The discovery channels

6th October 1995 at 01:00
The Science Museum has just unveiled the fruits of a Pounds 3.5 million refurbishment, which has transformed its educational facilities. The result, says Gerald Haigh, is a cavern of marvels.

Of the wonders on display at the 1951 Festival of Britain Exhibition on the South Bank, one in particular sticks in my mind. It was a tall construction of moving aluminium buckets and scoops down which water continously fell, filling them until they tipped and then splashing down to the next level. It was an ingenious marriage of technology, science and creative thinking, and it came irresistibly to mind when I saw the beautifully-designed water exhibit in "The Garden", the pre-school and early primary section of the new education area at the Science Museum.

Children were entranced. Water flowed, fell, turned things and splashed; jolly models floated and sank, bubbles rose and were trapped, and all the while, through the transparent sides of the exhibit, children could delight in the sheer wateriness of it all, which is what I remember so well from 44 years ago.

Billed as the museum's most important development since the opening of the Children's Gallery in the Thirties, this Pounds 3.5 million project takes up a huge area of the basement and consists of four new interactive galleries and two performance spaces. It entirely transforms the educational value of the museum which already hosts 250,000 educational visitors each year.

For the first time, some of the the interactive areas are age-related. "The Garden" is a particularly innovative concept which for the first time caters for very young children, many of whom already come to the museum in family groups. For them, as well as water, there are pulleys, simple mechanisms, giant bricks and a light and sound exhibit which is easy to use, although it makes use of sophisticated electronics.

The other areas are "Things", a new way of looking at everyday objects and artefacts for 7 to 11s, and "On Air", a working radio station for key stage 3 and beyond. There is also "The Secret Life of the Home", which exploits in a lively way the museum's unrivalled collection of domestic applicances. This will intrigue all age groups not least teachers and parents and is a reminder that this is a museum rather than a science centre.

Each area has a number of "interactives". "Things", for example, has a huge mechanical head operated by gearwheels and levers. Not everything is big, though some of the most impressive and educational activities are simple in concept and yet make use of technology which would be just outside the reach of the ordinary classroom. Thus, for example, in "Things" there is an activity which presents children with a number of apparently identical commemorative medals and asks them to perform a range of tests to reveal which are counterfeit and which genuine. The tell-tale differences are minute, and involve accurate measurement and weighing, as well as magnification of the signature and an ultraviolet test.

A subtle feature of each area is that it is designed as a whole the design of the spaces is the work of award-winning architect and night-club designer Ben Kelly. As a result the exhibits, instead of being plonked down in a space are carefully placed against an interesting background of colours and shapes.

There is considerable use of information technology both within each area and also in "The Network", sponsored by Mercury Communications, which puts children in touch with each other and with museum resources via a number of terminals throughout the museum. The National Museum of Photography and Film in Bradford is also linked to the network, which allows video conferencing between children in the two cities, and also enables them to access the other museum's resources.

Throughout the development of the new area, education staff at the museum have consulted widely with teachers and academics and, of course, have tried out activities with children. Development of "The Garden", particularly, has involved contact with child-development experts at Goldsmiths College and Roehampton Institute, and with Professor Ros Driver of King's College, a world authority on children's understanding of science. Those of the museum's' "Explainers" who work in "The Garden" have had particular training in working with younger children.

A particularly imaginative child- and teacher-friendly touch is seen in the design of "The Basement". This is a generously-spaced area with a flat floor overlooked by a series of shallow timber-clad terraces. Children can picnic on the steps, or watch a planned series of live workshops and performances taking place on the floor, and there is a shop for refreshments and souvenirs.

Another imaginative feature is that some of the workings of the building itself are opened up for inspection. The lift motors, for instance, are made safely visible, with explanatory text, as is the air conditioning and the drainpipes from the toilets as well as features of the actual structure.

It will all be tremendous fun, of course, but as always the children who both enjoy and learn will be those who have been well prepared by teachers who have made an exploratory visit or at least carefully read the extensive support material. This will help children unlock what is a real treasure-house of experiences in science and technology.

Science Museum Fact File

The new education galleries opened to school parties on Monday October 2.The museum now has a new booking system which makes it possible for individual school requirements to be more easily met. As well as making a general booking (at least 10 days in advance), schools have to book access to the individual interactive spaces, including the existing "Flightlab" and "Launchpad" as well as the new facilities. The quietest days are Monday to Friday, especially at the beginning of each term. Entry is free to educational groups.

Enquiries to The Education Booking Office, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD. Tel: 0171 938 8222. Fax 0171 938 9774.

The museum has a list of publications ranging from free photocopiable information and activity sheets to packs of glossy posters. Some are specifically intended to be used in support of visits. Others, such as the poster packs on Victorian Life and Life in Britain 1930-1950 (Pounds 7. 81 each), show artefacts from the museum, with explanatory notes, and can be used independently. Publications are being prepared to accompany the new education galleries, and these too will also be useful as national curriculum science and technology resources.

It also has a collection of large vehicles and appliances in Swindon eg aircraft, submersibles which schools can visit by arrangement. The Science Museum, Block D4, Red Barn Gate, Wroughton, Swindon SN4 9NS.

The museum is developing a number of ways by which schools can have access to images and text within the museum via the Internet. Enquiries about this to the education department (contact telephone number as above).

The Science Museum has two major specialist museums outside London: the National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York YO2 4XJ, and the National Museum of Photography Film and Television, Pictureville, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD1 1NQ.

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