Review: Digital Revolution at the Barbican

My last review took two and a half weeks to write – this one I’m giving myself two and a half hours*. Why the rush? Because it’s of a fantastic interactive exhibition full of lights, noise and adventure which ends very, very soon! So soon you only have two weekends to fit it in.

Concrete zen

Concrete meets zen on the Barbican terrace

Held at the concrete palace which is the Barbican, Digital Revolution is an exhibition celebrating digital creativity – looking at how digital technology has transformed gaming, films and the arts since the 1970s. I took the tweenager and the baby, deliberately picking a day that the toddler was at nursery.
Digital Revolution is held in three main places across the Barbican itself with an  an off-site installation which we unfortunately ran out of time to visit. The first part is the largest – the main exhibition.

This starts with a retrospective of digital technology over the last 40 years, focusing on gaming. Almost every single game is playable by the visitor, either on the original gaming platform or as a modern simulation. We had great fun, playing against each other in games of my childhood. I thought I was rubbish at games – turns out classic video games such as Pac-Man and original Mario Bros are a leveller as even I could teach my daughter a thing or two! The exhibition wasn’t too busy, so we were able to have a go on everything, with barely a wait.
Did you know Pac-Man was almost called Puck-Man but there were worried about vandals changing the P to an F?

Random fact: Pac-Man was almost called Puck-Man but there were worried about vandals changing the P to an F

Game & Watch – the original nintendo double screens!

The dark space with the movie and music clips was very lively – although the dim lighting made it difficult to read the text labels, not that my daughter seemed to mind. It was  also too noisy to hear the Spell & Learn – at least, that’s the excuse I was given for the completely mis-spelt words! Small grumbles aside – the games were very nostalgic for me, and I really enjoyed sharing recollections of my own childhood with my daughter. She now has a long list of retro game consoles she’d like to own – watch out eBay! I’m a bit gutted she didn’t ‘get’ Manic Miner though.
The exhibition brought gaming up to the present day, including Minecraft. Thanks to the accompanying video, I now understand a bit more about its appeal (although my mind was blown by the fact that two guys earn their living from talking about Minecraft on youtube. Go figure!)
As well as games, the exhibition looked at digital technology in art, music – and films, including the making of Gravity. Spoiler alert: It’s all about the lighting…

You mean Gravity wasn’t really shot in space??

From then on the exhibition turns into a commercial art show meets digital buzzword bingo. Crowd-sourcing, 3D printing, movement recognition – all featured in impressive art installations.
A singing, digital Pharaoh freaked us out when his eyes followed us around the room – both of us, when we were heading in opposite directions! We were so delighted to find out how it worked, we apparently missed the real show-stoppers – the instruments in the pyramid. I’d tell you what they’re about, but I’d be making it up.
She looks like an angel...

She looks like an angel…

Can you tell what it is yet?

The highlights for us were the artworks which used movement and gesture recognition – above all, Chris Milk’s work The Treachery of Sanctuary, where your shadow dramatically reforms into a bird (or you quite creepily appear to get pecked to death!)

*Croons* “I believe I can fly”

There’s lots, lots more to explore – from a specially commissioned work which can turn your wishes into butterflies, to a look at the future of technology. Much, much more than I can write about (well, within my self-imposed time limit anyway!)
The second area of Digital Revolution highlighted Indie gaming since the 1980s. Inside a blue cage, four tables were set up with four different, independently developed games at each.Here my daughter got instantly hooked on Thomas was Alone, a minimalist platform game where you hear the thoughts of a lonely rectangle. Or something.
Indie gaming in the cage

Indie gaming in the cage

The two player games were so popular we didn’t get to go on them – as a lot of people came in groups, it would have been good to have a few more stations with multi-player games.
The third part was a fully immersive installation, Assemblance by Umbrellum in the Pit (on the second floor below ground). Interactive lasers, smoke machines, bubbles… and no need to go to a cheesy club! It was a magical space, and we had great fun batting the lasers back and forth, and joining hands around them to create some strange shapes. A note of caution – due to the intensity of the lasers, this exhibit is not suitable for the under fives. I did manage to bring in the baby – because she was asleep and completely covered in the sling – but I got the impression that was a rare exception. No photos I’m afraid as my camera struggled with the dim light – and my hands were full batting lasers around anyway.

A digital pet may solve the problem…

In short, Digital Revolution’s a bit like the internet itself (without the smut)- random, perhaps pointless at times, a bit commercial, yet wonderfully surprising and incredibly entertaining. I’d definitely recommend it for all families with older children – including those usually hard-to-please teenagers. We certainly had a whole lot of fun exploring it. My daughter thought the  laser room was ‘awesome’. And she misses lonely Thomas.
* I was ambitious. It took two days to finish this review in the end.
Digital Revolution runs until 14 September 2014
Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS
Current opening hours: (check website before setting out)
Mon–Wed: 11am–8pm
Thu–Sun: 11am–10pm
Standard £12.50
Concessions £10.50
Young person (12-17) £8.50
Students £8.50
Children (5-12) £5 Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult
Under 5s Free Children under 5 are not permitted in the Pit (Umbrellium)
Red Members Free + guest
Orange Members Free
Yellow Members 30% off for you + guest
Booking: We just showed up, but booking is recommended. Booking fee £1.50 online / £2.50 by phone
Recommended length of visit: About 2 hours, plus gaming time.
Buggy accessible?: Yes, a level access exhibition with a lift available to take you between floors.
Baby changing: On a number of floors. We used the one on -2, in the disabled toilet near the Pit. It had enough space for a buggy, a touch-button activated door (fancy!), and a fold down changing table (with broken strap). It also had an adult toilet and sink.
Breastfeeding friendly?: There’s not really anywhere to sit in the exhibition – there are a couple of stools, but they’ll probably be in use at the gaming stations. I used a comfy leather chair in the very quiet cinema reception area on -2, outside the Pit, but there are other places to sit throughout the Centre.
Toddler time from gallery to toilets: At least four minutes – and be prepared to add extra time to go to another floor . The ladies toilets at the very, very back of the Food Hall were out of order when we went.
Nearest playground: Five minutes round the corner is Fortune Street Park, with play areas for toddlers and bigger kids. Or you can play on the Barbican’s terrace – dip your feet into the lurid green water, or try the games provided (if you can get the City workers off them!) I saw ping pong and a bean bag throwing game.
Food: The Food Hall has a children’s pick your own lunchbox for £4.50 – expect to pay £8 for a sandwich and salad combo for the grown ups. The cakes do look *amazing*, as they should do at £3.40 a slice. Free tap water (with ice) available. There are chairs and tables on the terrace if you wanted to picnic.
Want to make more of a day of it?:  Collect the fabulously illustrated Barbican Family Trail from the Advance Booking Desk, and complete for a free prize or two. If you visit on a Saturday you could do the Framed Film Club at a meagre £2 a ticket, or check on a Sunday to see if the Barbican Conservatory is open. You’re only a few minutes away from the Museum of London, reviewed here.


Written by Vyki Sparkes AKA Museum Mum. Award-winning culture blogger, content creator, museum curator, podcaster, and mum to three. I’ve worked in museums for 18+ years, have a masters in museum studies, but more importantly, have been letting my kids loose in museums for decades. This blog shares all my hard-earned knowledge and experience.

Find me on: Web | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.