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‘What things mean in our daily lives’: a history of museum curating and visiting in the Science Museum's Children's Gallery from c.1929 to 1969


The Children's Gallery in the Science Museum in London opened in December 1931. Conceived partly as a response to the overwhelming number of children visiting the Museum and partly as a way in which to advance its educational uses, the Gallery proved to be an immediate success in terms of attendances. In the Gallery, children and adults found historical dioramas and models, all of which aimed at presenting visitors with the social, material and moral impacts of science and technology on society throughout history. Also, there were numerous working models with plenty of buttons to press, handles to turn and ropes to pull. Controversial visitor studies carried out in the 1950s revealed that the historical didacticism was more or less lost on the children who came to the Gallery. Consequently, the New Children's Gallery that opened in 1969 had to some extent abandoned the historical perspective in favour of combining instruction with pleasure in order to make the children feel that ‘science is a wonderful thing’.

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1 Hartley F.St.A., The Children's Gallery: A Guide to the Exhibits in the Introductory Collections in the Basement Gallery, London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1935, p. 3, original emphasis.

2 Falk John H. and Dierking Lynn D., Learning from Museums (American Association for State and Local History Book Series), Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press, 2000; Hein George E., ‘Museum education’, in MacDonald Sharon (ed.), Companion to Museum Studies, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008, pp. 340352; Semper Rob, ‘Science centers at 40: middle-age maturity or mid-life crisis?’, Curator (2007) 50, pp. 147150.

3 Koch Gertraud, Sørensen Estrid and Levidow Les, ‘Childish science: editorial introduction’, Science as Culture (2011) 20, pp. 421431. In particular, the increased emphasis on the interactivity of museum exhibits promises ‘“adventure”, “fun”, and “play” – experiences not usually associated with the traditional museum’, nor with science; see Andrea Witcomb, ‘Interactivity: thinking beyond’, in MacDonald, op. cit. (2), pp. 353–361, 353. Sociologist Andrew Barry places the discourse of interactivity in the context of contemporary political concerns with ‘public “participation”, “empowerment” and “accountability” and with more specific questions and anxieties about the proper way to bridge the gulf between popular culture and the esoteric world of science and technology’, but also sees interactivity as a way of enhancing visitors' bodily experience of scientific knowledge. See Barry Andrew, ‘On interactivity: consumers, citizens, and culture’, in MacDonald Sharon (ed.), The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture, London: Routledge, 1998, pp. 98117, 98.

4 I owe the observation of the unusual degree of uncertainty about the perceived role of the Science Museum to Robert G.W. Anderson, chemist and former director of the British Museum. See Anderson Robert G.W., ‘Essay review: science museums and the Science Museum’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2010) 64, pp. 471476. For clarity and brevity, I follow the convention used in the centenary volume on perspectives on the history of the Science Museum: capitals are used not only for the Science Museum and for the Children's Gallery, but also for Museum and Gallery whenever they refer specifically to the Science Museum and the Children's Gallery. See Morris Peter J.T. (ed.), Science for the Nation: Perspectives on the History of the Science Museum, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. xxi.

5 The figures cited are based on Morris, op. cit. (4), Appendix 3. Since 1992, attendance has been steadily increasing. In 2012, the total number of visits reached 3.0 million, securing the Museum a number six position on the list of UK visitor attractions. See Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), ‘Visits made in 2012 to visitor attractions in membership with Alva’, available at, consulted 28 November 2013.

6 Both Lyons and Follett served thirteen years as director – Lyons from 1920 until his retirement in 1933; Follett from 1960 until his retirement in 1973.

7 Follett David, The Rise of the Science Museum under Henry Lyons, London: Science Museum, 1978, p. 114.

8 Follett, op. cit. (7), p. 117.

9 Tom Scheinfeldt, ‘The first years: the Science Museum at war and peace’, in Morris, op. cit. (4), pp. 41–60, 52.

10 Scheinfeldt, op. cit. (9), p. 59 n. 32.

11 Anna Bunney, ‘Beyond the Children's Gallery: the influence of children on the development of the Science Museum’, in Morris, op. cit. (4), pp. 210–227.

