Whether you’re under ten or not, you’re lying if you say that having a slide race to test friction doesn’t sound fun—not that the word “fun” should detract from the seriousness of the task, which after all, is in the name of science. Like the idea? Well, that’s what is now on offer at Wonderlab in the Satoil Gallery at the Science Museum in London, designed by London-based muf architecture/art.
Three slides, each offering various friction coefficients, are one of 50 hands-on exhibits at the new gallery. As critic Rowan Moore points out, institutions in the U.K. have often gone too far with flamboyant displays when it comes to science. Exhibits have become overcrowded with gimmicks that obtrusively vie for visitors’ attention, usually “displaying digital technology that had a knack of a) becoming obsolete and b) stopping working.”
Inside the orrery. (Courtesy muf architecture/art)
At the Wonderlab, though, this isn’t the case. Covering 25,000 square feet, the $7.3 million space informs fresh-faced youths on scientific concepts such as light, materials, sound, forces, mathematics, electricity, and magnetism. Each concept is represented by a single hanging object—a brass instrument for sound, a blown glass orb for material. Visitors are encouraged to find their own way around the gallery. A 120-seater theater, designed to emulate that of the scientist Michael Faraday, can be used for classes, meanwhile, 400 handmade oval samples showcasing different materials can be found by the slides. A cage for a Tesla coil also features a 26-feet inhabitable revolving orrery—reminiscent of George Wright of Derby’s painting—that teaches children about the solar system by displaying the sun, earth, and moon.
On a smaller scale, the space features bespoke kid-proof furniture: A treasure trail of 25 crystals can be found in the benches and a 16-feet oak tree has been studded with magnets. “These details are a conscious reaction against the generic bright, wipe clean, panelled architecture of many schools and public spaces,” said the firm.
The gallery is also very spacious. muf described their work as “stripped back” in an email to The Architect’s Newspaper. On school trips, the sight of kids tearing across the floor and falling through exhibits just so they can give their friend an electric shock is not uncommon. muf’s decision then to remove layers of suspended ceiling and partitions to open up the space is perhaps wise, as it attempts to diffuse the drama and chaos that can erupt in such a space.
By doing so, the firm also allows areas for waiting and eating packed lunches—timezones that are notorious for attention spans to waver—to be generously day lit. Teachers will also be thankful for the added openness that gives their watchful eyes wider scope for sniffing out mischief. 200,000 children are set to descend onto Wonderlab each year and muf’s design looks set to be a fun, enriching, but stress-free experience for all those who visit.