AJ Crit:The museum question by Austin Williams

The museum question | Archive | Architects Journal


technical & practice

This report asks whether modern museums are having an identity crisis. Four essays explore how museums should respond to charges of elitism and the need for relevance Admittedly, museums seem to be flourishing: more museums are opening, more people are attending but still many of those in the ‘museum world’ seem to be undergoing a crisis of confidence. What, they ask, is a museum really for? It is a question that is exercising many established institutions today – how do you make such an elitist concept ‘relevant’ to the general public?

Nowadays, these cultural institutions are often promoted as places of organised public interaction – civic spaces rather than seats of learning. One of the most talked about aspects of Tate Modern, for example, is its attendance figures. This type of barometer of a successful gallery has been taken up forcibly by the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.
High visitor numbers are proudly, and regularly, announced, presumably to indicate the Geordies’ new-found love of obscurantist Scandinavian performance artists.

Driven by business plans and practical economic considerations, this fetishised visitor number crunching is understandable as an accounting procedure, or even as a grant application technique, but it is surely not permissible as a true indication of real engagement.Marketing opportunities such as the Bond exhibition at the Science Museum or Versace at the V&A, for example, are promoted as ways of getting more people into museums – people that would otherwise not normally attend. But do we really need the buffer – why not confidently promote the cultural and historic importance of the institutions’ core artefacts?


Enlightened opinion

The British Museum in London, Britain’s first national public museum, celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, it will be holding a ‘festival of festivals’, the focal point of which will be its autumn exhibition in the newly restored King’s Library entitled, ‘Enlightenment: Rethinking the world in the 18th century’. The exhibition will explore the way that Europeans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries perceived the world.

It is fitting to remember the universalist intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment at the very time that museums themselves seem to have lost their way. This AJ special report includes four key commentators in the field, each addressing what they see as the most important issues that should be considered in museum design.

Julian Spalding, author of The Poetic Museum, recognises the dilemma that museums are in, but suggests that ‘museums are no longer dispensers of truth and beauty’. For a museum to engage with its clientele, he suggests that it should reinforce the validity of the visitor’s relative interpretation of both.

Josie Appleton, author of Museums for ‘The People’ and contributor to spiked, puts forward a concise plea for the primacy of the artefact. Given that this is the historic core function – almost the definition – of a museum, this should not really be controversial.

However, she concludes with a critical sideswipe at those who see museums as an ‘excuse for architecture going against the grain of a museum’s collection’.

Katherine Skellon of Land Design Studios, a company that professes a ‘fascination for the power and potential of the narrative’, takes a practical approach. She defends the importance of ‘real’ objects as the centrepiece of the museum collection – but suggest that they can be enhanced by appropriate presentation technology. Citing her work at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, such intervention, she posits, is to help ‘interpret meaning.’

Tiffany Jenkins is the director of the arts and society programme at the Institute of Ideas. In her essay she condemns the rise of the ‘experiential’ or ‘immersive’ exhibition. These, she argues, avoid intellectual engagement except on the most trivial level. Admitting that we all have subjective responses to exhibits, she criticises the manipulative processes employed by many so-called interactive displays.


Terms of debate

The questions under discussion are:
Is the museum ‘experience’ a sanitary one? Do we need to ‘engage’ people and, if so, how? Should people be led, or left to their own devices?

What role is there for architecture in the visitor/gallery/museum experience? Should content take priority over presentation?
Should museums and galleries be made relevant or should they proudly flaunt their exclusivity? Is there necessarily a distinction between imposing architecture or inviting architecture?

People attend Bilbao’s Guggenheim as much to see the architecture as the exhibition; and have not people visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim for the past 50 years for the same reason – and then been drawn in to see the exhibits?
Captivating people – is this not one of the functions of design? Is there something different in the current debate? Has the role of design been overplayed?

Museums and galleries now seem to be the automatic response to calls for urban regeneration. Art for art’s sake is seldom heard – rather, art and architecture must prove their worth, by displaying their social, economic and therapeutic benefits as a justification for their existence. They seem to have become value-engineered spaces. The following essays are the start of an enquiry into whether this is legitimate or healthy. We welcome readers’ comments.


Collaborative processes

A designer of museum exhibitions gives her views on the importance of the object; and of enhancing the object As non-charging national museums throughout this country compete to bring in the numbers, their task in attracting visitors remains a difficult one due to society’s ever-evolving fascination and desire for all things new.

The new museum or visitor centre has to work extra hard in offering a unique and original experience that can’t be accessed through the classroom, the Internet, interactive TV or other entertainment modes.

At Land Design Studio, we recognise, in the past 10 years, a transition in museums, and it is our responsibility to track trends and to cater for this glut of Lottery-based (and other) projects, while reinventing new ways of delivering information to an increasingly demanding public.

Substance is surely key to the issue. Too often within exhibitions, galleries, museums, etc, the architecture or the scenic treatment, the graphic or interactive interpretation take over, leaving the real objects behind. Even when there is no tangible collection of objects but a story to be told, this can be shrouded in peripheral layers leaving the visitor questioning – lacking the relevant information. People like real things, and looking at a real object cannot be beaten. Despite being overloaded with a constant stream of data, information and knowledge in our daily lives, our fascination for real stories past, present and future is thriving.


Engaging the visitor

Engagement of the visitor on a macro and micro scale is vital. From the outset and preferably together with the client, being able to determine the strategy and to create the organising principle is a fundamental part of the process in producing a successful experience that works.

As designers for the newly opened National Maritime Museum Cornwall, for example, working with the client and the architects, we set about looking at how the museum should work physically as a building, an exhibition and as a sustainable visitor destination. Due to the number of large objects to be displayed, we created an exhibition display system that knits into the building yet allows the museum to shut down and rotate its collection on an annual basis, thus encouraging repeat visitors and writing into its business plan a form of engagement on a macro scale.