12 Quoted from Bunney, op. cit. (11), p. 199.

13 Starn Randolph, ‘A historian's brief guide to new museum studies’, American Historical Review (2005) 110, pp. 6898, 73. In his insightful essay, Starn fully acknowledges the value of new museum studies stressing historical contingency and cultural contexts, but also warns against taking too seriously their ‘straw man’, namely the idea that in the past museums were conceived as homogeneous and mono-functional institutions: ‘opposing agendas and controversies are part and parcel of the museum's development, not an untoward aberration. They are better followed in older works insofar as newer museum studies tend to treat “the modern public museum” as a fixed type, not to say a straw man’ (p. 78).

14 Sharon MacDonald, ‘Exhibitions of power and powers of exhibition: an introduction to the politics of display’, in MacDonald, op. cit. (3), pp. 1–24.

15 MacDonald, op. cit. (14), p. 12. Curators, educators and scientists actively promoted the idea that museums were places of civilized contemplation and systematic self-education, but often failed to discipline the new generation of visitors, whose imaginations, reactions and experiences conflicted with the curatorial ideals. See Alberti Samuel J.M.M., ‘The museum affect: visiting collections of anatomy and natural history’, in Fyfe Aileen and Lightman Bernard (eds.), Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, pp. 371403. For a study of how curators at the British Museum in the mid-nineteenth century took steps to accommodate visitors with limited educational resources by producing unofficial guidebooks see Aileen Fyfe, ‘Reading natural history at the British Museum and the Pictorial Museum’, in Fyfe and Lightman, op. cit., pp. 196–230.

16 MacDonald, op. cit. (14), p. 13, original emphasis.

17 Essays on the history and historiography of popular science can be found in the Focus on ‘Historicizing “popular science”’ in Isis (2009) 100, pp. 310–368. A useful overview of early twentieth-century popular science in Britain is Bowler Peter J., Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. For historical narratives about the reading of popular science see, for example, Johns Adrian, ‘Science and the book in modern cultural historiography’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (1998) 29A, pp. 167194; Secord James A., Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000; Topham Jonathan R., ‘A view from the Industrial Age’, Isis (2004) 95, pp. 431442; and Topham , ‘Scientific publishing and the reading of science in nineteenth-century Britain: a historiographical survey and guide to sources’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2000) 31A, pp. 559612.

18 Fyfe Aileen, ‘Young readers and the sciences’, in Frasca-Spada Marina and Jardine Nick (eds.), Books and the Sciences in History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 276290, 276.

19 Keene Melanie, ‘“Every boy & girl a scientist”: instruments for children in interwar Britain’, Isis (2007) 98, pp. 266289.

20 Keene, op. cit. (19), p. 288. On raising children as consumers in the early twentieth century see Jacobson Lisa, Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century, Popular Cultures, Everyday Lives, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

21 For an institutional history of the Natural History Museum in London see Stearn William T., The Natural History Museum at South Kensington: A History of the Museum, 1753–1980, London: Natural History Museum, 1998. On objects see the historiographical survey in Samuel Alberti J.M.M., ‘Objects and the museum’, Isis (2005) 96, pp. 559571. On the production of displays and exhibits see, for example, Rossi Michael, ‘Fabricating authenticity: modeling a whale at the American Museum of Natural History, 1906–1974’, Isis (2010) 101, pp. 338361; Tracy Lang Teslow, ‘Reifying race: science and art in Races of Mankind at the Field Museum of Natural History’, in MacDonald, op. cit. (3), pp. 53–76.

22 This point is also made by Alberti, op. cit. (15), p. 317: ‘A large public museum could accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors in a year, and a medical school collection might be used to train generations of surgeons. And yet while historians of science and medicine have paid careful attention to the readers of scientific texts, visitors to these museums remain largely silent’.

23 Quoted from Follett, op. cit. (7), pp. 21–22.

24 Follett, op. cit. (7), Chapter 9. On temporary exhibitions see Peter J.T. Morris, ‘“An effective organ of public enlightenment”: the role of temporary exhibitions in the Science Museum’, in Morris, op. cit. (4), pp. 228–265.

