How Marie Neurath’s pioneering picture books shaped science education

A new exhibition at the House of Illustration is celebrating the work of the 20th century graphic designer and educator, whose striking infographics showed people that science doesn’t have to be boring

At a time when most women were expected to be at home looking after the children, Marie Neurath set herself the mission of educating them instead, turning complex science into an array easy-to-understand, beautifully illustrated books.

Born in Germany, Neurath ended up in England during the Second World War, where she and her husband, the Austrian philospher Otto Neurath, set up the Isotype Institute in order to bring previously inaccessble scientific subjects to a wider audience.

The Wonder World of Long Ago, 1957; All images: Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection at University of Reading
Cover for The Wonder World of Nature: Too small to see, 1956

A new show at London’s House of Illustration is spotlighting Neurath’s work, which saw her lead a team of researchers, artists and writers at the Isotype Institute to produce over 80 illustrated children’s books between the 1940s and 1970s.

Early ideas for picture books are on display alongside research documents, initial sketches and the final designs for her striking book covers, with topics ranging from the history of dinosaurs to how volcanoes work.

The Wonder World of the Seashore
The Wonder World of Nature: Too small to see, 1956

The show has been co-curated by Sue Walker and Eric Kindel from the Otto and Marie Neurath Archive at the University of Reading, Anne Odling-Smee from Design Science and House of Illustration curator Katie Nairne.

“Marie Neurath’s groundbreaking approach to communicating complex information through pictures has had a huge impact on contemporary design and infographics and deserves much greater acclaim than it currently receives,” says Nairne.

The Wonder World of the Seashore, 1956
The Wonder World of Land and Water, 1957

“We are delighted to be able to share some of the University of Reading’s extensive archive in order to celebrate this pioneering woman and shed light on her innovative methods.”

Marie Neurath: Picturing Science runs from 19 July – 3 November. Tickets cost £8, plus concessions; houseofillustration.org.uk

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