We believe in harnessing people’s fascination with real ‘things’; displaying the object in its true form, whilst supporting it by a number of means such as graphics, AV software, interactivity, all working to enhance its relevance. On a more micro scale of engagement, we have developed a device whereby a precious or conservation-controlled object displayed in its case can be investigated using a form of digital interface appropriate to that object. The visitor can access a virtual object by using the digital image file, making it possible to manipulate the image, zoom in or spin around.

A 19th century football is brought to life with background materials that describe its origins; a fossilized bird can have its story told. A selected feature in a landscape beyond the gallery space can be ‘sucked in’ virtually and its meaning explained using interpretation inside the building.

Even in many of today’s newest museums and visitor centres, we are still being bombarded with unoriginal, over-stylised and over-designed ways of presenting a story that only cloud the real issues or cover up the lack of knowledge or view taken by those responsible for showing us these objects and stories. Give us the real thing without the shallow layers surrounding it.


Architectural role

The architect’s solution is undoubtedly key to the visitor experience. There is nothing wrong in visitors going to see a landmark building as the big attractor for the experience as long as the content serves its purpose and the two work together. There are many examples where this is clearly not the case and should be critically addressed.

Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is a classic example of how an extraordinary and fascinating piece of architecture that sets up an impeccable narrative is let down so badly on the inside. Clearly, the designers responsible for the exhibition have not known how to engage with the building at all – resulting in showcases and graphic panels standing awkwardly in cranked angular corridors, and circulation spaces that are frustrating even when the museum is not that busy. This is an extreme example, but similar problems can be spotted in any number of projects.

Understanding the visitor sequence and circulation through a public building, setting up a clear organising principle, is key to the visitor’s experience. Our early collaboration with architect Long & Kentish on the NMMC has resulted in a building that is friendly and engaging to the public whether they follow the prescribed route or wander randomly. From the entrance lobby to the shop on the way out, the spaces are a series of diverse events that knit together as immersive, interpretative or emotional environments, making it hard to see where the building stops and exhibition starts.
Ultimately, good museum design is about striking a balance.

Should museums give visitors an ‘experience’ or should they be provided with a deeper, intellectual interpretation?
While its new Falmouth facility opens on the edge of the Cornish waterfront, it is the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, in the heart of London, which is saturated in the sounds of the sea. Visitors cannot avoid the taperecorded effects of waves breaking, sailors shouting or the creaking of ships’ boughs. It is enough to make you sea-sick. Much of the space is spotlit, with many galleries in darkness so that the visitor has to squint to see the exhibits and strain to understand the disjointed voices.

Recent exhibitions in many museums have put an emphasis on the space and atmosphere. At London’s Imperial War Museum in ‘The 1940s House’ is a living room enhanced by wartime music and lit as if it were dusk; The Trench makes reference to phosgene and mustard gas. During ‘The Big Picture’ show at the IMW North, the sparse metallic gallery uses sound and film to plunge the visitor into an encounter where no peace can be found.

These exhibitions are part of an development in museums internationally known as experiential or immersive, and it is the architecture as much as the exhibits that indulges this trend. The idea is that institutions avoid a rational dialogue that communicates with the visitor cerebrally, connecting instead in a sensory and emotional fashion. It is a mockery of how we understand things meaningfully; and a major wrong turn in the battle over the future of museums. It has developed out of a collapsing trust in the audience and a lack of confidence in the material – the former are being patronised and the latter are being downgraded.

Back in Greenwich, the sound of firing guns and shouting, while trying to concentrate on Turner’s ‘The Battle ofTrafalgar’, is less than helpful.What can recreated yelps do that Turner’s whirlwind of brush strokes cannot?

Indeed the intended effect seems to be to distract the visitor from the action on the canvas. Meanwhile, tucked away at the very back of a case in the far corner, is a piece of the HMS Victory with an embedded cannon ball.

This really could bring the battle to life but you are directed elsewhere.


The ‘experiential museum’ belittles what it is meant to represent.

The worst offender is the highly applauded Holocaust Museum in Washington DC by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Through the use of architectural elements, it attempts to get visitors to come into contact with the Holocaust and face the atrocity ‘firsthand’. Design architect Freed says that he wanted a ‘visceral response’.

Large metal frames projecting inward greet you at the entrance and are supposed to bring to mind the steel gates of Auschwitz. Flattened brick arches are intended to prompt an association with crematorium entrances.

The differences in room shape are designed to have an effect on psychological perceptions. We are supposed to feel insignificant, insecure, confined and isolated. The experience is didactic and hollow. At best, it is representative architecture at its most literal; but there is something insidious about mimicking what it felt like during the holocaust. The historic human tragedy is not something we can role-play at.

This is not to say we cannot understand the Holocaust’s gravity and specificity, but it is hindered by the designed manipulation of our senses which paralyses our ability to look, listen and make our own connections.

It scuppers a thoughtful approach – trying to shortcut it with emotion.

But surely we are not so shallow as to be unable to understand the historical details without special effects.
Museums have always had an agenda despite the admirable quest for truth and objectivity.However, historically, they did not tell people what to feel. Facts and opinion can be contested; the interpretation of a painting can be disputed; but it is more difficult to disagree after being told how to feel and when to emote. These lessons can only be obvious and banal.

The ‘experiential museum’ directs our attention away from understanding the period or artefact and turns the attention on the visitor who is asked simply to consider how they feel and think. Not what happened, how and what does this object say and tell us? The object and the history are lost. The moody museum is about the self not the world.

Museums, their architecture and their content, are turning their back on explaining things, setting out the facts and displaying the object.

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