Tim Molloy has a Design Week cover pinned to his wall. It is dated 10 June 1994 and bears his mugshot.
That cover was a taster for a profile of the interior designer who, some months previously, had taken up the new job of head of design at London’s Science Museum. Fifteen years on and Molloy has earned a reputation as one of the most intuitive design clients around, and is a familiar figure on the circuit with his signature striped T-shirt and thick-rimmed spectacles. He has gone from head of design to head of creative direction at the museum, with the job ‘to help everyone to do something better’.
Major projects – such as the £55m Wellcome Wing, completed in 2000 by architect MacCormac Jamieson Pritchard and a host of interiors and digital stars, the Dana Centre, a £9m facility with design by Harry Pearce at Pentagram and words by Oliver Wingate, and Launchpad, improved in 2007 by Andy Feast, Pentagram and the museum’s in-house team – hit the headlines. But there have been a host of smaller commissions that have helped change perceptions of science, making it universally accessible.
The Science Museum kicks off its centenary celebrations this week with news of an extraordinary exhibition of ten iconic objects – from Stephenson’s Rocket and penicillin to the Apollo spacecraft and the DNA spiral – marking the life-changing scientific breakthroughs of the past 100 years. More significant, though, is the masterplan, conceived by Molloy with architect Wilkinson Eyre and exhibition star Casson Mann, for the Museum of the Future, which will form the centrepiece of the show.
In many respects that project encapsulates Molloy’s thinking and what he refers to as the ‘spirit’ of science. He stresses that it is a vision rather than reality, and has neither full approval nor funding as we go to press, but what starts with a new facade for the museum by Wilkinson Eyre is topped by a SkySpace cosmology gallery, with ‘architectural interventions’ into the galleries below. There will also be ‘object-rich’ galleries addressing the making of modern science and communications to complement the existing Making of the Modern World gallery.
Meanwhile, a climate change project – Molloy baulks at the word ‘gallery’ for something that’s yet to take shape in his mind – is scheduled for completion in 2011, but it is very early days. Science can be a dry subject, and Molloy has had to put across some complex ideas over the years and convey them to a diverse audience. Describing himself as a ‘dealer in abstractions’, he says, ‘The Science Museum relies on powerful environments to be memorable. Most exhibits can’t do it themselves. Stories about people and their lives is what we’re learning to develop.’
To put across these stories, Molloy has employed creative talents including architects and designers to artists and writers – poet Max Harvey is, for example, working on the centenary show. And he has proved a king-maker in that commissioning role – neither Casson Mann nor Wilkinson Eyre were known for exhibition work at the outset of Molloy’s career at the Science Museum, and he gave Thomas Heatherwick one of his first commissions, for the museum’s Challenge of Materials gallery.
‘I work with people whose professionalism I respect and have followed the maverick principle of not working with experts,’ he says. ‘We need people with glorious enquiring minds, people who communicate well.’
Molloy is very aware of the downside of scientific discovery and this will be borne out in the centenary show. Penicillin, for example, may have helped to eradicate disease, but this in turn arguably overturned a culture of cleanliness, paving the way for the hospital infections that now beset us.
But for him, though, it really is all about telling the story, whether it is good or bad. ‘The fascinating thing about science is that the story is always amazing,’ he concludes.