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Out with the old, in with the news

Not all museums are about ancient history. The Science Museum is keeping right up to date with the latest advances, writes Steven Hastings.

The pace of technological change has become so rapid that new advances soon become old-hat. This presents problems for museums struggling to be up-to-date, but the pound;50 millionm Wellcome Wing at London's Science Museum is meeting the challenge.

On the ground floor, the displays change monthly, weekly and even daily. "We wanted a journalistic element," explains Roland Jackson, head of education. "If a big story hits the news then people should be able to come in here next morning and get the scientific angle."

Current features include Big Brother, the Concorde crash and drugs testing at the Olympic Games, but these will have changed by the time you visit.

Even the permanent exhibitions on the wing's other three floors are designed not to last more than three to five years.

While the exhibitions have inbuilt obsolescence, the structure of the Wellcome Wing is built to last. The cantilevered tiers are elegant and spacious, the lighting is theatrical and atmospheric and the soft acoustics create a gentle background hum of activity.

Other areas of the museum have been redesigned to make the most of the new extension. The wing is approached through the new Making of the Modern World exhibit, a collection of the iconic designs and inventions which have shaped our past. It acts as a prologue to the contemporary part of the museum.

The best of the new galleries is entitled Who Am I? It is an eclectic look at the issue of identity, taking in everything from genetics and the ageing process to hormones, emotions and phobias to explain what makes each of us unique. You can even offer yourself as a subject for research, with scientists from University College London taking face scans and swabs for DNA.

"We thought about what is the one thing that everybody is interested in," explains Mr Jackson. "The answer is themselves."

In the Digitopolis gallery there is the chance to manipulate sound and images using digital technology and to design an Internet page which can later be viewed on computers at school.

As well as giving visitors the chance to compose their own music and pictures, the gallery features commissioned poems and sculptures. The focus is not just on technology but on creativity and man's interaction with machines.

This is the triumph of the Wellcome Wing. It manages to be genuinely thought-provoking. It considers the ways in which technology raises moral and social questions. There are displays on transplants, cloning and euthanasia.

Another exhibition area, entitled In Future, challenges our assumptions about how technology may affect us in the next 20 years. All around the galleries are opportunities to record your own opinions or to vote on moral issues. In effect, the follow-up work is done in the gallery, at the moment of inspiration, and not later, back in the classroom.

Everything is free, except for the cinema and simulator. Of these, the Simex simulator is little more than a fairground gimmick but the Imax cinema, showing scientific documentary films on a screen the height of five double-decker buses, is enthralling.

The Government's mantra "educate, fascinate, stimulate" is a trick the Wellcome Wing manages with panache.

The Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD.

For education bookings and information, tel: 020 7942 4777.

Open Mondays-Saturdays, 10am-6pm; Sunday 2.30-6pm. Closed Christmas period and New Year's Eve. Free except cinema and simulator: pound;3.75 pupils, adults free 1:7 pupils or pound;5.75. Book visits at least 10 days in advance. Special events and teacher's days available, plus information pack. See also Teach and Learn page of the website.

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