Design Museum’s Mars exhibition explores “compelling” design challenges

The mission to get to Mars is creating countless opportunities for design, according to the new exhibition.

The mission to get humans to our nearest planetary neighbour has long been acknowledged as a scientific endeavour. But as the possibility becomes more likely, designers and engineers must reconcile scientific conundrums to ensure its success.

The Design Museum’s newest exhibition, Moving to Mars, therefore positions the task of getting to the Red Planet not only as scientific, but also as a design challenge.

Credit: Ed Reeve

“The ultimate designed life”

On today’s Mars, carbon dioxide accounts for 95% of the atmosphere, the average temperature is around -63C and gravity is a third of Earth’s. To sustain life there, new equipment, furniture, clothing and infrastructure will need to be developed.

“There will be no experience of Mars outside an artificial bubble, whether in the habitat or spacesuit – this is the ultimate designed life,” reads the inscription at the exhibition’s entrance.

Chief curator Justin McGuirk echoes this: “Sending humans [to Mars] means we have to think about a human-centred design, because it is so inhospitable to us.

“What we’re saying is that Mars is no longer just a branch of science, you need design to ensure it won’t be a wholly miserable mission.”

On Mars Today features images taken from the Curiosity Rover. Credit: Ed Reeve

The story of Mars

The 200 exhibits on display are split into sections which chiefly deal with our history with Mars, voyaging to and surviving on it and our future relationship with it. The first looks at the historic human fascination with the planet, starting from the first recorded sightings by the ancient Egyptians.

This is also where visitors can see one of two multisensory installations: On Mars Today. Created with Professor Sanjeev Gupta, it uses real images taken by the Curiosity Rover.

“We wanted to tell a story about what we’ve discovered on Mars, and what it’s like to be there,” says Professor Gupta. “We didn’t want it to just be a random set of facts, so we wrote a compelling narrative to go with it.”

Visitors will experience an immersive Martian experience, which will include a look at the planet’s sometimes months-long sandstorms and the journey of the Curiosity Rover so far.

Models wearing pieces from the Mars-inspired SS20 Ræburn collection, inside the Hassell installation. Credit: Felix Spellerfor the Design Museum

“It’s not about just surviving”

From exploring our own fascination, the exhibition goes onto the very real design challenges a future Mars mission poses.

The voyage to the planet itself, for example, takes between seven and nine months and this prolonged amount of time in microgravity leads to muscle and bone wasting. The work of designer and researcher Anna Talvi is presented as an answer – she has created an optimal set of garments to minimise this effect.

“It’s not enough to approach it from a biomedical engineering perspective,” she says. “It’s not about surviving it’s about optimising the whole experience.”

The final sections of the exhibition look into the survival of humans on Mars and what a comfortable life could look like, rather than one of pure subsistence.

The second multisensory installation is a full-scale Mars habitat designed by London-based architecture firm Hassell. It comes complete with 3D printed furniture and clothing from the Ræburn SS20 collection, which utilises waste materials astronauts will have to hand during the journey and once landed.

Replicas of European Space Agency (ESA) robots which have already attempted Mars exploration. Credit: Ed Reeve

Designing the exhibition experience

Visitor experience has been heavily focused on. McGuirk notes this is the first time the Design Museum has enlisted the help of experience designers in the development of an exhibition. This was led by Dutch design studio Fabrique, who also managed the 2D design.

While watching the On Mars Today film, for example, visitors will no doubt notice the scent “Utopia Planitia”, which has been created specifically for the exhibition by French perfumer Nicholas Bonneville of Firmenich and aims to recreate the smell of the planet’s surface.

“We spent a lot of time working with [Fabrique] and thinking about the narrative structure of the show,” says McGuirk. “We thought about people flow and the different emotions you can experience in different rooms. The aim is for visitors to experience a sense of wonder and strangeness.”


Moving to Mars opens 18 October and runs until 23 February 2020. Tickets range from £8 – £18.

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