National Railway Museum’s Wonderlab gallery pays homage to railway workshops

The new gallery references the space’s past life as an engineering and locomotive workshop while seeking to inspire potential young designers and engineers.

Wonderlab: The Bramall Gallery at the National Railway Museum in York has been designed by De Matos Ryan and Lucienne Roberts +, comprising 18 interactive exhibits that demonstrate different engineering and railway concepts.

De Matos Ryan is responsible for the 3D design and Lucienne Roberts + took on the 2D design. While the space is designed to appeal to a cross-generational audiences, its focus is on 7- to 14-year-olds as it looks to inspire future generations of engineers and designers.

Through its interactive exhibits, Wonderlab aims to encourage visitors to “think like engineers and develop skills as they design, build and test in an exciting, permissive and playful manner”, says De Matos Ryan. To facilitate this, the space is set out like an open-plan workshop in a bid to stimulate social interaction and bring visitors together, which also pays homage to its “previous life as an engineering locomotive workshop”, says De Matos Ryan director José Esteves De Matos.

He explains how the “family of new engineering timber structures” in the gallery are also reminiscent of “iconic locomotive fragments”, serving as “screening and layering devices to define zones and create areas of intimacy” within the open-plan space. The shape and construction of the 3D design structures seek to embody “core railway engineering principles” and also take inspiration from “key exhibits and concepts throughout the museum”, says De Matos.

For instance, the Wallace Learning Space – where visitors “metaphorically transform into the size of a steam drop” – draws inspiration from the Ellerman Lines steam locomotive, he adds.

De Matos Ryan spearheaded a testing and prototyping process involving over 1,300 people, including experts within the rail industry, education, local community groups and members of the public, when designing the exhibits. Accessibility specialists were also brought in to ensure the space is appropriate for all.

The studio’s design explores “the different forms of motion evoked by railway engineering, particularly the perception of relative motion in relation to static volumes, surfaces, textures and light”, De Matos reveals. For example, the Feel the Force exhibit looks into “design streamlining through physically experiencing aerodynamics”, says the studio.

Sustainably sourced timber lining runs around the perimeter of the space, aiming to reduce the gallery’s “imposing scale and add a sense of warmth”, according to De Matos Ryan. The lining develops into work benches, seating areas, storage cupboards and viewing portals, serving a more functional purpose in the space.

The studio opted to expose imperfections and historical wear and tear, such as the concrete floors, in order to keep the “memory, rawness and energy” of the building’s existing use alive in some way, says De Matos.

When Lucienne Roberts + was invited to pitch for the 2D design work, the team was unsure as it had been “considering whether to stop taking part in that kind of process”, according to the studio’s founder Lucienne Roberts. Ultimately, the studio decided to take a different approach and won the job via an  poem written by the studio entitled E-motion rather than submitting a full design concept.

Lucienne Roberts + took a “mood setting” and informative approach while ensuring that it came across as “educational but it’s not prescriptive”, says Roberts. She describes it as “intentionally permissive, playful, and eclectic”, adding that they followed De Matos Ryan’s lead by foregrounding “the industrial nature of the space” and taking “an iterative, prototype-based approach” to the 2D design and production.

Much inspiration was found within the National Railway Museum’s archive, where Lucienne Roberts + looked at early engineering locomotive drawings, the original British Rail corporate identity manual and mood boards for train interiors from the 1930s to the present. The studio identified the floor as “a key element”, choosing to employ “painted markings” similar to those in the original workshop and reminiscent of playground markings to “direct visitors or draw attention to bifurcation points [where it branches off in two directions]”.

Roberts says the design scheme uses the floor “not only to differentiate zones but to prompt behaviours”. A suite of bespoke shapes and connectors run horizontally and vertically across the floors, over the metal rails and up the timber and blockwork walls.

The supergraphics in the space reference motion and utilise circles or part circles “to signal the action of an exhibit, be it large or small”, says Roberts. For the largest interactive, The Great Machine which resembles a ghost-train, Lucienne Roberts + applied supergraphics to “draw attention to the real rails beneath”.

A” restricted palette” appears throughout the gallery, comprising black, white and sage green, says Roberts. She adds that “safety yellow”, which featured in the original workshop, is also used as well as “flashes of deep fluorescent orange” to “give emphasis and signal action”.

Accessibility is at the core of the 2D design. Roberts says this is “most evident” in an illustration-lead interpretation, for which Rotterdam-based illustrator Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva was commissioned to produce over 35 images. Roberts explains how Krasnova-Shabaeva’s “light-touch figurative work, with its sensitive use of flat colour, line work, angles and planes” was suited to “both instructional and imaginative needs”.

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