The tragedy of bicycles in museums

I visited the Science Museum in London this week. On display there are just five bicycles…. Sunbeam, Claud Butler, Grout, Michaux and of course the Rover Safety Bicycle. The Rover, perhaps the most important of these machines, and the one often illustrated as THE definitive Rover Safety, is hanging about 5 metres up in the air suspended by wires from a clumsy clamping device around the steering head (see below) It set me thinking about the way bicycles are so badly represented in museums and when they are shown, how poorly they are displayed.

The Coventry Transport Museum has a large collection of bicycles, a large part of it comprising the collection of H.W.Bartleet, the greatest collector of Veteran and Vintage bicycles in the first quarter of the 20th Century, and the author of the wonderful Bartleet’s Bicycle Book. There are many very important machines. A lot of these bicycles are badly and incorrectly restored (the ‘restorations’ taking place after the collection was given to the museum) and badly displayed. The main room housing them sees the machines tied to a grid of white plastic coated mesh by nylon cable ties, sometimes employing foam pipe lagging to protect the paintwork! Elsewhere in the museum a large amount of money has been spent on a huge rotating turntable for displaying vintage motorcycles, and of course cars are well catered for.

The National Cycle Collection in Llandrindod Wells also has a wonderful collection but it is similarly poorly displayed and poorly lit. The problems here are more to do with a shortage of funding, and they do make an effort in difficult circumstances.

Below is a photograph of the Science Museum collection display before 1958. There is a large room dedicated to this, with numerous machines as well as cases full of components and supporting artifacts. Contrast that with the current display of 5 bicycles… whilst the majority of the collection languishes in storage many miles away from London. In this storage are such masterpieces as the 1852 Sawyer Quadricycle, the 1869 Reynolds and Mays Phantom, 1879 Lawson Bicyclette, 1887 Linley and Biggs Whippet and an Ellis and Co. Geared Facile c.1888.

Despite the fact that in numerous polls the bicycle is voted as the greatest invention ever, way ahead of the car, it is rarely given any pride of place in museums. Bicycles are considered low priority by museum curators and the way that they are displayed is a reflection of this. The bicycle is often referred to as ‘humble’, and its humility acts against it. In fact, as many of us know, the bicycle is far from humble and it contains a wealth of wonderful detail and innovation, as well as having a fascinating history. With the upturn in bicycle usage is it not time for a dedicated museum showing bicycles properly, together with supporting historical information? The subject could be made so much more engaging for the general public, and in particular for children, and through this we might go some way towards changing attitudes towards cyclists being third class citizens, and the bicycle being merely a device for someone that can’t afford a car.

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