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Making an exhibition of himself

Brunel comes under scrutiny in a major exhibition opening this month. Andrew Mylius gets a preview.

The problem with Brunel is he does too much - he doesn't obviously belong to any one discipline, ' says Eric Kentley, curator at London's Design Museum.

'There are shows dealing with parts of his oeuvre, for example his pioneering work on broad gauge rail at the National Railway Museum, and shipbuilding at the Maritime Museum. But nobody has done anything in the round.'

Until now, that is, with 'Isambard Kingdom Brunel - recent works', showing at the Design Museum from 27 October.

As a way of exploring the transfer of ideas and technologies between his many disciplines, the exhibition is to focus on six very different projects.

Six leading modern-day practitioners have been called in to critique these works in a bid to gauge just how innovative the 19th century's most famous engineer was.

The exhibition will provide historical context, promises Kentley. He wants to show that Brunel (1809-1859) was, variously, an original thinker, an able exploiter of available technologies and an opportunist. Projects selected also show that 'he could collaborate both very well and very, very badly'.

The Design Museum is aiming to challenge as well as educate with IK Brunel. People admire his achievement but are afraid of actually getting to grips with Brunel's engineering, says Kentley. He is determined to demonstrate engineering is not hard to comprehend.

Kentley is also hoping the exhibition can help put engineering back on visitors' mental maps. 'Now, a few architects enjoy comparable fame to Brunel, but in terms of achievement he is beyond Richard Rogers or Norman Foster. What have they ever done except buildings?' Kentley asks. OK, he concedes, the engineering profession has changed hugely since Brunel's day. 'It is unlikely you'd get another comparably famous individual.' But collectively, engineering offices have at least equal power to impress the public.

'If people start looking at Paddington station next time they are taking a train and consider how the structure works we will have achieved our aims.'

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