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REVIEW

WilkinsonEyre’s Science Museum medicine galleries revealed

  • 1 Comment

At 3,000m², the £24 million Wellcome Galleries are the largest medicine galleries in the world 

The galleries contain more than 3,000 objects, drawn from the museum’s own collection and that of the Wellcome. WilkinsonEyre’s design has almost doubled the existing display space, rationalising this out of a previously disparate series of spaces.

The practice has opened up the 150m enfilade of connected gallery spaces on the first floor of the museum, giving a coherent structure in which five themes – Medicine and Bodies, Exploring Medicine, Medicine and Communities, Medicine and Treatments, and Faith, Hope and Fear – have been developed across five galleries.

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 25

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 25

Natasha McEnroe, keeper of medicine at the Science Museum, described the curatorial process of drawing out the themes and selecting the objects from what is one of the oldest and largest collections of medical artefacts in the world, as ’a bit like making a soup’ – selecting store-cupboard ingredients to make a coherent whole. 

Objects include 18th-century wax anatomical figures, a 1911 pharmacy shopfront and interior, a padded cell from the 1930s, the first MRI scanner and displays of gallstones and prosthetic limbs, with an emphasis on the people-centred story of medicine.

WilkinsonEyre has designed a surprisingly full-throttled fit-out, with an intended gallery life of 25 years. A hundred minimally detailed but robust steel-and-glass display cases were designed by the practice, with a rich use of both lighting and colour to create a parti through the galleries. Thus two moodier spaces sit either side of two partially daylit central galleries, a progression ’from darkness into light and back to darkness’ conceived ’to symbolise the human life cycle’, according to the practice.

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 30

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 30

These gentle theatrics help break down the slightly relentless run of shed-like spaces that form the central spine of the Science Museum. This process is aided by the insertion of two new lift cores centrally and at the western end, meaning accessibility is improved, with the gallery displays and narratives intended to be enjoyed from entering at different points. Meanwhile all spaces are tied together by a new parquet-like timber engineered floor which runs throughout the galleries. 

A huge range of the minimal but muscular display cases – in frameless non-reflective museum glass – allows for unobstructed viewing of objects. These include integrated wall, freestanding and frameless balustrade displays and cases. The largest, the Wunderkammer (Cabinet of Curiosities) houses 1,000 objects presented as a mass display exhibit that wraps around the museum’s central lift bank. In addition, the practice has designed a series of brushed-bronze fixed and freestanding units to accommodate 63 audiovisual interactive elements for visitors. 

One element that jars, which seems a default trope of permanent collection galleries today, is a series of four specially commissioned artworks, which compared with the human-health-centred efficacious exhibits, seem to be there for mere spectacle – in particular an oversized human bronze sculpture Self Conscious Gene by Marc Quinn. The exception is the photographic portraits by Siân Davey, depicting patients and practitioners, which actually mesh with and humanise the displays. 

Overall the design of these new galleries provides a nicely tactile but supportive armature that effectively serves to bring out the richness, strangeness and stories of the medical and healthcare artefacts on display. 

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 36

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 36

Architect’s view

A transformation of the medicine galleries was essential to better engage both existing and new audiences. Our redesign aims to capture visitors’ imagination by providing an appropriate setting for the interpretation of these highly compelling artefacts and by placing people at the heart of each story.

Julia Glynn-Smith, principal architect, WilkinsonEyre

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 35

Medicine the wellcome galleries ©ed reeve for wilkinsoneyre 35

Client’s view

The opening of Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries marks the culmination of a decade of extraordinary architectural transformation of the Science Museum’s spaces. WilkinsonEyre is the ideal partner with which to achieve this milestone. The practice’s cultural work is sensitive and intelligent, and their utmost respect for the museum’s building, objects and visitors shines through in its exceptional design for Medicine.

This £24 million project is one of the most significant in the museum’s history and will be the perfect vehicle for visitors to connect with incredible stories from the history of human health and medicine.

Karen Livingstone, director of masterplan and estate, Science Museum Group

Medicine wellcome galleries isometric anno

Medicine wellcome galleries isometric anno

Medicine wellcome galleries cross section medicine and treatments and medicine and communities non anno

Medicine wellcome galleries cross section medicine and treatments and medicine and communities non anno

Section: Medicine and Treatments, Medicine and Communities galleries

Project data

Start on site September 2017
Completion date October 2019
Gross internal floor area 3,051m²
Form of contract Traditional: JCT 2016 without quantities (main contractor); Traditional: JCT 2016 with contractor’s design (showcase contractor) 
Architect WilkinsonEyre
Client Science Museum Group
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant Arup
QS Gardiner & Theobald
Lighting consultant Arup Lighting
Graphic consultant Holmes Wood
Acoustic consultant Ramboll
Project manager Lendlease
CDM coordinator Gardiner & Theobald
Approved building inspector Jose Anon (RBKC)
Main contractor Interserve – Paragon Division
Showcase contractor 
ClickNetherfield
CAD software used MicroStation, AECOMsim, Rhinoceros

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Hmm, a confusing piece. Where to start? “WilkinsonEyre’s design has almost doubled the existing display space, rationalising this out of a previously disparate series of spaces.” Doubled which space – the first floor, which is what was implied, or the spaces where the SM’s previous medicine galleries were, on the 4th and 5th floors? And has this new work really added two more lifts when one large one was added 20 years ago? The SM’s plan is not a series of ‘sheds’, but three distinct sections each from different periods. The floors here were already timber. If this really is the end, whither the sad-looking Flight gallery on the 3rd floor? Some great stuff, but is looks awfully dated.

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