Barber Osgerby's architecture arm has designed a permanent exhibition at the Science Museum that explores 200 years of communications history
"It is a pleasure to open the Information Age exhibition today at the @ScienceMuseum and I hope people will enjoy visiting. Elizabeth R," the Queen said in her first ever tweet today as she opened Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World – designed by Barber Osgerby's architectural arm, Universal Design Studio (UDS).
Seven years in the making, this is the first permanent gallery in the UK dedicated to the history of communication and information technology. The exhibition uses interactive media – graphics, projections, games, audio, video and moving parts – to reveal the personal stories behind 200 years of inventions, from the laying of cables across the Atlantic to the impact of mobile phones on Africa.
UDS came on board in 2009. "This is one of the most important projects we've done as an architectural practice," Jay Osgerby told Icon during a tour last week. The practice designed the space and worked with the exhibition's curator Tilly Blyth to present the 800 artefacts included in the show.
"The objects don't say a huge amount by themselves – this isn't the V&A, where everything is handcrafted and beautiful," Osgerby says. "Most are inanimate unless they are revealed and the challenge has been to make them fascinating to everybody who visits."
"To do this, we tried to bring alive the human stories of these technologies," UDS director Jason Holley says. "We didn't want to just tell you what the technology did, but rather explain its impact on the world and on our sense of self."
This was achieved through a series of double-height "story boxes" dotted as breathing points around the 2,500m2 gallery, within which visitors can immerse themselves in the story of each technological development. The designers worked with researchers, artists, manufacturers, users of technology and others to develop these – among them, Tim Berners-Lee, who worked with comedian Josie Long on a display that explains "what happens when you click on a link". The original computer Berners-Lee used to design the world wide web is also on show, labelled with the words: "This machine is a server. Don't power down."
A much-used storytelling device is the "transparent screen" – graphics displayed on glass in front of objects to create a contemporary version of a diorama. Elsewhere, displays react as you operate machinery, a puppet theatre tells the story of electricity and audio stories highlight significant moments in telephony.
The space itself – the building's old shipping gallery – was designed to be what Holley describes as a "town square". In the middle of the room, a 6m-high spider-like copper structure towers over the surrounding exhibits. This is the aerial tuning coil from Rugby Radio station, which was once part of the most powerful radio transmitter in the world.
The rest of the displays radiate out from this central landmark, starting with Russian and American super computers used during the Cold War and the original Marconi BBC radio transmitter.
A raised, elliptical walkway cuts through the orthogonal space, allowing visitors a different perspective on all the exhibits – a change of pace that, along with the variety of approaches taken by the story boxes, is designed to reduce "gallery fatigue", says Holley. "We tried to make it a really physical experience – in a sense, quite monolithic architecturally to counter the intangibility and invisibility of information theory," he says.
On the ceiling above are light installations embedded with audio recordings of the voices of artists and actors. People can use a mobile app to listen, then record and leave their own messages, to create "a living, breathing, growing artwork", Blyth says.
For the museum, the exhibition is the first step in a major redevelopment that will eventually include galleries that focus on medicine and mathematics. For the designers, it is an equally significant moment. "This is our future – it's what we want to do," Osgerby says. "We've learned through our past work how to engage people and this is the ideal arena in which to implement it. It's so fulfilling to bring together all areas of our practice in a project like this."