months, I spent much time in locating many of the artefacts connected with the Braggs and the early days of X-ray crystallography (you can read an early book by the Two Braggs on crystallography here). It soon became apparent that to mount such an exhibition would be a mammoth task. First of all, most of the Bragg-related material resides in the archives and museum at the Royal Institution of Great Britain and so I spent many hours looking through literally hundreds of boxes (it seems that the two Braggs wrote and kept thousands of letters, both personal (even optician’s bills!) and official. Fortunately I had the wonderful help of Charlotte New (Curator of Collections) and Frank James (Head of Collections) in finding my way through this forest of material. Indeed thanks to them and the enthusiasm of the Royal Institution, it became clear that the proposed exhibition was a feasible project. Other useful material was located at the University of Leeds, the Cavendish Laboratory, the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Cambridge, the Oxford Museum of History of Science, and the Science Museum of London. In addition I had many related artefacts that I had brought with me from the Cavendish Laboratory when I moved to the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford in 1976. These included many early models, some of the original powder diffraction cameras made by A.J. Bradley and one of the prototype boxes of the famous Beevers-Lipson strips. Some of these had probably been brought to Cambridge from Manchester,when WLB moved there in 1938. He had formerly been at the Schuster Laboratory, University of Manchester from 1919 to 1937 where he established a large and world-famous research group working in the field of crystallography (see this lecture by Professor John Helliwell).

    I also made contact with members of the Bragg family, in particular with Patience Thomson, youngest daughter of WLB, Lady Margaret Heath , eldest daughter of WLB, Dr. Stephen Bragg , son of WLB and the Lady (Lucy) Adrian, granddaughter of WHB and niece of WLB. It was not generally realized that WHB, his wife Gwendoline, and WLB were actually fine amateur artists, and the family had a huge number of their photographs, paintings and drawings. The family joined in the fun with great enthusiasm, offering any material I needed for the exhibition. It was a glorious opportunity for me to make new friends with members of this illustrious family.

    We decided also to set up  a table showing many books by the Braggs, making use of a table-cloth carrying a design based on Helen Megaw’s afwillite structure. This had originally been one of the fabrics from the 1951 Festival of Britain, where Helen had organised many crystallographers such as WLB, Dorothy Hodgkin and  Kathleen Lonsdale to supply designs. The so-called Festival Pattern Group was setup and these crystallographic designs were used as curtains, carpets, cutlery etc. You can read more about this here.

    It eventually became apparent that the task of putting together an exhibition of high standard was going to be very difficult to achieve. First of all, when borrowing from national museums, I discovered that there are many hurdles to overcome, especially regarding insurance and security of the items borrowed. Then there is the need to locate and borrow showcases of the right standard (the right thickness of glass, metal bands on the edges, special locks etc). On top of this there are all the minute arrangements that would be needed: labelling, printing of advertising material, security walls, invitations and arrangements for an opening reception, officially-recognised transport agents to be hired, and so on. I needed help with this. The Faculty of Science at the University of Warwick decided to pay Dr. Stephen Soanes to act as a project manager for the exhibition, and this took a load of my shoulders. In addition the University of Warwick made the Helen Martin Studio available to us free of charge.

    We then come to question of sponsorship and funding. We worked out that for the 5-6 days of the exhibition, we would need around £35000: exhibitions like this do not come cheap! Fortunately many organisations and companies were happy to provide sums of money (see the Sponsors list), and we are most grateful to all of them for their support. Almost all organizations that I approached were very happy to be involved either through providing money and/or help in publicity etc. For instance academic institutions such as the  British Crystallographic Association, the International Union of Crystallography, Trinity College Cambridge, and the Royal Society of Chemistry showed great enthusiasm , while, I am sorry to say, the Institute of Physics showed no interest at all.

    At the exhibition venue it was necessary to erect special security walls in front of the large picture window. This was partially to act as a security screen (against smash and grab raids) and also as a convenient place to display all the photographs and artwork. It turned out that this wall was so tough that knocking screw attachments into it for the artwork was particularly challenging: indeed we only just finished moments before the official opening! We also hired several poster boards to place around the hall to show numerous posters sent to us from crystallographers around the country. We are grateful to them for supplying this extra material which added the right sort of finishing touch.

    Sir Mark Walport, Chief Government Scientist, came to officiate at the opening reception on August 25th. Around 100 invited guests, including many members of the Bragg family, were present on the day. We started with a private reception in Senate House, with speeches by Pam Thomas, myself and by Sir Mark Walport, followed by a tour of the exhibition itself. For the next five days the exhibition was opened to participants at the ECM as well as to the general public, during which time over 1000 visitors came. On the last day, which we called “Discovery Day”, we added two public lectures (one by myself and Pam on “The Crystal World” and another by Elspeth Garman (“The Bragg Legacy: From Table Salt to Drug Discovery”) , tours of the crystallography laboratories at Warwick, and a special showing of the professionally made film Driven to Diffraction by permission of Ronin Films.

    At the end of the week, when it came to dismantle everything, we were all extremely tired but sad to have to close down  such a unique exhibition. Many people have asked if we would repeat this exhibition some time or take it elsewhere, but I had to answer with a firm “no”. Unfortunately, I do not think it will be seen again in our lifetimes, as it was such a logistically challenging exercise to carry out. We were indeed fortunate to have advice and help from a professional museum curator, Charlotte New, to whom we owe a great debt. She made sure that everything was done professionally and that we were making the correct security arrangements. She remained present in the exhibition hall throughout, and I do not think this would have been possible without her.

    Mike Glazer