Victoria Neumark finds out what the new Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum can offer the interactive generation
Once, you knew you were in a museum because the whole building exuded solemn attention. There were objects in glass cases, lengthy labels in tiny print, subdued lighting and great echoing halls. In other words, for the non-studious child, it was boring. Boring as in "Not another museum, Mum!" Then came interactivity. More than a decade ago, the Science Museum demonstrated with Launch Pad that do-it-yourself grain mills, bubble-blowers and hot-air balloons could give visitors direct experience of scientific principles in action. In the United States, the San Francisco Exploratorium, still the best museum of its kind, took over a vast pavilion built for a turn-of-the-century trade fair to demonstrate that science in action was fun. Fun, but repetitive ("Not another science museum, Mum!"). Now, with pound;50 million from the Wellcome Foundation and the National Lottery heritage fund, the Science Museum is trying to take the next step into the future.
The new Wellcome Wing is impressive. Apart from the silence which takes the visitor by surprise, it feels like a nightclub. A blue wall around a central atrium pulsates with neon strips, each spelling out comments on science, while on three receding levels more mysterious flashing titles beckon to their sections: Who am I? Digitopolis; In Future. All that is missing is the pounding beat and swooning sound-effects of trance music. So far, so exciting.
On the ground floor, along with a stylishly minimalist coffee bar, there is Pattern Pod, the delightful section for under-eights; Antenna, which displays what is currently cutting-edge; and Talking Points, a series of exhibits to stimulate discussion. Pattern Pod is a kind of Launch Pad for the new millennium. Children can trace animal locomotion patterns on lit-up footprints and use plasma screens to project kaleidoscopic patterns on the wall. Swarms of small children busily rush about, thrilled at the reactivity of each exhibit. Best of all, in a sectioned-off area with a responsive screen, children are able to manipulate their own images: as music plays, participants move and the screen tessellates their reflection. If, as scientists are always telling us, the appreciation of science is as much aesthetic as intellectual, here on a pre-verbal level is a good illustration of that pleasure. But, unfortunately, there is no verbal explanation at all. A similar (but larger and more varied) exhibit at the San Francisco Exploratium has a whole page of explanatory text for those who want it, as well as helful animateurs to answer questions. Similarly, in the Talking Points area, provocative artworks by the likes of Mark Quinn and Antony Gormley are left to hang quizzically in the visitor's mind. This mixing of art and science with no explanation may be post-modern and ironic, but the danger is that the visitor ends up saying, as I overheard from a couple of teenagers, "Yes, it's all great, but no, I don't know what any of it means."
We expect science museums to deliver precisely defined kinds of meaning, and in some sections the new Wellcome Wing does this. In the Imax cinema presentation of a journey round the sun, Solarmax, the huge and impressive screen does full justice to the biggest and most impressive object in our lives. The Antenna display intelligently discusses two fascinating bits of technology: a new robot submarine which incorporates aspects of the navigation of sharks and tuna and the world's only legal (briefly) euthanasia machine, from Australia. The Who Am I? section on the first floor reverts to glass cases (very stylish ones) to explain genetics. Elsewhere, the medium has become, yet again, the message. This approach works perfectly in the Digitopolis section which shows how digital technology will affect our lives. On the In Future level, where computer games ask visitors to vote on such questions as "Should men have babies?" and "Should children be tracked with implanted micro-chips?" (answers so far during my visit, No and No), the effect is of a lot of technical expertise expended on rudimentary thinking. Children used to computer games will enjoy this, but the gizmos will soon seem out of date.
The simulator-style ride, The Trip to Mars, is a high-risk strategy as a crowd-pleaser. It will thrill younger children but seem standard fare to young teenagers. Like the rest of the wing, the ride will succeed with a target audience of seven to 12-year-olds, though how much they will learn on an unguided visit is another matter. You enter the wing through a gallery housing marvels of the past 150 years: the Puffing Billy steam engine, Crick and Watson's DNA model, the command module for Apollo 10. You leave the wing the same way, still marvelling but little wiser. "Not another designer experience, Mum!" For more information on booking school visits, contact the museum's education department on 020 7942 4777 (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), or visit the museum's website at www.sciencemuseum.org.uk. Free planning visits are available for teachers who bring identification. Free information sheets are available in print form from next week, or can be downloaded from the website