Celebrating engineering in a new Yorkshire gallery

Posted by Derek Mason

19th December 2023

Picture credit: Karl Moran on Unsplash

How often do you see an entire museum gallery devoted to the more hands-on, practical discipline of engineering? As an enthusiast, I can assure you it doesn’t happen very often, which is even more reason to celebrate the arrival of the new £6m gallery at the National Railway Museum in York.

Known as ‘Wonderlab: The Bramall Gallery’ the 18 interactive engineering exhibits include the chance to experience a giant wind tunnel and to make your own hydrogen rocket. One of the two art installations – called Play Revolution by Pippa Hale – lets visitors design and build bridges and towers from large, colourful foam shapes.

Architects De Matos Ryan won the appointment to design Wonderlab, having previously designed the newly reopened Young V&A in London. Their goal with the gallery was to create an inspiring space for seven to 14-year-olds – the engineers of tomorrow – while also holding the attention of visitors of every age.

With York generally more famous for its Viking and Roman roots, York Minster and the city walls, it’s good to see the creation of a STEM-based attraction for visitors to the northern city.

There are already Wonderlabs at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, and at the Science Museum in London. The York Wonderlab is the only one that focuses squarely on engineering. This makes sense for a railway museum, given the critical skills shortages we’re seeing both in engineering but also specifically in the rail industry.

Research from City & Guilds and the National Skills Academy for Rail has shown that within the next few years we’ll be facing a shortage of around 120,000 people who are needed to work on the UK’s railways.

So capturing the attention of children and teenagers in a York museum gallery is more urgent than it might first appear. Wonderlab also aims to encourage children to use their imagination and develop their problem-solving skills. The exhibits are designed to have more than one outcome, so there’s no one right answer. This is exactly as it should be, since engineering is all about solving problems in creative ways.

Museum director, Judith McNicol has been quoted as saying, “We’ve tried to find a way of having interactives which help young people think like an engineer. We’ve worked with rail engineers to examine what the challenges are that the industry is facing.”

She added, “We want to ensure that children have great fun while developing a spark of interest in engineering that will contribute towards tackling the UK’s shortage in STEM skills”.

So if you’re in need of a city break, and you know some children – big or small – who might enjoy an interactive exhibit, consider a trip to the National Railway Museum in York.

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