From Pharmaceutical Innovation to Public Engagement: Stephen Carter and the Micrarium in Buxton

by Viviane Quirke

In 1981, a new kind of museum opened in Buxton’s old Pump Room. It was the ‘Micrarium’, created by Dr Stephen Carter, who had previously been involved in cancer research at ICI’s Pharmaceutical Research Centre in Cheshire. The Micrarium’s ambition was to make the microscopical world, which Carter had explored in his work for ICI, more readily accessible to the wider public. For this Carter developed a remote-controlled projection microscope and, with the help of his wife Janet and their three daughters, made 50 versions of it in their home workshop in time for the opening. After winning an award from the British Tourist Authority and receiving a Museum of the Year Award, the Micrarium became the first recipient of a grant from the Fund for the Development of Interactive Science Centres. It also received acclaim from professional microscopists, who praised both the clarity of the image and the depth of field obtained with the Micrarium’s microscopes.  However, Carter’s premature death in 1987, after which his widow Janet ran the Micrarium until she retired in 1995, and the eventual displacement of the apparatus used in the Micrarium by digital technology, led to the ultimate demise, not only of the Micrarium itself, but of its very idea as a museum.

Little is known about this short-lived ‘World First’ use of microscopes in a dedicated museum setting, which through the Carters bridged a gap between scientific innovation and public engagement.  Thanks to a generous grant from SIS, I was able to visit Janet Carter in Cheshire in order to interview her and other members of the family, examine the private collection of papers and other materials held by them, and go to Buxton to see the old Pump Room as well as visit the local library.

What this research revealed, was how Carter adapted the microscope and associated technologies to fit its change of purpose and location. Carter and his family also had to develop and mobilise both personal and professional networks, as well as acquire new skills, in a way that challenged the boundary between amateur and professional science. However, despite an apparently favourable social and cultural context, the Micrarium experienced difficulties as well as successes, at a time when public engagement was becoming big business, with multiple constituencies and expanding support, but also with growing competition for resources.

Turner Memorial Lecture: 25th November

Celestial Globe, by Ja'far ibn 'Umar ibn Dawlatshah al-Kirmani, Persian, 1362/3; MHS inv. 44790

Celestial Globe, by Ja'far ibn 'Umar ibn Dawlatshah al-Kirmani, Persian, 1362/3; MHS inv. 44790

4th Gerard Turner Memorial Lecture

5.30 for 6pm, Friday 25th November 2016

Professor Emilie Savage-Smith, FBA
'Of Making Celestial Globes There Seems No End

Society of Antiquaries of London
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BE

The lecture is free and open to the general public, no booking is required.




Annual Conference Sicily 5th–9th September 2016

Provisional Programme

The Palatin Chapel (Palermo)

The Palatin Chapel (Palermo)

Sunday, 4 September

  • Arrival and evening welcome cocktail (Vecchio Borgo Hotel)

Monday 5 September

  • Museum of Engines and Mechanisms
    (wide collection of machines and mechanisms including steam engines, aircraft engines of the First and the Second World War, automotive engines, hydraulic machines, laboratory devices and didactic models dating from the end of 19th century)
  • Department of Chemistry
    (nice small collection of chemical instruments, including 19th century chemical balances used by Stanislao Cannizzaro)
  • Psychotechnical Collection
    (important instruments of psychology and psychiatry dating back to the 1940s)
  • Archeological Museum "A. Salinas"
    (nice collection of astrolabes and sundials, usually not on display)
  • Palermo Arsenal – Maritime Museum (with historical Navy collections)

Tuesday 6 September

  • Astronomical Observatory Museum
    (18th-19th century astronomical instruments, with the famous Ramsden Circle used by Giuseppe Piazzi)
  • Palatine Chapel and Royal Palace (with beautiful Normand architectures)
  • Palermo Cathedral (with the beautiful meridian line tracked by Piazzi in 1801) Biblioteca Comunale (City Library) (with beautiful globes, usually not on display)
  • St. Dominique Church (with a perpetual calendar usually not accessible to the public) Evening: Pizza in a Museum-restaurant in the outskirts of Palermo

Wednesday 7 September

  • Institute of Physics
    (19th-20th century beautiful collection, from old instruments belonging to Domenico Scinà, to those acquired by Pietro Blaserna, later founder of Via Panisperna Institute in Rome, to some others used by the Nobel Prize Emilio Segrè who discovered "technetium" in 1937 during his stay in Palermo)
  • Museum of Mineralogy (with beautiful collections of Sicilian minerals and rocks) Botanical Garden (one of the most important in Europe)
  • Geological Museum (with rare collections of fossils)

Thursday 8 September

  • Museum of Radiology
    (one of the 10 existing in the world, collecting instruments dating back to the 1950s)
  • Museum of Physiology (recently opened)
  • Zisa – Museum of Islamic Arts (with a zodiacal disk) Crypte of the Capucines (with mummies)
  • Formal conference Dinner near the sea, in the area of Sferracavallo-Mondello

Friday 9 September

  • Benedictines' Abbey of S. Martino delle Scale (with a beautiful astronomical clock and sundials)
  • Monreale Basilique (with beautiful mosaics)

Saturday 10 September

  • Trip to Etna (optional)
    Early start by Coach to Etna then by cable car up Etna to at least 2500 metres.
    This is going to be a long and strenuous day and may not be suitable for everyone.
    Proper walking shoes and waterproof clothing are essential, the temperature is likely to be much lower as you get higher up the volcano.
    The Etna trip can only go ahead if we get at least 10 people wanting to participate otherwise the cost of transport is likely to be excessive.

Additional Notes

  • During the week we will have a coach available whenever needed. Lunch will be provided each day
  • We have reserved rooms at two hotels in the heart of Palermo 4* Politeama Hotel
  • 3* Mediterraneo Hotel

SIS AGM: July 3rd, Cambridge

The front door of the Whipple Museum, Cambridge.

The front door of the Whipple Museum, Cambridge.

The 33rd Annual General Meeting of the Scientific Instrument Society will be held at:

Sunday July 3rd, 2016


The Whipple Museum of the History of Science
Free School Lane

All members of the Scientific Instrument Society are welcome. Please come to the front entrance of the Whipple Museum and call the curator Josh Nall on 07932123416.

Turner Memorial Lecture: 27 November 2015

This year's Turner Memorial Lecture will be given by Dr Peter de Clercq, on 'The travel journals of Balthasar de Monconys and Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach'.


The lecture will introduce two early-modern Europeans with an insatiable curiosity for the world of learning in the widest sense. Balthasar de Monconys (1608–1665), a French diplomat, travelled to Portugal, England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the Near East. The German book collector Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683–1734) made an intellectual foray through northwestern Europe in 1709-11. Their illustrated travel journals, published in multi-volume editions soon after their deaths, are a valuable source of information for historians, including those with a special interest in science and scientfic instruments. 

The Lecture will be held at the Society of Antiquaries on 27 November. It is free and open to all, no booking is required. If you wish to attend the accompanying wine reception and buffet, please check the September Bulletin for more details and the application form.