25 Quoted from David Rooney, ‘“A worthy and suitable house”: the Science Museum buildings and the temporality of space’, in Morris, op. cit. (4), pp. 157–175, 158.

26 Quoted from Follett, op. cit. (7), pp. 86–87.

27 Follett, op. cit. (7), p. 54.

28 Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries, Oral Evidence, Memoranda and Appendices to the Interim Report, London: His Majesty's Printing Office, 1928, p. 152.

29 Peter J.T. Morris, ‘Introduction’, in Morris, op. cit. (4), pp. 1–10, 3.

30 Board of Education, Report on the Science Museum for the Year 1929, London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1930, p. 3.

31 Henry Lyons to H.M. Richards, Board of Education, 4 January 1930, Collections Documentation and Records Unit, Science Museum, London, Box Z253/1: Children's Gallery. Inception & history. The collection is usually referred as the Z Archive; see Morris, op. cit. (4), p. xx. I will adopt this convention and simply refer to materials in this collection in terms of their ‘Z number’.

32 H.M. Richards to Henry Lyons, 6 January 1930, Box Z253/1.

33 F.St.A. Hartley, ‘The Children's Gallery’, 1930, Box Z253/1.

34 Hartley, op. cit. (33). In order to understand just how significant was this new approach suggested by Hartley, it is instructive to note that the difference between how objects work and the function or purpose of the objects still was relevant to discussions in the Science Museum in the late 1980s. Sharon Macdonald, in her ethnographic study of the Science Museum during this period, observed the clash between two ‘museological styles’: one placing/displaying objects within a taxonomical scheme defined by a curatorial or scientific logic, and one defining exhibitions in terms of overarching and changing themes selected according to their imagined appeal to visitors. See Macdonald Sharon, Behind the Scenes at the Science Museum, Oxford: Berg, 2002, Chapter 3.

35 On some of the more than a hundred dioramas in the holdings of the Science Museum see Insley Jane, ‘Little landscapes: dioramas in museum displays’, Endeavour (2008) 32, pp. 2731.

36 F.St.A. Hartley et al., ‘Minute Paper for the Director’, 12 March 1930, Box Z253/1.

37 Hartley, op. cit. (1); Board of Education, op. cit. (30), pp. 13–14.

38 Hartley, op. cit. (1), p. 3, original emphasis.

39 Hartley et al., op. cit. (36).

40 Bunney, op. cit. (11), pp. 203–204. On the uses of the history of science in the Science Museum see also Bud Robert, ‘History of science and the Science Museum’, BJHS (1997) 30, pp. 4750.

41 Mayer Anna-Katherina, ‘Moralizing science: the uses of science's past in national education in the 1920s’, BJHS (1997) 30, pp. 5170, 61.

42 Board of Education, Report of the Advisory Council of the Science Museum for the Year 1931, London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1932.

43 Anonymous, ‘The Children's Gallery at the Science Museum’, Museums Journal (1932) 31, pp. 442444.

44 Anonymous, ‘Science Museum: the New Children's Gallery’, The Times, 11 December 1931, p. 12.

45 Anonymous, op. cit. (44).

46 Anonymous, ‘The children's holiday’, The Times, 23 December 1931, p. 5.

47 Anonymous, ‘Where to take the children’, The Times, 29 December 1937, p. 15.

48 Anonymous, ‘Taking the children out’, The Times, 16 December 1938, p. 21.

49 The ‘family context’ also appeared quite strongly some fifty years later in Sharon Macdonald's study of visitors to the Food for Thought exhibition at the Science Museum in the late 1980s. See Macdonald, op. cit. (34), Chapter 8.

50 Walwin James, Leisure and Society 1830–1950, London: Longman, 1978, p. 135.

51 Henry Lyons to C. Rodgers, British Electrical and Allied Manufacturers Asssociation, 27 May 1932, Introductory Collection, Collections Documentation and Records Unit, Science Museum (subsequently IC), Nominal File 3710, pt 1: Development of the Children's Gallery (Numbers 1 to 20).

