Signs, Symbols, Secrets

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The Signs, Symbols, Secrets: an illustrated guide to alchemy exhibition at the Science Museum was born from the discovery last year of one of the 23 legendary Ripley Scrolls in the museum’s archives. These intricately decorated tapestries are named in honour of the alchemist George Ripley, and are thought to be based on a lost original scroll from the 15th century. They were believed to contain in their rich imagery and verse, the creation secrets of alchemy’s most highly prized goal – the Philosophers Stone.

Hidden away in the top floor galleries, the exhibition comprises of a collection of alchemical artifacts from the Science Museum Library and Archives. These objects range from beautifully illustrated 16th century treatises to everyday tools from alchemical workshops. Opposite the cabinets of treasures we find a detailed explanation of the symbolism found in the texts and read about alchemy’s historical narrative. The exhibition certainly gives a comprehensive insight into the meaning that can be extracted from alchemical texts and goes some way towards explaining its mysterious appeal, however; for a collection aiming to review the intersection of art and science within this protoscience, it doesn’t find a clear connection between the two.

The bulk of the exhibition is really intended to provide a context for the pièce de résistance, the Ripley Scroll, found at the back of the exhibition gallery. The piece is certainly impressive and the accompanying descriptions of the hand-painted images go some way to showing why alchemy once served as a crossroads of arts, philosophy and mysticism as well as promising to reveal the processes governing the natural world.

If your knowledge of all things alchemical is limited mostly to vague recollections of the first instalment of Harry Potter, this exhibition provides a useful overview of the ancient belief system that fascinated many bright minds in the 16th and 17th centuries. If, on the other hand, you are hoping for something more interactive (where the Science museum normally excels) or focused on the artistic merits, you may leave disappointed. I couldn’t help wishing that the curators at the Wellcome Collection had tackled the theme instead.

Signs, Symbols, Secrets: an illustrated guide to alchemy is a free exhibition on at the Science Museum until 27th April 2013.

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