Among the countless rockets, steam engines and mothballed telecoms, it could be argued that the environmental sciences have received short shrift at the Science Museum. That was always going to change after the appointment of climate scientist Chris Rapley as Director three years ago. Voila the new Atmosphere gallery, a welcome exposition of this most important of disciplines, delivered with gusto.
The gallery is perched in a crow’s nest, in the tropospheric heights of the Wellcome Wing. Bubble-like consoles are bathed in projections, and further illuminated by an eerie purple back light. Think Teletubbies meets Tron. At ceiling level, a fettuccine mesh serves as an embodiment of the atmosphere, with sparkling lights representing particulates and pollution. There’s a surprising warmth and beauty to this techno-excess that immediately draws you in.
Once inside, much of the gallery is given over to multi-touch, multi-player games consoles, ideal for small school parties, who seem to be the intended demographic. The games are universally fun, if sometimes a little baffling (select environmental policy ideas you’d like to implement, then use a digital catapult to fire them at buildings and cars…is this a Big Society licensing of Angry Birds?). Our favourite console encouraged users to take control of London’s flood defences – apportioning budget to protect six different parts of town. Sorry, Rotherhithe. It was you or Greenwich.
Success or failure in these games affects the appearance of the simulated land and sky, which are projected over the whole gallery. Muck up your carbon-saving and the atmosphere gets it, courtesy of an increased volume of particulates flickering above your head. Or maybe the person next to you will alleviate the problem with her own decision to invest in solar. Too many inputs and too many outputs lead to confusion; but we guess that’s an accurate mirror to the complex dependencies of climate science.
Those who grind their teeth at hands-on displays will find solace in one or two physical exhibits around the space. Notably, an Antarctic ice core fills a freezer cabinet to the back of the gallery, allowing visitors to discover how these frozen cylinders tell us so much about ancient climate and, thereby, in what ways our own is unusual.
Atmosphere is open now in the Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum. Entrance is free. A series of events and a changing arts programme should provide a regular breeze of fresh air.