The appliance of science

When Tim Molloy landed the top design job at London’s Science Museum he had no idea he would end up in charge of one of the most important projects in its 142-year history.

The 45m Wellcome Wing, due to open in summer 2000, was not even a twinkle in the museum’s eye when Molloy became its first head of design for a decade in 1993.

The project has since engulfed his life as he juggles teams of architects and interior, product and graphic designers for six new semi-permanent galleries, a café, shop and cinema in the 10 000m2 Lottery-funded extension.

Dynamic and energetic, Molloy overflows with enthusiasm for his role at the museum which, he says, gives him the chance to get involved in “quite significant public works”.

“It’s an extraordinary challenge,” he says. “I’m not a scientist. I’m not an exhibition designer. It was a very interesting job with a controversial aura about it from the start.”

What Molloy did have was a sound design industry background. After studying interior design at Manchester College of Art and Design he took an MA in environmental design at the Royal College of Art and worked for architect GMW, and then for Minale Tattersfield and Conran Associates before co-founding Simpson Molloy in 1984. Five years later he became creative director at Crighton Design and founded Malone Design in 1991 before moving to the client side when he took the Science Museum position.

“I was intrigued that the Science Museum recognised it needed someone to control the design input,” he says. “It was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

As an advocate of the need for more designers in managerial roles, his new role gave him the chance to influence design from a client’s perspective. “I’d like to encourage the idea that you can be a designer and not do it yourself,” he says. “You can talk it and work with wonderful people and help set the scene. In some ways it’s like being a conductor. It’s a wonderful job.”

He concentrated on developing the Basement Galleries with Ben Kelly Design, Gilles Cenazendotti, Tim Hunkin and Casson Mann and Chris Wilkinson Architects’ Challenge of Materials Gallery, before plans were finalised to build the Wellcome Wing dedicated to contemporary and future science. “It’s a major piece of work that can really have an effect on the museum. Basement and Challenge of Materials were just tickling the edges,” he says.

A lot rests on the new wing, which the museum hopes will provide stimulating and interactive exhibits that emphasise the future rather than the history of science. With MacCormac Jamieson Prichard’s building taking shape on site, Molloy is aware that the galleries in the translucent blue interior must measure up to the expectations created by the architecture.

A self-styled “determined generalist”, Molloy takes pleasure in working with diversity. He doesn’t keep a formal design roster for gallery work and, for the new wing, assembled – by paid creative pitches – a combination of high-calibre architects and interior and graphic designers, rather than specialist exhibition companies.

“I’m more comfortable working with a combination of people who provide all you need in a gallery, rather than an exhibition company – they tend to be weak on spatial design and materiality. That’s why I work with architects and interior designers.

“Also, architects are used to being team players and one of the things I feel certain of is that to do a contemporary gallery you need a rich mix of creative people – poets, lighting designers, audiovisual, architects, craftspeople – and architects tend to be quite good at controlling those people.”

He promises the new displays will be a dynamic series of galleries quite unlike anything ever achieved at the Science Museum, or any other. Casson Mann is well advanced on stunning designs for digital and biomedical galleries, which will include interactives by Hollington Associates. Meanwhile, Chris Wilkinson Architects is working on the ground-floor café and exhibits including the ambitious News & Views gallery, which will be updated every week, and the Making the Modern World gallery in the existing building, which will act as an introductory exhibition to the new wing.

For graphics, Johnson Banks is providing designs for the ground-floor exhibitions and a signage system for the wing, while Graphic Thought Facility is working with Casson Mann, and Mark Farrow with Chris Wilkinson.

Before these designers were involved, Molloy took on the role of designer in talks with the museum’s gallery content developers to establish broad themes and a brief for the eventual design team. Now, he sees his role as mediating between the designers and the institution to ensure a cohesive design framework for the wing’s eclectic galleries.

“It has the potential to collapse into anarchy,” he admits. “I tried to get the smallest number of consultants involved, not just for budget reasons, but for a sense of consistency for each individual element. The glue that binds it all together is very important.”

This is particularly true of the ground floor with its café and retail area, the Pattern gallery, the regularly changing News & Views galleries and a series of object-based Talking Point displays on “jaw-dropping” subjects. Molloy hopes the framework provided by Chris Wilkinson and Johnson Banks will enforce a degree of discipline. “Michael Johnson is working on signage that’s special to the building. The last thing it’ll be is panels on the wall,” promises Molloy.

Johnson is also excited about the possibilities of rethinking museum graphics: “Many museums are moving away from ‘Here’s a picture, here’s a caption, now let’s fall asleep’. It has huge implications for graphic design.”

One of the other challenges is providing a visually stimulating design for something as mundane as, say, the largest prime number.

“It’s not the V&A or the Tate. We don’t start off with beautiful things,” Johnson says, keen to avoid an overly techie feel and balance the needs of the technophiles with the technophobes.

Molloy’s experience as a working designer is invaluable, according to many of the designers working on the new wing. “Tim’s a good designer. It wouldn’t work if he wasn’t,” says Paul Barker, an associate at Chris Wilkinson.

His teams, especially the graphic and product designers, also value the unusual experience of being involved at the early stages of a project.

“He’s clearly come to the view that designers of all shapes and forms from 3D to 2D can have some input. You lose that prescriptive, formulaic approach,” says Johnson.

“Involving the designers at such an early stage is quite radical. He’s really interested in the process of shaking up the preconceptions of how you do an exhibition. Casson Mann is the only acknowledged exhibition designer on the roster.”

Described by one of the designers as someone who “cuts to the chase”, Molloy is also credited with creating a relaxed but stimulating way of working.

