Lost in Science

Yesterday I was in London for a meeting, and managed to carve out a couple of hours to visit the Science Museum. Given that I spent eight years of my life working in science museums, and that I now research museums, it was a shock to realise that it’s probably been over half a decade since I’ve visited the UK’s largest and most famous museum of science.

In spite of the fact that I inevitably get lost there, my first mistake was failing to pick up a map as I came in. I really wanted to visit the new climate science gallery, Atmosphere, which I’d heard lots about, and also to check out the hands-on Launchpad gallery, which I was pretty sure had moved again since I last visited. Coming into the museum, I turned right and walked in a long straight line, through the massive industrial and transport exhibitions, and into the dark, neon-filled Wellcome Wing. There was some sort of event, and large numbers of trendy looking men in shirts and ties were milling around. I am hopelessly easy to disorientate (turn me through ninety degrees and I’m lost), but eventually discovered a lift, with signs suggesting I would find Atmosphere if I went up to floor 2.

The Science Museum seems to contain an inordinate number of industrial-looking corridors, which don’t quite feel like places visitors should be, as if you’ve wrongly managed to get behind the scenes and into the staff areas. I stepped from the lift into one such corridor and gingerly made my way to the Atmosphere gallery. It was, again, dark, with appropriately atmospheric deep blue lighting from an incredible swirling ceiling, and amazing slowly-moving projections on the floor. I didn’t have much time, and needed to take it in quickly, so I tried out a few of the computer interactives, looked at some of the artefacts, then left to try to find Launchpad. I followed an industrial looking, behind-the-scenes feeling staircase back down to the ground floor, elbowed my way through the trendy tie-wearers, and headed for the basement, where I thought Launchpad had been last time I visited.

Instead I found myself in Web Lab Beta – an interactive gallery produced in association with Google Chrome. The middle of the space was filled with strange instruments, making weird pinging, bonging sounds. In other places, robot arms drew faces in sandpits, and people looked through periscopes at goodness knows what. A cordoned off area declared itself to be the Control Room, with fat yellow cables connecting to the internet. At this point all the technology and trendily designed dark spaces filled with bright lights started to overwhelm me. I located the nearest museum employed human being, and asked where I could find Launchpad.

Inevitably, this involved another long corridor, although at least this one had lots of things along it to reassure me that I wasn’t in the staff quarters. I made it up to the museums’ other third floor (see why I get confused?), along another corridor (or maybe my mind is now just adding corridors…) and found myself with three choices: Launchpad; Health Matters; and, (thank the Lord!) the Eighteenth Century Science gallery, with its King George III collection of scientific instruments. And, although I thought I had been searching for the hands-on Launchpad gallery, I realised that what I actually wanted was to hang out for a while with some calm, beautiful, gently-lit orreries.

I’m so glad the Science Museum still has the George III gallery. It’s easy to be wowed by the high-concept design of galleries like Atmosphere and Web Lab. They are fantastically well done, and based on some of the best visitor research carried out by museums in this country. And the industrial and transport galleries, with their columns of cars up the wall, and giant, swooping aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, can’t fail to impress. But these galleries, filled with lights, sounds, giant objects and crowds of people, combined with the perpetual feeling of being lost or soon-to-be-lost, give me a kind of sensory overload that just makes me want to run away. But a small, calm room, in which absolutely every beautifully made object is behind glass, and in which there is no touching, interacting or even listening, was the perfect antidote. Science engagement isn’t just about doing hands-on stuff, or being wowed, or having your senses filled, or using technology. It’s also about having the time to calmly observe, let your mind wander, and notice tiny details or appreciate simple ideas that aren’t shouting, but are quietly waiting to be discovered.

After 15 minutes in there, control was regained, normal service resumed, and I was sufficiently revived to hurtle round another five galleries in the 40 minutes before my meeting. And I didn’t get lost at all.

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