MAD marbles and machines... the Museum of Mechanical Art and Design in Stratford is a fun, quirky, inspired museum right in the town centre. Creative ideas to bring STEM to life for adults and children alike, it's well worth visiting.
Pressing buttons is what the big kid in all of us wants to do, and this museum abounds with opportunities to see what happens when you do. In the wake of Covid, physical buttons have been replaced by motion detectors, so you wave at a blue circle instead. It's not quite the same, but it's still excellent.
The interactive nature of the museum continues beyond the buttons. One clever exhibit has used web analytics to light up a bulb and increase the counter every time a particular word or phrase appears on Twitter. The museum can fill you in on some special terms which will even generate audible alerts.
Another display shows a living clock, with a group of people using planks to create each minute. A video version is available in the shop. It's strangely mesmerising to watch them get every minute's new digit(s) in place and the rest momentarily, changing cast as more helpers arrive.
The largest displays are huge, with one commanding the whole wall up to the museum. The smallest are book-sized. There's everything here, including a small cinema screen to show films about big creations.
A huge automaton with balls running down the staircase into the museum
Automata bear witness to their creators' preoccupations, and the museum offers a glimpse into the lives and interests of the craftsmen. The museum started with a substantial piece based around kitchen equipment, while others are much more specialist. One lovely example is a small exhibit, where four wooden figures move their arms up and down. This is instantly recognisable as the Beatles, using their arms to give the semaphore for HELP. If you're lucky, the machine will stop with them in full pose, but it's not timed to do this.
The materials used vary, from simple (looking) wooden toys to intricate webs of metal tubes. The wooden pieces are satisfying and beautiful to watch, creating mechanisation out of nature. They're the kind of toys a kid might have at home, but more so.
At their most complex stand pieces like this big case. So large they had to take down the staircase to get it in, it offers a seemingly endless series of marble runs, twisting and winding around each other, gleaming, rhythmic. Next to it stands something far simpler, but which also makes an impact. Noise activated, if you make a noise near it (a clap is suggested), the big hands clap back, very loudly! This is not a quiet museum, with all the machines whirring and balls rolling.
There are zones for different activities. In one wing, a wall is set aside with magnetic marble run pieces, and children can experiment with different configurations to create the biggest and best run possible. There's another section with magnetic cogs, allowing you to build a series of interlocking cogs, and a table with hollowed blocks in different configurations for building 3D marble runs. Tactile, frustrating, engaging... it's an excellent place for an imaginative child to try their hand at solving practical problems. With competitions and activity sheets as well, the museum is keen to engage children in their work at all levels.
This is Stratford, so some reference to Shakespeare was inevitable. Two exhibits stand out. In one, gremlins deface a portrait of Shakespeare with pots of white paint. It's humorous and appears simple, but is clearly skilled work. There is the option to commission a painting from the craftsman yourself.
The second animates a figure writing words from Hamlet. It's simple to view, but beautiful. This is true of many things in the museum, but in many cases, the workings of a machine are laid bare, so physics, maths and design can be learned while having fun.
In the small shop area, you can buy marble runs and MAD kits to design your own machines. Let the inspiration continue!
It's quite dark inside, and very noisy and cramped, but they have made every effort to make it accessible. The toilets are clean and bright. There's a lift up, and the website details how to cope with various accessibility needs. This includes storage for pushchairs for when the museum is too crowded to accommodate them on the floor.