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Launchpad throughout the ages

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As the Science Museum prepares to begin building an ambitious new Interactive gallery, we wave a fond farewell to Launchpad. Simon, an Explainer at the Museum, reflects on working in the gallery.

“Wow! It’s toy heaven!” It was 1987 and a boy of about eight years old had just stepped into the Science Museum’s one year old interactive gallery, Launchpad. It’s hard to exaggerate just how new and different Launchpad was to most museum visitors when it opened.

When I spoke to school groups in those days I would ask, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of museums?” The answer every time was ‘Do not touch’. Now here was a place where the whole point was to touch, to explore, to build, to play! The idea was not so much to tick check boxes of specific facts and concepts, but to inspire through participation. That atmosphere of joyous, frenetic investigation has continued to this day.

Launchpad on the ground floor. Credit: Science Museum.

Launchpad on the ground floor (1986-89). Credit: Science Museum.

Launchpad has moved several times since its first home in 1986 on the ground floor (where the shop is now). I have often found that visitors think of the incarnation of the gallery that they visited as children as ‘their own’ Launchpad.

In 1989 the gallery moved to the first floor with several new exhibits and a dedicated space for science shows. Those with long memories might recall having seen shows about light, inventions and making paper at home.

Launchpad on the first floor (1989-2000). Credit: Science Museum.

Launchpad on the first floor (1989-2000). Credit: Science Museum.

In 2000 the Science Museum opened the Wellcome Wing with its IMAX cinema, several new galleries and a new location for Launchpad in the basement. This space had an enclosed science show area and a smaller show area where younger visitors enjoyed storytelling sessions of ‘the enormous turnip’ and ‘the three pigs’ (with a rather scary wolf). Demonstrations were also held of a system called Optimusic that triggers sounds using light.

Launchpad went through a major overhaul when it moved to its current location in 2007. There was a new look, many new exhibits and new versions of old favourites. The gallery also features the Water Rocket demonstration where pressurised water and air is shot out of a plastic bottle, propelling it at 60km/hr along a track. As well as hourly science shows, there are small demonstrations about sound, light, materials and heat.

In September 2008, Launchpad celebrated the arrival of its one millionth visitor. There is a plaque of Alyaa and her brother Maxi’s handprints on the wall of the gallery. I find it hard not to think of the many young people who have had their passion for science awakened by classic exhibits like the Plasma Ball, the Grain Pit, the Sound Dishes, Grab the Bling and Watch Water Freeze.

Handprints of Alyaa (and her brother Maxi) who was the 1 millionth visitor to latest version of Launchpad. Credit: Science Museum.

Handprints of Alyaa (and her brother Maxi) who was the 1 millionth visitor to latest version of Launchpad. Credit: Science Museum.

One young woman, who was on a nostalgic trip to see the exhibits she used to play with when she was a child, told me that she studied physics at university because of Launchpad. What could be better than that?

Launchpad will close on Sunday 1 November 2015, with the new Interactive gallery opening in late 2016. The new gallery will be 60 percent bigger than Launchpad and packed with state-of-the-art interactive exhibits: You can walk through a giant orrery with a canopy of stars above it, take part in live chemistry experiments at a chemistry bar or whizz down the friction slide.

While we build the new gallery, our Garden and Pattern Pod interactive galleries will be open as usual and there will be regular free science shows, events for schools and hands-on activities throughout the Museum. Many of Launchpad’s exhibits will find new homes in schools and science centres across the UK and in South Africa.

Written by Learning Team