Wonderlab, the new interactive gallery designed by muf at the Science Museum in South Kensington, is a triumph – with a distinctive aesthetic of wooden trestles, easels and artists’ donkeys.  It is also an idea whose time has come – though it has taken a very long time, building firstly on Launchpad, the Museum’s interactive gallery, but also on a gradual institutional change over a much longer time span;  and building also, I suspect, on the quiet impact that the reconstructed James Watt workshop has had on the Museum, the ultimate man-shed space that reminds one that invention doesn’t require interior design.

Let’s go fast backwards in the Museum to the beginning of the millennium to the completion of the Wellcome Wing development.  When it opened Deyan Sudjic praised the Making of the Modern World Gallery to the rafters for its design, but detailed audience evaluation produced at the time revealed that visitors need more explaining, more way finding,  more context to make connections, in short what we now call interpretive design. Meanwhile the Wellcome Wing itself was – and still is – bathed in a James Turrell inspired, blue shift, Doppler gloom – a bad architectural metaphor by the architect, the late Sir Richard McCormac (thus achieving what Rowan Moore, in describing Norman Foster, calls ‘the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything).

Now fast forward several directors and 18 years later and the Science Museum Group has built a brilliant team of science interpreters in both London and Manchester who had developed a new generation of interactives.  They have recognised that designing an interactive exhibit is way harder than designing a building – you have to think about outcomes, understanding rather than just looking, the process and its robustness.  More than that, Wonderlab is under-designed.  Under-design is the hardest style to achieve, unless it has the naturalness of Watt’s workshop, whilst over-design is the default of most designers – confusing means with ends, fetishising the smoothly hewn, dimpled, laser-cut, perforated, coveted and polished.

Now the reason I am interested in, and so admiring of, muf’s Wonderlab design is that it had a precursor.  Way back in 1998 Bob Baxer and I were shortlisted for the Wellcome Galleries and we proposed a space where science could be ‘explored’.  Remember that no one back then talked about the San Francisco Exploratorium, let alone their ‘cookbook’, and it certainly wasn’t in the Museum’s briefing documents. But we ran with the idea and showed displays that were based on easels, trestles, and artists’ donkeys. We were proposing the artist’s studio as a place of exploration, a site for doing and researching.  We were positing that hi-tech is only a look, that with Wonder should come Doubt, and that our aesthetic would be a counterpoint to the faux hi-tech of the Wellcome Wing. We also had a series of spaces modelled directly on 18th century anatomy theatres, for demonstration and discussion, with grid-like structures, coloured liquids and artefacts on open display.

Now muf never saw our drawings of course.  The connection between their design and ours is simply that museological ideas evolve and there comes a time when their time has come.  Journeymen like Bob and I moved from museum to museum, project to project, subject to subject, and conversation to conversation, and although we inspired, the truth is that for an idea to work it has to be owned and developed by the museum’s community.

I’m excited that muf has shown that all the fancy pimpled metal and brackets with circular holes is an unnecessary distraction, excited that by under-designing they have created a world that visitors can connect with, that curators can change and where improvisation is possible.  Design should be provisional;  the problem with the hi-tech modernist aesthetic is that it offers the illusion of flexibility whilst being most inflexible.

In Wonderlab the museum makers are also opening up to the possibilities of co-creation.  It provides a language that is easy, a place and space that can be shared, with or without any prior knowledge.  In science, as in co-creation, none of us knows everything, and everything is provisional just like Watt’s workshop.

Image at top of page:  the new Wonderlab at the Science Museum, by muf

Hand-drawn images:  by Stephen Greenberg, back in 1999