Why 21 Albemarle St Matters- a Personal Perspective

Like many scientists, the news that the Royal Institution intended to sell its HQ at Albemarle Street came as a a surprise. The financial problems the Ri faced after an expensive recent refurbishment were known, but its clear from the reaction in the science community that few were expecting such drastic remedial matters.  My appreciation of the Ri, and what the loss of such a culturally important building as Albemarle Street would mean, has grown significantly through conversations with a friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Sam Tang.  In this post, I’ve published Sam’s response to the Ri’s announcement; all opinions expressed are our own.

Dr. Sam Tang is Public Awareness Scientist in the School of Chemistry at the University of Nottingham.  She is an award-winning Public Engagement Scientist and has played a crucial role leading outreach activities at Nottingham, including mentoring many students and staff.  Sam has been an integral member of the Periodic Table of Videos and her continued enjoyment of chemistry, which she is so skilled at communicating to others, is clear from her reaction at 4.50 of this video. Given that the Royal Institution is “dedicated to connecting people with the world of science”, Sam was understandably upset and angry at last Friday’s news, but also galvanised into action.  She has since begun to help the campaign to Save 21 Albemarle St.  What better person to describe the importance and symbolism of 21 Albemarle St than an expert in communicating the fun and importance of science to the public?

AT: How did you react when you heard about the possible sale of Albemarle St?  Were you surprised?

ST: My initial reaction was definitely one of shock. Despite it being public knowledge that the Ri had financial difficulties, it came as a complete surprise to read that the building was actually up for sale… and of all the places to find out, it wasn’t a statement from the Ri themselves, nor a big newspaper scoop; it was buried inconspicuously in the Business section of The Times. That this was announced so matter-of-factly made it seem like it was yet another building for sale, as if it was a done deal. So the shock rapidly gave way to anger, as the question changed from, “why is this happening?” to “how can we stop this?”

AT: Why is the Ri important to you and how has it helped your career in Public Engagement of Science?

ST: While I was doing my PhD I was given the opportunity to do some computational modelling work as part of my research. My supervisor arranged for me to spend a week with Dr. Rob Bell’s group, who in the early noughties were based in the Davy Faraday Research Lab housed in the Ri. To be able to not only wander through the lecture theatre but in effect have a backstage pass to most of the building was such an amazing experience. It was awe-inspiring to know that I was walking in the very corridors that so many eminent scientists had been in, and while the work I was doing could hardly be described a groundbreaking, for it to be taking place in the very building that 10 elements were discovered in… if that isn’t motivation for a chemist I don’t know what is.

You walk into that place and it is grand and imposing and you can see and feel the history everywhere. But it doesn’t make you feel cold or uncomfortable; on the contrary it conveys the importance of scientific discovery and endeavour. And while there are a number of reasons why I chose this career, my visit to the Ri and subsequent reading up of its heritage certainly went some way into influencing what I do, especially the need to preserve the historical aspects of science. When Faraday gave his first public lecture he was probably the first scientist to engage the public directly with explanations and demonstrations of his research: our nation’s very first science communicator. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched of me to therefore say that if it wasn’t for him then there wouldn’t be this field, or that it would’ve taken a lot longer for it to develop and for scientists and the public to realise its significance. In short, my job probably wouldn’t exist, so you see how I’ve come to take it a little more personally than others might.

AT: Some have argued that by redeveloping Albemarle St into an event/bar space, the Ri was guilty of mission drift.  Why should we bail the Ri out if it’s not keeping to its core aims or no longer relevant?

ST: Those arguments are valid and I can understand how you would have little sympathy for an organisation who, in effect, created this predicament for themselves. However, this is an incredibly short-sighted view, because it doesn’t consider not only what that building contains, but what it actually represents. Can you imagine the uproar if it was announced that they had to sell St Paul’s Cathedral? Or going on a smaller but no less significant scale, Shakespeare’s birthplace? 21 Albemarle St has survived two world wars; we should not let an ill-judged financial investment destroy this unique hub of science.

AT: What are you doing to help save the Ri?  And what can others do?

ST: As soon as I’d read the article about the sale I went and spoke to Martyn [Poliakoff], who suggested I contact Sir Harry Kroto (who had also been quoted in the Times article published on Friday 18th January). I’ll admit I was apprehensive; he has no idea who I am and no doubt he must get all kinds of emails from all over the world. But to sit idly by and do nothing but complain would have been idiocy on my part so I wrote to thank him for speaking out against the sale, and to offer my help in any way I could. I was therefore delighted when he not only replied to my email, but copied in some of the most eminent and influential scientists in the UK; Richard Dawkins, Tony Cheetham, and Don Braben, to name a few. This ‘call to arms’ subsequently got published in the Times on the 20th! Since then there has been a lot more dialogue and discussion about the sale, and Sir Harry has issued a statement on the official campaign website, http://save21albemarlestreet.com/. A UK Government e-petition has also been set up at http://t.co/NNy9pCq5 and I urge everyone to sign it.

Being in Nottingham means there’s only so much I, or anyone outside of London, can do. I can’t abandon my job and head down to the capital and march into the building itself, demanding to know what’s happening. I don’t have a fortune that I can donate to save it. And right at this moment, it is still unclear just how much precisely is needed to not just sustain the place for the time being, but also secure it for the nation.

But in this age of social media we should use the many and varied tools at our disposal, and spread the word. Tell people about the petition, keep everyone informed of any developments, make sure our voices are listened to.

There are some who have already consigned the Ri to the history books and think it is too late to stop the building being flogged to the highest bidder. Such a defeatist attitude really doesn’t help. We should be looking at this as we do with any challenge in science: you examine the problem, gather all the data you can about it, and when armed with that information you can go about tackling it. You may not end up with the result you wanted, that is true; but there is always the possibility of success. And saving the Ri is definitely a result worth fighting for.

AT: Thanks Sam.  To summarise, if you would like to help the campaign, there are a number of ways of doing so:

-visit the campaign website: http://save21albemarlestreet.com/

-follow on twitter @Save21Albemarle or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/save21albemarlestreet

-email support to Save21AlbemarleStreet@gmail.com

-sign the e-petition at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/44790

-or email your MP and urge them to support Early Day Motion 944

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4 Responses to Why 21 Albemarle St Matters- a Personal Perspective

  1. Ali TT says:

    Piece by Stephen Curry of the Guardian as to why the history of the Ri is important, worth reading for a reflective take on the matter.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/occams-corner/2013/feb/01/1?CMP=twt_fd&fb=native&commentpage=1

  2. Ali TT says:

    Richard Sykes, current chairman of the RI, outlines the past, present and future for the Institution and its home
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/feb/08/building-sustainable-future-royal-institution?commentpage=1

  3. Pingback: Brian Cox and the IChemE’s Collier Medal | attheinterface

  4. Ali TT says:

    The RI has received a stay of execution through an anonymous donation of £4.4m but questions still remain about its long term vision and strategy
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2013/mar/19/royal-institution-rescued-donation?INTCMP=SRCH

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