52 Lyons, op. cit. (51).

53 James Jeans, ‘Scheme for Development – Electricity Section’, 1932, IC: Nominal File 3710, pt 1. The 1931 centenary of Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction reinforced the link between scientific research and the wonders of modern electrical technology. Macleod See Christine and Tann Jennifer, ‘From engineer to scientist: reinventing invention in the Watt and Faraday Centenaries, 1919–31’, BJHS (2007) 40, pp. 389411.

54 Lyons, op. cit. (51).

55 Board of Education, Report of the Advisory Council of the Science Museum for the Year 1933, London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1934, pp. 4041.

56 Anonymous, ‘Science for the young’, The Times, 27 December 1933, p. 7.

57 Advisory Council of the Science Museum, ‘Report of the Advisory Council Covering the Years 1940–1951’, 1952, Box Z150.

58 Advisory Council, op. cit. (57), appendix.

59 One of the first museum visitor studies in Britain involved ninety-six adult visitors to the University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge and was carried out by Alma Wittlin from 1942 to 1943. The visitors were asked to comment on two different exhibits: one (the Old Exhibition) contained several hundred objects relating to the topic of money with a minimum of labelling; the other (the New Exhibition) was arranged according to the principle of historical evolution from barter trade to money economy. Wittlin reported that the visitors preferred the New Exhibition to the Old. She also found that the visitors were better able to remember the theme of the New. She subsequently did the same experiment with 118 children. She observed and interviewed the children, and had them make drawings about the two exhibits. The findings supported her first experiment. On the basis of her historical survey and her experimental work, she called for the role of museums in education to be expanded. See Wittlin Alma S., The Museum: Its History and Its Tasks in Education, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949. For a review of early visitor studies, including Wittlin's, see Hein George E., Learning in the Museum, London: Routledge, 1998, Chapter 3. On p. 46 Hein evaluates Wittlin's studies thus: ‘Both her approach to the New Exhibition as well as her evaluation methods are remarkably similar to current practice. She recognised the importance of context, of including familiar, modern objects among the ancient museum pieces; the need for an explicit exhibition theme; and the use of a range of modalities and presentation methods’. We do not know if Frank Sherwood Taylor or staff members of the Science Museum found inspiration in Wittlin's work, or vice versa. Wittlin left for the USA in 1952 to continue the experimental approach to museum education and learning in an environment receptive to her ideas. See Hadwig Kraeutler, ‘The museologist, writer, educationalist Alma S. Wittlin (1899–1990)’, Smithsonian Center for Museum and Education Studies, 2011, available at, consulted 28 November 2013.

60 Advisory Council, op. cit. (57), appendix.

61 Advisory Council, op. cit. (57), p. 3.

62 Capitals will be used for the Committee whenever it refers to the Committee on the Provision for the Needs of Children in the Science Museum. Interestingly, in 1952, the Committee changed its name to the Committee on the Provision for the Interests of Children in the Science Museum. The change of name, from ‘needs’ to ‘interests’, could have been inspired by Philip E. Vernon, who was engaged in the work of the Committee (see below). In his study of the intelligibility of educational radio broadcasts, Vernon emphasized that ‘the aggregate interest of a talk's listeners is a fairly good indication of that talk's intelligibility’. See Silvery Robert, ‘The intelligibility of broadcast talks’, Public Opinion Quarterly (1951) 15, pp. 299304, 301, emphasis added.

63 For a similar approach to historical museum visitor studies, see Alberti, op. cit. (15).

64 Committee on the Provision for the Needs of Children in the Science Museum, ‘Minutes of Meeting’, 1 October 1951, Box Z194.

65 Committee, op. cit. (64).

66 Vernon Philip, The Measurement of Abilities, London: University of London Press, 1940.

67 Kline Paul, Vernon, Philip Ewart (1905–1987), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, available at, consulted 28 November 2013; Vernon Philip E., An Investigation into the Intelligibility of Educational Broadcasts, London: BBC Audience Research, 1950.

