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FOI reveals evidence of injuries at Muf's Science Museum gallery

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Muf’s Wonderlab at the Science Museum has reopened, having closed less than a year after completion, with official documents revealing exhibits were regularly broken and the ‘friction’ slides caused burns

The showpiece exhibition space opened in October last year but was shut in September in order to install extra soundproofing, the Science Museum told the AJ.

Now data obtained by the AJ under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) shows that, before Wonderlab’s closure, the museum had logged reports of 134 injuries in the space with nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of these sustained on the three slides.

According to the museum’s records, 42 children and adults reported friction burns caused by the grass, wooden and plastic so-called ‘friction’ slides, intended to demonstrate how differing materials caused differing levels of resistance.

The 2,300m² space currently houses more than 50 exhibits, including a Tesla coil giving off electrical discharges, as well as a silver-lined 120-seat theatre.

A separate internally-led evaluation of Wonderlab, carried out between April and June this year, reported that a number of these attractions had been damaged with ‘three of the five priority exhibits … often out-of-action’.

The report added that the Water Jet exhibit - which was not designed by muf - had errors on all the observational days, and was ‘fully closed’ on two of the observational days.

The AJ has also been told by three insider sources that exhibits were broken when they visited the Wonderlab, including the 8m-wide revolving orrery. However, during a visit to the Wonderlab this week [24 October], the AJ found that all the exhibits were working properly.

The audit evaluation went on to criticise the congestion at Wonderlab, which in some cases had caused visitors to leave, and said that ‘visitors often moved in a linear path that [became] congested in the Motion area, especially when busy’.

The investigation found the ‘exploration paths’ at Wonderlab to be both ‘random and sightline driven’, adding that some visitors’ first impression was that it was ‘too dark [and] designed [with] “an adult aesthetic”’.

A museum ‘explainer’ – one of a number of staff who guide visitors around the gallery – was also recorded as describing Wonderlab as a ‘very unstructured space’.

When Wonderlab opened in October last year, muf described its design as ‘encouraging visitors to roam guided by what catches their eye, rather than a pre-determined route and narrative’.

Despite its criticisms, the evaluation did praise Wonderlab, stating that it was ‘extremely popular’ and concluded that ‘once experienced all are keen to return’. It adds that the gallery ‘inspires curiosity’, going as far to describe it as a ‘success story’. 

Indeed the data obtained under the FOI showed it had attracted 364,825 visitors between October 2016 and September this year - meaning the total number of accidents represented one incident in every 2,500 visits.

A Science Museum spokesperson told the AJ that the gallery had only been closed to install ‘extra acoustic separation’, following the removal of the former medicine galleries directly above Wonderlab in order to prepare this space for any future use. 

Responding to the documents obtained by the AJ, muf partner Liza Fior said: ‘One of the pleasures of working with the Science Museum is their scientific approach to prototyping everything. We made full-sized mockups of all the elements we designed, tested many with visitors and had the support of our specialist play safety consultant in the detailed design of those exhibits authored by muf.

‘We used robust materials such as stone, brass, oak, and inset crystal to make a setting that encourages visitors to explore scientific concepts in an open-ended and immersive way, very much informed by our work in the public realm. School children go free to Wonderlab and we celebrated that in the areas dedicated to them.’

Fior added: ‘We are pleased that such a large number of people have engaged with Wonderlab as we designed.’

A Science Museum spokesperson said: ‘When planning new galleries and exhibitions, we work with a range of experts to ensure that they are safe and enjoyable spaces for our visitors to learn and be inspired. We commission robust research and visitor surveys to gather feedback and continue improving the visitor experience once galleries open to the public.

‘Hundreds of thousands of people have visited Wonderlab since it opened in October 2016, including many thousands of schoolchildren who have visited for free, and research shows that 96 per cent of visitors to the gallery would recommend a visit to other people.’

The project is the latest in the Science Museum’s £60 million regeneration masterplan, which also includes a mathematics gallery by Zaha Hadid Architects, a lecture theatre by Dow Jones and an events space by Duggan Morris. 

The first scheme in the masterplan, a library and research centre by Coffey Architects, completed in March 2016 with ZHA’s gallery opening at the end of last year. 

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • It would have been fun if this article had been framed in terms of the Science Museum as an extraordiary and ambitious client, who understands that to do things exceptionally well, risks need to be taken and managed; over time. As well as muf's constant search for an architecture of specificity and joy in the potential of the public realm and their fellow human beings.
    Imagine if it had been framed as a 'success story' as it was by the Science Museum themselves.

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  • AJ seems to be going out of their way to be critical here. If you reversed the content it would read entirely differently, and they could've easily chosen to focus on the praise of the evaluation rather than hone in on the friction burns and faulty exhibitions. The opening lines could just as easily been of 'Wonderlab described as a success story by Science Museum. Despite reports of injuries, research shows thar 96% of visitors to the gallery say they would recommend a visit to other people'

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