Beacons, cosmology and climate change in £150 million Science Museum of the Future

By Ben Miller | 10 June 2009
A picture of a plan for the oustide of a large museum

The Science Museum today announced Museum of the Future, a new "cultural masterplan" transforming the look and contents of the building. Culture24 finds out more...

"We didn't get a very beautiful Victorian building with a lot of status," concedes Heather Mayfield, discussing the Science Museum's South Kensington home. "We got quite a utilitarian building which was completed after the Second World War, built in very difficult times. It looks more like a department store than a museum."

Hard as it is to imagine anyone missing the hugely popular trove where Mayfield is Head of Content, it's also fair to say its exterior camouflages seamlessly into its grey surroundings, an "anonymity" which she says is "a real problem".

"It was built in four stages, so unlike the other nationals it wasn't done all at the same time," explains Mayfield. "That makes it difficult for visitors because effectively they walk through three pretty different buildings – they're all joined together, but it's not easy for people to work that out."

A picture of a blueprint for the overview of a building

(Above) The roof of SkySpace is intended to sit comfortably amongst the other golden roofs of South Kensington, such as the one boasted by the Royal Albert Hall

A collective desire to rectify "really basic things", from dropping off bags to accessing the fifth floor in one journey, has informed the Museum of the Future, a £150 million plot to overhaul the look of the site, vastly improve facilities, add two new permanent galleries (including one on climate change) and reshape the space.

The most conspicuous elements are a glowing beacon bulging from the front window of the design and a gold-topped cavernous cosmic rooftop platform, Skyspace, which resembles a child's dream bedroom realised on a staggeringly grand scale. It's architects Wilkinson Eyre's interpretation of the Museum's desire for a new Cosmology section.

A picture of a sketched blueprint for the inside of a tall museum

The Treasury Galleries (above) will run through the core of the building, featuring a "stack" of important objects from the collections

"We were the first people to commission Wilkinson Eyre to do a major interior before they were the major cheese architects they are now," says Mayfield. "It's really exciting because you talk a lot about wanting to transform the museum and make it look completely different, but it's not until you start getting the visualisations back that you think oh my goodness, this really is going to be amazing.'

"We've worked with them for a long time as well, and as a team we spend a long time in the studio with them before they start to do any conceptual work at all, so they really understand the issues before they even start. On the whole we'd be very surprised if they didn't come back with something that worked really well for visitors and was beautiful."

A picture of a plan for the inside of a museum with spaceships and cosmic glowing walls

(Above) SkySpace plays with its cosmological theme by raising the roof

The project has taken a year to reach this stage, with a major public consultation, costing and planning applications to follow.

"The Science Museum's quite unusual because we don't have any space to move into or anything else, so it's really important that we make it work for us," says Mayfield.

A small object store in Olympia which takes "everything basically smaller than a washing machine" and an airfield at Wroughton used by the Museum since the 1970s are part of the plans, with audience focus groups kept in continuous dialogue with the team.

A picture of a plan for a vast museum

Director Chris Rapley says the plans (above) will move the Science Museum "closer than ever to achieving its aim of being the best place in the world to enjoy science"

"To some extent we're starting from a point where at least people think we're going to make it better with whatever we do. People feel very affectionate about the Science Museum, so you have a continuous balancing act of keeping what they feel strongly about versus upgrading and improving at the same time. There's our children's gallery, which people absolutely love, so we had to work really hard with visitors to say 'right, we're going to move it, we are gonna make it better', and that did go well."

Swathes of hidden exhibits will also be unleashed. "We've got some of the world's greatest collections which aren't even on display," points out Mayfield, citing an entire astronomy vault as one sore point. "That's really frustrating for visitors because they know we have them, so they must think 'at last, they're going to do something with those.'"

A picture of a plan for the outside of a museum at night with a globe protruding from the exterior front glass window

The Beacon aims to represent the "energy and ideas" of the Museum

Timed to coincide with the pedestrianisation of Exhibition Road into "London's premier cultural destination" by the end of 2011, the plan was conceived following the appointment of Museum Director Chris Rapley 18 months ago.

"I think the thing that holds everyone together is the desire to do something really outstanding for the Science Museum," reflects Mayfield, who says negotiations between staff members have been "frank".

"Many of us have been here for a long time, so there are some things where you just know they would make such a change for visitors. The Cosmology Gallery and raising the roof in that part of the building will make such a difference, but I actually love the proposal for the exterior because effectively we're not making any enormous changes to it, we're just opening it the whole way through. It's a very, very strong proposal. We think the public are going to like it."

Stars and space – key features in the blueprint:

Skyspace: New Cosmology Gallery inhabiting a raised roof with a gold exterior.
The Beacon: A glass capsule protruding from the front of Museum as "an exciting new image of the Science Museum as a dynamic and engaging place to visit, bursting with energy and ideas day and night."
The Orientation Space: "Dynamic signage, interactive maps, accessible information, and the latest mobile technologies to ensure that the visitor can tailor their trip to meet their individual needs and interests."
Two new galleries: Making Modern Communication, examining "the technical transformations which have reshaped society since the 1830s", and Making Modern Science, showcasing "the very essence of science" through theory, practice, ethics and leading figures from history.
Three new sets of lifts: "Greater access and vertical connections between galleries, ensuring the utmost flexibility for all visitors."

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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