68 Committee, op. cit. (64).

69 James Hemming, ‘A preliminary report on children and the Science Museum’, 1952, Box Z253/1, pp. 3–6.

70 Committee on the Provision for the Needs of Children in the Science Museum, ‘Minutes of Meeting’, 19 June 1952, Box Z194.

71 Hemming, op. cit. (69).

72 Hemming, op. cit. (69), p. 17.

73 Committee, op. cit. (64).

74 Committe on the Provision for the Interests of Children in the Science Museum, ‘Minutes of Meeting’, 17 June 1953, Box Z194.

75 Joyce A.M. Brooks, ‘An enquiry into children's visits to the Science Museum Kensington’, MSc thesis, London: Birkbeck College, University of London, 3-523, 1953; A.J. Legge, ‘A psychological study of the role of museums in education with special reference to the Science Museum’, PhD thesis, University of London, 6-601, 1956; F.J.G. Stockwell, ‘A psychological investigation into the value of museum visits in the teaching of secondary modern science’, MA thesis, University of London, 5-583, 1955.

76 Brooks Joyce A.M. and Vernon Philip E., ‘A study of children's interest and comprehension at a Science Museum’, British Journal of Psychology (1956) 47, pp. 175182.

77 Brooks, op. cit. (75); Brooks and Vernon, op. cit. (76), p. 178.

78 Brooks, op. cit. (75), Chapter 3, sections 1 and 2.

79 Brooks, op. cit. (75), Map Sample No 5.

80 Brooks, op. cit. (75), p. 43.

81 Brooks, op. cit. (75), p. 73–75. Museum visitor studies in the 1920s and 1930s also reported on the phenomenon of ‘museum fatigue’: the decreasing interest towards particular exhibits as visits progressed. In a survey of studies of museum fatigue, Gareth Davey notes that, besides exhibit design, there are physical, cognitive and individual reasons why visitor behaviour tends towards ‘cruising around halls, and a more selective shopping behaviour’. See Davey Gareth, ‘What is museum fatigue?’, Visitor Studies Today (2005) 8(3), pp. 1721.

82 Brooks, op. cit. (75), p. 84. Brooks's conclusion that none of the children looked at more than one-third of the exhibits does not seem to apply to the two boys tracked in Figure 4, nor does it necessarily agree with the finding quoted above that more than 50 per cent of the fifty children being tracked looked at less than half of the exhibits. Such inconsistencies might have been an important reason why the staff of the Museum generally disliked Brooks's report.

83 Brooks and Vernon, op. cit. (76); Anonymous, ‘Butterflies in the Science Museum’, The Times, 31 August 1956, p. 11. The notion of ‘butterfly visitors’ also was adopted in an ethnographic study conducted in the 1980s at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. See Veron E. and Levasseur M., Ethnographie de l'exposition, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1983. In that study, butterflies are defined as visitors who do not follow a specific path, but rather are guided by the physical orientation of the exhibits and frequently change direction.

84 Committee, op. cit. (74).

85 Committee, op. cit. (74).

86 Philip E. Vernon, ‘Results from Miss Joyce Brooks’ “Enquiry into children's visits to the Science Museum”’, 1954, Box Z194.

87 Committee on the Provision for the Interests of Children in the Science Museum, ‘Minutes of Meeting’, 9 February 1955, Box Z194.

88 Committee on the Provision for the Interests of Children in the Science Museum, ‘Minutes of Meeting’, 21 June 1955, Box Z194.

89 Scott Anthony, ‘Ambition and anxiety: the Science Museum, 1950–1983’, in Morris, op. cit. (4), pp. 90–110, 96.

90 Anthony, op. cit. (89), p. 97. Scott Anthony describes the directorships of Taylor and Morrison-Scott as ‘two apparent failures’.

91 Committee on the Provision for the Interests of Children in the Science Museum, ‘Committee on Provision for Children's Interest in the Science Museum, Interim Report’, 1956, Box Z194.

