Designing Public Space


17 October 2016

You are invited to bite down on an iron rod, while your fingers block your ears.

This is Sound Bite, one of 50 exhibits that make up Wonderlab, a new interactive children’s gallery situated on the third floor of London’s Science Museum. The exhibit is designed to demonstrate bone conduction: as you bite on the rod and block your ears, you hear rap music playing. It is captivating. “Our aim with Wonderlab,” says the gallery’s curator Toby Parkin, “is to inspire visitors of all ages – adults and children – to marvel at the beauty and wonder of science.”

Wonderlab is designed by Muf, a London-based practice formed of artists, architects and urban designers that specialises in designing for the public realm. “We set up Muf when the UK was run by a Conservative government. Then, there was no such thing as public realm,” says Liza Fior, one of the founding partners of Muf. “Within our projects we’re always looking for the shared public spaces.”

The vast gallery space is organised into seven sections: Sound, Light, Space, Force, Electricity, Mathematics and Matter. Positioned at the far corner of the gallery the Friction Slide features three chutes, each covered with a different material. Visitors are encouraged to travel down the slides to experience the frictional properties of each material. Elsewhere the Chemistry Bar, operated by one of the Science Museum’s Explainers (scientists who have been appointed to bring Wonderlab's exhibits to life while simultaneously explaining the science behind each), offers live scientific demonstrations: the making of slime using laundry starch, water and glue; the submerging of jelly sweets in liquid nitrogen before smashing their hardened form on the countertop.

There is no predetermined route around the gallery. Instead, Muf removed the gallery walls to create long, axial views from one side of the space to the other. “We wanted to position the exhibits in a loose and informal way so that you are encouraged to follow what captures your eye,” say Fior. “In science everything is connected so visual connections are really important.”

A roster of designers were enlisted to develop individual details within the gallery. London-based product designer Felix de Pass created a series of curved tubular door handles while Arnout Visser, a designer and a member of Dutch design practice Droog, created the oversized glass that forms the Chemistry Bar. Swedish design practice Front was commissioned to create an illuminated hood for the orrery. Formed of 500 free-hanging LED lights, the hood is a reworked version of an installation that was originally shown in Milan during the Salone del Mobile and at the World Expo, both in 2015. “When Front originally made this piece it was highly decorative,” says Fior. “For over a year the practice worked together with a scientist to scale it up and give it scientific accuracy.” The positioning of the hanging lights is based upon data provided by the European Space Agency that specifies the configuration of the 500 stars closest to Earth.

The gallery is 60 per cent bigger than its predecessor, and as a result the Science Museum aims to double the amount of schoolchildren visiting the gallery to 200,000 each year. This public element of the space is what initially attracted Muf to the project. “London is becoming increasingly divided,” says Fior. “Wonderlab is probably one of the few places where a child from a South Kensington preparatory school can share the same space and learning experience as a child from a state school in Barking and Dagenham.” It is a sentiment echoed by Tom O’Leary, the Science Museum’s director of learning: “An important point is that our most diverse audience is schools," he says. "We know by focusing on this we are going to inspire future generations of scientists, mathematicians and engineers irrespective of their background.”

Wonderlab marks a first for the Science Museum in that it will charge an entrance fee: £8 for adults, £6 for children and £39 for a family annual pass, although schools may visit the gallery free of charge. In line with government policy, admittance to the rest of the Science Museum will remain free. “Creating a gallery is one thing," says Jonathan Newby, deputy director of the Science Museum. "Running and maintaining a space with over 50 interactive exhibits supported by a big team of science experts is not cheap. Importantly this funding model goes some way to enabling us to maintain the world class visitor experience for years to come, as well as allowing us to achieve the ambition of increasing the number of school visits.”

Newby’s eagerness to defend the gallery’s charging model is not without explanation. The day before Wonderlab (or as it is officially titled Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery) hosted its press preview, The Guardian published an open letter criticising the Science Museum’s decision to charge entry to the gallery, as well accepting sponsorship from the "unethical" international energy company Statoil. The letter was signed by more than 50 esteemed figures from across the sciences and arts. “Despite securing sponsorship from an oil and gas company that is recklessly planning to drill seven new wells in the fragile Arctic, the London museum has also introduced an entry charge, restricting access to those visitors able to pay," reads the letter. "It is unconscionable that in 2016 a museum of science is handing a fossil fuel company legitimacy by allowing it to sponsor a gallery designed to inspire the next generation.”

The criticism of Statoil’s sponsorship warrants discussion; the ethics of public institutions accepting sponsorship from companies deemed unethical remains a topic subject to media glare. However, perhaps the Science Museum’s decision to introduce a modest charging model, while remaining free to schools, could be viewed in a more positive light. Through the wealth of expertise on hand in the gallery, coupled with the attention to detail in the execution of the gallery’s design,  it is apparent – at least for now – where the additional funds might be spent.

Fior sums this up when I ask how Wonderlab differs from Muf's previous projects in public spaces: “What is exciting is the sheer body of knowledge that we are working with," she says. "Sadly in the public realm, with all the funding cuts, so much knowledge is lost.”