Wonderlab: The Bramall Gallery Opens at the National Railway Museum

Designed by De Matos Ryan, Wonderlab: The Bramall Gallery forms an integral part of the National Railway Museum’s Vision 2025 transformation programme. This new, interactive gallery in York embodies the Science Museum Group’s vision to build creative STEM confidence and ignite the engineering curiosity of future generations. It will equip and inspire the target audience of seven to 14 year olds with the skills and aptitudes needed to meet and embrace the potential engineering challenges and opportunities of the future.


Railways, locomotion and simple engineering concepts hold a special place in children’s imaginations. Hands-on experimentation and creative exploration will excite and challenge young minds, bringing awareness to sustainability and energy. The gallery’s 18 bespoke interactive exhibits showcase different engineering and railway concepts and processes. Visitors are encouraged to think like engineers and develop skills as they design, build and test in a permissive and playful manner. For example, Feel the Force, designed in conjunction with the National Railway Museum and Unusual Projects, explores design streamlining, drag and force through physically experiencing aerodynamics. These learning opportunities deliver the Science Museum Group’s vision to think big, reveal wonder, share authentic stories and ignite curiosity no matter the visitor’s background, access requirements or level of knowledge.

De Matos Ryan’s design celebrates the iconic railway workshop as an adventure landscape. It communicates engineering phenomena and inspires creative confidence in a safe and stimulating environment. To achieve this, the gallery is conceived as a new ‘engineering’ playground with no prescribed journey. This encourages self-guided exploration and allows visitors to discover the space at their own pace. The gallery provides opportunities for gatherings, interactions and engagement between visitors and various hubs within the open-plan gallery.

Housed in the former locomotive repair workshop, the scheme draws inspiration from its layered history and authentic, raw interior. A family of new ‘engineering’ timber structures act as screening and layering devices to define zones and create areas of intimacy within the 1500m2 space. These structures are reminiscent of iconic locomotive fragments and have a similar footprint to the size and scale of railway turning circles. Housing the Weston Showspace, the Wallace Learning Space and the engineering reimagined zone, the shape and construction of these structures communicate and celebrate the creative process and language of core railway engineering principles, taking inspiration from key exhibits and concepts throughout the museum. The scheme explores the different forms of motion evoked by railway engineering, particularly the perception of relative motion in relation to static volumes, surfaces, textures and light.

The Wallace Learning Space draws inspiration from the Ellerman Lines steam locomotive to create a surreal and engaging play on a scale where visitors metaphorically become the steam that occupies the interior of the steam engine. The Ellerman Lines locomotive provides a cut-away glimpse of the internal construction and the inner workings of a steam engine. It powerfully brings to life and visually expresses the magic of how these large-scale locomotives functioned with internally-generated steam power. This concept inspired the design of the space. The ceiling surface is made up of large cardboard tubes lined with acoustic insulation to dampen and baffle the sound to and from the main gallery hall. The space is defined by a cylindrical plywood Douglas fir envelope with an expressed rhythm that is reminiscent of engineering cog teeth. The exterior feels calm yet subtly dynamic, as though it could rotate, but instead, it is the visitors who circulate around its circular form. The cut-away volume within the main hall provides a theatrical backdrop for the core Demo Bar exhibit.

The Weston Show space derives its form from the asymmetric steam locomotive driving wheel. The Flow Lab is inspired by railway signalling control centres, silent hubs crucial to keeping railways running smoothly, effectively and efficiently. The layout of these has remained relatively constant throughout time, with the focus on large information screens to monitor and carefully coordinate traffic. The Flow Lab is the third object within the gallery, and this enclosure marks a character change within the space. A large, curved timber screen, with an exposed engineered structure and construction, partially encloses the zone and screens it off from the main hall to manage lighting control. Its concave inner side forms the surface of the Engineering Reimagined digital interactive. Elsewhere, tables and free-standing benches take inspiration from smaller-scale, as-found fragments, such as scaffold structures, trusses and locomotive skeletons, reminiscent of those originally found within the old railway repair workshop.

A sustainably-sourced poplar timber lining skirts the perimeter of the space, which reduces the gallery’s imposing, existing blockwork expanse, adding warmth and a calm background against which the interactives are set. The new, low-level panelling takes inspiration from the existing timber workshop, where timber benches, peg boards and linings were used to hook and hang workshop equipment. The lining gently transforms to incorporate workbenches, seating areas, storage cupboards and viewing portals. Integral to this lining is the application of large-scale graphics, designed by Lucienne Roberts +, emblematic of engineering principles. These bring the timber panelling to life and highlight adjacent interactives whose shapes and principles they are inspired by. A calm and limited natural material palette allows the interactives and large-scale art installations to take centre stage within the space.

It was important for the gallery to maintain the patina and texture of the existing workshop and its primary structures. Imperfections and historical wear and tear are exposed and celebrated. Where possible, the memory, rawness and energy of the building’s historic use have been maintained. The well-trafficked and functional concrete slab of the workshop floor had developed cracks and its own patina. This robust and industrial finish has been brought back to life by stripping back modern layers of grey floor paint, carefully repairing, polishing and sealing it. Retaining the original slab’s patina, staining and grittiness has delivered a revived terrazzo-like gallery floor finish. New graphic markings, reminiscent of the old workshop’s signs, define activity areas and thematically correlate to interactives and building structures. Larger-scale original workshop constructions, such as the wheel drop, pits and cranes, have been repurposed to provide the infrastructure that supports the new content. Railway tracks are exposed, while glazed views into the railway track pits have been maintained. New interventions have been carefully stitched into the existing historic building fabric.

Wonderlab: The Bramall Gallery is adjacent to the National Railway Museum’s Great Hall, Open Store and newly-proposed Central Hall. These important connections are maximised to offer exciting views of visual and thematic adjacencies. Wonderlab’s large-scale openings from the Great Hall and the future Central Hall are fully glazed with minimal framing. At a low level, the transparency is adjusted through the use of playful graphics. These picture windows allow the existing railway tracks to visually extend into the space from the Great Hall and provide carefully-curated glimpses of the activity within the Wonderlab.

To create the 18 bespoke interactive exhibits, a process of testing and prototyping involved more than 1300 individuals, including experts within the rail industry, education, local community groups and members of the public. The Science Museum Group’s Audience Research team conducted 16 months of prototype testing, working directly with families and schools visiting the museum. Prototyping was essential to make sure that visitors were engaged by and could use and understand the exhibits. The team learned from visitors’ experiences, finding changes that improved the exhibits and ensured that the gallery meets the needs, wants and expectations of audiences. With accessibility at the core of the design, SEND specialists and interest groups were engaged to ensure that the gallery is entirely inclusive and welcoming for all.

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