92 Advisory Council of the Science Museum, ‘Extract from Minutes of the Advisory Council Meeting’, 4 October 1955, Box Z194.

93 F.St.A. Hartley, ‘Children's Gallery’, 1956, Box Z183/1.

94 T.C.S. Morrison-Scott to Hartley, 3 October 1956, Box Z183/1.

95 F.St.A. Hartley to Morrison-Scott, 4 October, 1956, Box Z183/1.

96 House of Commons, ‘Science Museum (Mr F.St.A. Hartley)’, 1961, avaliable at, consulted 28 November 2013.

97 Committee on the Provision for the Interests of Children in the Science Museum, ‘Minutes of Meeting’, 26 November 1958, Box Z194.

98 Committee, op. cit. (97).

99 Brooks interviewed 102 children (seventy boys and thirty-two girls) about their favourite displays and their comprehension of the displays. She produced a list of ‘favourite displays’, arguing that ‘the children want to understand the exhibits before they both remember them and call them a “favourite”’. For example, she found that most children looked at the pulleys and jacks exhibit and spent a considerable amount of time there, but only one child (a girl) out of her sample called it a favourite display. The majority of children simply did not understand the exhibit or gave confused answers in the comprehensibility tests. See Brooks, op. cit. (75), pp. 65–66.

100 Anthony, op. cit. (89), p. 101.

101 Advisory Council of the Science Museum, ‘Report of the Advisory Council for 1962’, 1963, Box Z150, p. 16.

102 Advisory Council of the Science Museum, ‘Extract from Minutes of Advisory Council Meeting’, 26 October 1965, Box Z253/2.

103 On 7 August 1963 (a wet day) at 3.30 p.m., the number of visitors in the gallery at one moment reached a new record of 520. See Advisory Council, op. cit. (102).

104 Eileen Elias, ‘A day out with the children’, Woman's Realm, 21 July 1961, pp. 12–13.

105 Doyle Judith, ‘So much to do during holidays’, Sutton and Cheam Advertiser, 5 August 1965, p. 4.

106 Anonymous, untitled, c.1966, Box Z252/2.

107 Anonymous, op. cit. (106), p. 2–3.

108 Anonymous, op. cit. (106), p. 4. It might be instructive to compare this labelling with one of the original ones: ‘The Fixed Pulley. A pulley is a wheel with a groove on its rim carrying a rope. The wheel rotates on an axle fixed in a frame-work called a Block. This example is called a Fixed Pulley because the block does not move. A pulley may be regarded as a wheel and axle, both having the same radius. The effort is applied to one end of the rope, the other end of which supports the weight. Neglecting friction, Effort in pounds × Radius of Pulley = Load in Pounds × Radius of Pulley. As the radius of the pulley is the same, the Mechanical Advantage should be 1 and the tension will be the same in both parts of the rope. The effort will, however, have to be slightly greater than the load by the amount of friction to be overcome. The Simple or Fixed Pulley has been know to man since the Assyrian times, say 2000 to 1000 BC., and is still used to-day, for example, to raise materials when building a house, as the pulley can be easily hitched to the scaffolding. Although the effort is not reduced to less than the weight the pulley is used on account of its convenience and speed because a man, by using the whole weight of his body when pulling downwards on the rope, can lift weights high above his head’. See Science Museum, ‘The Fixed Pulley’, Collections Documentation and Records Unit, Science Museum: Technical File No. 1932–660, 1932.

109 Anonymous, op. cit. (106), p. 3.

110 Anonymous, op. cit. (106), p. 4.

111 Anonymous, op. cit. (106), p. 4.

112 Falk and Dierking, op. cit. (2).

113 Morris, op. cit. (24).

114 This last conclusion is inspired by Robert Bud, ‘Infected by the bacillus of science’, in Morris, op. cit. (4), pp. 11–40, especially 36.

This research was made possible by a Short-Term Visiting Research Fellowship at the Science Museum. I thank Peter J.T. Morris, Timothy Boon, Jane Isley, Robert Bud and Rory Cook for their kind advice and assistance during my visit to the museum.

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