“He has a phenomenal task dove-tailing all the teams. He’s the chap who’s holding it all together,” says Paul Neale of Graphic Thought Facility. “It couldn’t be more informal for such a large institution. It’s very relaxed.”

Despite this attitude, Molloy is guaranteed a hectic 18 months ahead and he is already looking forward to taking an extended break when the wing is open. After that he is undecided, but he is aware that his current role will be pretty hard to match elsewhere.

“When it’s over it’ll be a great anti-climax. I expected to leave after the Basement and I started to look around, but all the other jobs looked quite mundane. I no longer do any design in the way I had. But on another level it’s the most creative job I’ve ever had.”

Wellcome Wing

Construction is well underway on the new Wellcome Wing, designed by architect MacCormac Jamieson Prichard to extend the museum’s gallery space by 30 per cent.

Funded with the help of a 23m Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the wing takes the name of the Wellcome Trust, which has put up 16.5m for the project.

Galleries addressing biotechnology, information technology and future science will be suspended across the four-storey space beneath the curved underbelly of a wide-screen IMAX cinema. The galleries will be open-ended to allow dramatic views of a luminous, full-height wall of blue glass that will form the end of the new wing.

The museum hopes the extension will boost visitor numbers by 300 000 to 1.8 million. ©

Making the Modern World

Architecture: Chris Wilkinson Architects

Graphic design: Mark Farrow

Although part of the Wellcome Wing project, this gallery is in the existing museum and will act as a gateway exhibition to the new wing. Chris Wilkinson’s scheme is intended to have a 25-year lifespan and will incorporate iconic objects from the museum’s collections to chart the rise of industrial society from 1950-2000, setting the scene for the future-oriented exhibits of the Wellcome Wing.

Working with an 80m-long, 11m-high space, the architect plans to create an art gallery-like environment with large-scale exhibits on the ground floor and a “time-line” bench running the length of the gallery displaying precious objects. The rest of the 2000 exhibits will be displayed on two upper levels.

Pattern gallery (ground floor)

Architecture: Chris Wilkinson Architects

Graphic design: Johnson Banks

An interactive exhibition for children aged three to eight, Pattern gallery will explore the idea that patterns are all around us in everyday life and relates them to contemporary science. It will be semi-shielded from the rest of the floor’s exhibits by a permeable, gauzy structure and bounded by a back wall projecting patterns as they are made by visitors on the interactive displays. Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks is looking forward to working on the gallery. “Asking a graphic designer to do an exhibit on patterns is a dream,” he comments.

News and Views (ground floor)

Architecture: Chris Wilkinson Architects

Graphic design: Johnson Banks

Envisaged as a three-dimensional news-based magazine, the gallery will be a responsive, weekly-changing exhibition informed by live feeds from news agencies and TV companies. Chris Wilkinson Architects proposes a dramatic backdrop to the news, with giant lightboxes and large white planes for graphics. The exhibition will be graphics-led with large-scale, powerful imagery for immediate responses to news and for features around current stories such as the MIR space station or a flesh-eating disease.

Johnson Banks is working on a presentation that is cohesive but flexible enough to take the frequently changing exhibits. “We will make sure the graphics are interesting, but don’t hit you over the head and confuse you,” says Michael Johnson.

Biomedical gallery (first floor)

Architecture: Casson Mann Designers

Graphic design: Graphic Thought Facility

Interactives: Hollington Associates

Provisionally known as the Identikit gallery, the 1400m2 first-floor display will concentrate on human identity, covering issues such as genetics, immunity and brain science.

Casson Mann eschewed a linear design to the identity because the architecture dictated entrances at both ends of the gallery and divided displays into organic “bloid” interactive structures and relatively traditional exhibits. Lights in the floor will link the bloids to their relevant conventional displays.

The ten variously shaped bloids, constructed from curved aluminium and engineered at Cranfield University, will serve as interactive houses with several interactive exhibits.

“They are somewhat ugly but at the same time a bit sexy. We wanted them to be abstract,” says Roger Mann.

Casson Mann is also planning two screens © made of the same polycarbonate sheeting deployed by French riot police. They will be silk-screen printed with chromosome patterns to create “genetic wallpaper”.

Product and interactive design group Hollington Associates – responsible for 90 exhibits in the new wing – is working with the curatorial staff and Casson Mann on the nature of the interactives and their physical interface with visitors.

For them, the exhibition project was an ideal opportunity: “We’re amateur enthusiasts about science, and professional enthusiasts about technology,” comments Hollington head of interactive design Tory Dunn.

Digital gallery (second floor)

Architecture: Casson Mann Designers

Graphic design: Graphic Thought Facility

Interactives: Hollington Associates

Casson Mann laid out the 900m2 digital gallery in five strips according to subject matter: digital manipulation of images; of sounds; fundamentals of digital technology such as the binary code; global communications; and artificial intelligence. Across these “warp” strips weave “weft” cross-themes indicated by floor lights and graphics.

Each warp will be a double-skinned aluminium-framed structure incorporating plasma, computer and flat-screen technology. Clad in glass and mesh, they will give off an ambient glow. Floor-set moving displays are intended to further the effect of a super-highway streaming with information, while the rubber floor will be custom-designed to incorporate binary code patterns.

Imagining the Future gallery (third floor)

Designers will be appointed this month for this interactive gallery at the top of the Wellcome Wing, which will give visitors the opportunity to respond to a vision of the future.

IMAX cinema

Architect: Fletcher Priest

The 450-seat 3D film theatre will show science films and host lectures and conferences. Visitors will glimpse the brightly coloured lobbies to the theatre through perforated soffits as they approach the IMAX on an escalator from the ground floor.

For the theatre, Fletcher Priest is planning lighting devices on the theme of coloured rectangles in combination with a floating rectangular projection wall.

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