Leonardo da Vinci @Sciencemuseum uncovers a mechanical genius with a childs-eye

A visit to the Science Museum is an investment. A trip that you need an entire day for. Unless you live in West London it’s a journey that you need to psyche yourself up for, even before the onset of the crowds and the sizeable walking distances around each gallery.

So, like us, if you’ve favoured more bite-size encounters with the museum, such as the now de-funked Launch Pad or the interactive kids gallery in the Basement, Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius is a new and surprisingly manageable exhibition which is making it even more worth the trawl.

Despite being more widely celebrated for his paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci created a remarkable body of intricate mechanical drawings that drew on his observations of the natural world and radically sought to solve problems of the day – from flight to manufacturing and even war. It was this unique style of drawing alongside his imaginative approach to engineering which really set him apart from other inventors of his time and endears any visitor – young or old, to his work.

Da Vinci saw drawing as fundamental to understanding the world, and like a child, when he drew it was without compromise. He prioritised truth over beauty, which resulted in imperfect and animated sketches, which now convert brilliantly into the many games, models and multimedia installations around the exhibition. Family highlights of the exhibition include:

Sandtimer quizzes – Quizzing the visitor on the many concepts that fascinated da Vinci, use the magnets to post your answers before the sands run out. Only the correct answers remain stuck-fast.

Gears, Pulleys and Camshafts – Great even for the very young who might tag along, this interactive station gives you a chance to discover how a simple change to the mechanics of a structure, can bring about dramatic changes in how it might operate.

Models – Flying machines, weavings looms and even early leather diving suits provide endless fascination throughout, but ‘Beating Wings’ takes some beating (if you pardon the pun). Hit the button to stop the footage of a bird in flight. Then turn the crank on the neighbouring model to replicate its position on the wind. Yup, that was Leonardo’s challenge when scoping out his flying machine. So much harder than it looks.

Also lovely is the word cloud image of da Vinci accumulated from adjectives that visitors have selected to describe him. Although this would have been better suited towards the end of the exhibition once you have digested everything on offer, it’s still good fun to participate.

The majority of the exhibition is perfectly pitched for the recommended age of 5+, with school-age children more likely to appreciate da Vinci’s efforts outside of the ‘knobs and levers’. The relationship between science and nature and the intricacies of the drawings (turned models and animations) take some explanation, but with no admission fees for under 7’s, I’d be more inclined to suggest nothing ventured, nothing gained. A view that this experimental genius would have been sure to agree with.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius is at the Science Museum until 4th September 2016. Admission Adults £10, Children 7-16 £8, Under 7s free. See website for opening times and directions.

Speeding around Electronic Superhighway with a toddler in tow

So if you’re a parent to very young children, you’ll know that the days of taking a slow and luxurious meander around an exhibition are long gone. I for one, feel very fortunate for the amount of work I have managed to see in the last (almost) 6 years with the children in tow. But nothing prepared me for the rate that my toddler was keen speed around our recent visit to Whitechapel Gallery’s brand new multimedia exhibition; Electronic Superhighway.

Named after the term coined in 1974 by South Korean video art pioneer Nam June Paik, who foresaw the potential of global connections through technology, the exhibition brings together film, painting, sculpture, photography and drawing by over 70 artists. Starting in the current day, and working its way back in time, ending in the 1960’s.

We were lucky enough to grab the last place on their fantastic Crib Notes session. Held for every major exhibition, Crib Notes is a unique opportunity for parents with children under 5 to enjoy a dedicated tour of a current exhibition, without the fear of ruining the enjoyment for other patrons. Staff are well briefed, relaxed and genuinely empathetic to visiting parents, whilst parents can (for a moment) feel at ease with the surroundings and pride at sharing something more than just the usual playgroups and kiddi-haunts.

The retractable belt barriers outside the exhibition entrance might as well have been a starting block, as my toddler could not wait to zip these back and get inside. What better place to start than being greeted by James Bridle’s Homo Sacer; a projected ‘hologram’ similar to those increasingly ‘keeping us company’ in stations and airports.

Sadly, this was the last I heard of the tour by Assistant Curator Séamus McCormack. I was being dragged back in time almost as quick as Doctor Who, by a toddler exploring at her pace. ‘This is a disaster’I thought, and then it dawned on me. Her pace was not so much about her lack of interest and her impatience at having to stop, stand and listen. It was in fact the complete opposite. It was her insatiable appetite to see more and more and more. To seek out the kind of works that she was interested in seeing, which in this instance, was anything and everything with a screen.

Highlights for our visit, therefore included:
More Songs of Innocence (Thomson & Craighead) – This karaoke machine installation pokes fun at the Dickensian english and strange translations used by the many unsolicited spam emails that we receive as part of modern communication. Toddler’s dulcet tones left our group in fits of giggles. Luckily she can’t read.

A Family Finds Entertainment (Ryan Trecartin) – The artist himself stars in this weirdly warped and colourful video installation which reflects on the chaotic culture of celebrity and reality TV that we now live in. Hypnotic viewing for toddlers, but keep it brief!

Substrate (Thomas Ruff ) – Plenty even for the very young in this kaleidoscopic abstraction which takes Japanese anime images and distorts them beyond recognition, exaggerating their neon colours and detaching it far from its original source of reference.

Glowing Edges_7.10 (Constant Dullaart) This first ever picture to be manipulated using Photoshop has undergone a range of treatments resulting in what the toddler referred to as a ‘wobbly’ wall.

Surface Tension (Rafael Lozano- Hemmer) Continuing the theme of surveillance which underpins a vast amount of work in the exhibition, this Big Brother inspired eye (Orwell, not Endemol) follows your every move, barely letting you out of its site.

In addition to this, Gallery 8 also plays host to the hypnotic Internet Dream (Nam June Paik); a video wall consisting of 52 stacked monitors to form a large image surface which streams content from multiple information sources. I chose not to include it in our highlights as oddly it drew no reaction whatsoever from toddler (despite it being the screen to end all screens). Proof that too much screen-time causes them to implode.

A celebration of how long the digital world has been influencing our lives, there is so much to see here. For once, this is actually a big plus for parents, ensuring they can leave still having seen a great deal for their admission fee, however speedily they might be led around by little ones.

Electronic Superhighway succeeds where previous exhibitions like Digital Revolution and more recently Big Bang Data fail. It isn’t overly techie and it doesn’t live or die by over-interaction. There are no silly queues nor a bun-fight over the big-ticket exhibits. It’s held together by its exciting variety of work and fantastic storytelling. Not completely what I expected, but in many ways a very pleasant surprise too. Much the same as every time I take a deep breath and allow my toddler to explore a major exhibition.

Electronic Superhighway is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 15th May
Tues-Sun 11am – 6pm, Thurs 11am – 9pm
Admission £13.50 (incl Gift Aid) £11.95 (without) Under 16s Free

Whilst you’re there: Loose yourselves in some classic computer game graphics by standing in the middle of Harun Farocki’s multi-screen installation Parallel I-IV (2012-14), Admission Free

The gallery is also hosting a Family Day around this exhibition on the 12th March, providing a chance to explore digital technology in art and take their new activity trail (Booking advised).