Sunday, 29 May 2011

Weird Science

I recently visited the Science Museum in London with my family. It was the first time in years that I'd been, and it was excellent - hundreds of interesting machines of all shapes and sizes to marvel at, a number of excellent science demonstrations for the kids (both young and old) including blowing stuff up by igniting hydrogen gas and making huge bubbles, and a huge room full of interactive science exhibits. Not to mention an enormous shop full of cool things to play with and maybe even buy. And lots of rockets - you can't go wrong with rockets. We ended up being literally herded out at closing time as there was so much to see and do and we didn't want to leave. Highly recommended.

Anyway, as concincidence would have it, barely a fortnight after my visit, the call went out to members of the UK Brickish Association (BA) for volunteers to assist the Science Museum with an event they were staging as part of their Science Museum Lates programme for adults. Initial details were pretty sketchy, but the gist of it seemed to be that the museum wanted us to build some models of important inventions out of LEGO. These models would provide inspiration to people attending the event to build their own LEGO creations. It sounded intriguiging, so I and 6 fellow BA members signed up.

On arrival we were ushered up to the Flight Gallery on the third floor of the museum, a large exhibition area chronicling the development of air travel from the very beginning to the present day. The plan was as follows : we were going to be given a small mountain of red 2x4 LEGO bricks, out of which we were going to build five inventions of historical significance - Sputnik 1, Black Arrow, Gipsy Moth, the Bell Telephone, and Jennings Patent Water Closet (i.e. an early toilet....). During a previous blog entry about the opening of the LEGO London Westfield store I wrote about the challenges of building with only 2x4 bricks, but that was all we had, so we got cracking. The museum staff provided us with two tables to build on, 5 photographs of the objects we had to build, and a bunch of crates full of LEGO, and left us to get on with it.

Science Museum : the Flight Gallery
So what to build ? Well, I have to confess to whispering a quiet prayer that I wouldn't be asked to build Sputnik 1. The prospect of building a sphere out of 2x4 bricks alone really didn't appeal much...... Ed and Annie dived into the Gipsy Moth, and for reasons that aren't really clear, I started to build the toilet. Poor Stuart got lumbered with Sputnik, although approached the challenge with considerably more cheer and optimism than I would have done, bless him. As darkness began to fall outside, the low levels of lighting in the exhibition hall started to become a factor, and it became harder to see what we were doing; it was particularly difficult to see the joins between bricks, but hey - it just added to the challenge....

After about an hour of building, event attendees started to arrive. It was all rather surreal - groups of twenty-somethings would arrive, many of them clutching beers. They were given a container of LEGO bricks as they entered, sat on the floor in groups, and started to build. I don't know whether they were supposed to be building anything  in particular, or whether it was just a big free-for-all. It was however excellent to see so many adults clearly rediscovering their love of LEGO, and some of them put together some pretty impressive creations. The floor space filled up pretty fast, and soon we were surrounded by literally hundreds of people.

We had to build at a fair pace; building didn't start until around 6.30 pm and we had to be done by 10 pm. The Gipsy Moth and Barney's Bell telephone were completed first, and as models were completed the builders pitched in to help those who were flagging behind or had more to do; apologies for the quality of the photos, but it was so dark in there, just be glad you can see anything at all....

As my toilet started to take shape I began to have some regrets about my choice of subject matter. Problem was that it was starting to resemble a rather a nice vase rather than a water closet, and I was having some trouble recreating the elegant curves of the subject material with 2x4 bricks. Still, there was no time to go back, so I had to crack on. Andrew got to work on the cistern, after which we faced the thorny problem of how to support the weight of a cistern made out of a couple of thousand bricks a few feet over the toilet bowl.... Teamwork was the key; Ed and Barney pitched in with Andrew and myself to build a large supporting structure out of a few thousand bricks, which we managed to build to a height of around 3 feet before time started to run out and we had to bring it all together.

Alec wrapped up his Black Arrow, and Stuart was last to finish, somehow managing to fashion a respectable sphere which was pretty much to a 1:1 scale with the real Sputnik. You can see all the models below lined up against one of the display cabinets.

There was a lot of interest in what we were doing from attendees, with the Gipsy Moth in particular getting loads of admiring comments, and lots of photographs being taken of the models. People repeatedly asked us how we had secured coveted jobs as professional LEGO builders, and we had to confess that we were merely enthusiastic amateurs rather than paid LEGO employees.

I'm not sure what the museum have planned for the models now; we were asked to provide piece counts for some of the models in preparation for a kid's competition, but beyond that I don't know how long they'll remain intact. Even so, it was a good crack, and definitely something I'd also have enjoyed participating in as a general attendee rather than as someone connected to the event, maybe even more so as us "contractors" were prohibited from indulging in a beer or two to oil the creative process....

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