Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Univ of Melb Science Gallery ‘Squidgy’

Rose Hiscock, of the University of Melbourne, and Ryan Jefferies, from the Science Gallery, in front of the “digital bricks” at the entrance to the new museum. Credit: Justin McManus.

Nick Miller, ‘Squidgy’ and glowing entrance revealed for Melbourne’s newest museum, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 April 2021

As any performer can tell you, first impressions count. And to make a good first impression, you need to think about your entrance.

This old thespian trick applies to cultural buildings, too. When the team behind the University of Melbourne’s new Science Gallery museum – set to open in June – turned their minds to their front door, they wanted it to reflect the themes that inspired the institution.

Not just to let people in, but to let them know what they were in for.

Which is why some of the brickwork surrounding the door on Grattan Street is not like the rest. Several hundred “digital bricks” – Venetian glass blocks with a high-resolution screen sitting behind each one – glow and flicker in a moving, alluring digital display: part artwork, part architecture.

“The bricks are a metaphor for the whole project, in a way,” says Rose Hiscock, director of the University of Melbourne’s museums and collections. “It’s about transparency, about connection, engagement through the glass. Porosity.”

The Science Gallery is one of eight in a growing global network of universities. In 2008, Trinity College Dublin turned a “forgotten corner” into the first Science Gallery, with a mission to ignite creativity and discovery in teenagers and young adults in the borderlands between science, design and art.

Rose Hiscock and Ryan Jefferies in the main exhibition hall of the new Science Gallery. Credit: Justin McManus.

For Melbourne’s iteration, they brought on board a team of young people who wrote a statement that became the building’s architectural brief.

“They wanted a porous space,” Hiscock said. “They used the word ‘squidgy’. A space you could get into.”

Dr Neils Wouters, an early-career researcher who works at the intersection of architecture and digital technology, came up with the idea for the bricks, an innovation he dubbed “If These Walls Could Talk”.

In an article for The Conversation, he explained his thinking. A building’s facade was like an “independent skin”, he wrote, and architects around the world were taking advantage of technological advances to turn them into interactive canvases for creative expression, or to reflect ambient data such as the weather forecast, internal activity or energy consumption.

“Facades turn into interfaces that are endlessly adaptable and responsive,” he said.

The debut work on display through the bricks is called The Digital Birthing Tree, a dynamic installation by artist Susie Anderson.

Ryan Jefferies, head of programs for Science Gallery Melbourne, said the work was “intimate as well as grand”, taking viewers through an extended history of the site, paying respects to First Nations people and the original plants and landscape that came before colonisation. It is also a nod to the old Royal Women’s Hospital, which used to occupy the site.

He had already seen it stop people in their tracks as they passed by the building, he said.

Future projects for the bricks will continue to stretch their potential. Some will respond to touch, some may reflect what’s happening or has happened inside the gallery.

“This is world-first architecture,” Jefferies said.

See also: Digital media are changing the face of buildings, and urban policy needs to change with them

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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