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Museums, the client's way

Lottery funding means that there is more opportunity for designing museums, but client and architect need to understand each other

Museums, created primarily to care for their collections and to provide enjoyment, are today complex buildings housing different activities for people with diverse interests: containing collections and accommodating general and specialist staff dedicated to providing a service to the public as well as caring for their collections.

When designing museum buildings the architect must considerboth client and local community, and connect people of all types with museum objects, as well as giving a lasting magic. By standing up for this broad perspective, an architect's work enables an institution to revitalise itself.

The UK's large and flourishing architectural profession and pool of internationally renowned architects can create pressure on museum building design through a combination of conflicting client requirements: innovative design on the one hand and building longevity on the other. Though even hospitals may be demolished and new ones built, museum buildings are expected to last.

The lack of museum construction in the past has meant that until recently there has been limited collective experience in the architectural profession of the practical requirements of museum buildings.

Since the introduction of lottery funding there has been an upsurge of museum projects.

What makes a good museum architect? One who above all else listens to the client. Museum curators and conservators are deeply knowledgeable about their work, so not listening to what a client has to say is a missed opportunity.

The dialogue between an architect and a client - the feeling of trust and understanding that should exist - will ultimately be communicated in the spirit of the place that is built. Developing this relationship is often as important to a museum client as getting the brief right. It also helps the architect to interpret the museum's vision creatively. If a brief is not workable, the architect and client should work at developing it together.

So who is the client? It may be a funding body, but it is also the end-user, often represented by the director or curator, but with a support team of other curators, conservators, those responsible for public services, security and public affairs.

These may not be immediately known to the architect, particularly in the early stages of a project, but it is vitally important that contact is established with all of them at the earliest possible stage. An architect should also ask the director for a briefing on the personalities involved in order to gauge whether existing problems might surface as the pressures of a new project begin to be felt.

Many architects respond to the special needs of museums by keeping themselves up to date with museum practice by attending conferences and seminars on, say, museum design and energy efficiency run by organisations such as the Museums & Galleries Commission and the Area Museum Councils. Yet nothing can replace the value of behind-thescenes museum visits to help develop an understanding of the museum's vision, its structure and programmes and its operational requirements.

This is important not only because architects quite often represent their client at public gatherings, but also because in practical terms they need to be able to take these matters on board fully in developing the design and to plan and execute the project with minimum disruption to the museum's normal pattern of activities. For example, the Horniman museum's evening classes could restrict the time for noisy construction work. An understanding of how a museum works can also help avoid technical over-specification.

Architects with experience of similar projects may think that they have all the answers, but a first-rate architect will just bring good basic skills and experience to a museum project and pull together a team with specialist skills. For example, there is a clear and growing preference among UK museums for a holistic approach to museum building design which maximises the use of passive design features while minimising dependence on active systems to control the environment. Given this approach, the input of engineers and contractors should be given the same public recognition as goes to the architect on the team.

Many will say that most good architects have not got where they are by listening and by teamwork. A degree of ruthlessness may be inevitable, and because of time scales and costs, it often appears that the architect is driving the project relentlessly towards completion.

This impression may stem from a lack of understanding by museum clients of their own role and ignorance of the architectural process. In fact, the liabilities that architects work under would terrify many. An architect needs to be aware of the client's level of experience and competence and accommodate any deficiencies. The procurement path chosen will affect the way a project develops and also the type of relationship between the architect and the client. It is therefore vital that open dialogue is established.

The client will want to agree reporting mechanisms in advance to create opportunities to discuss all manner of issues, from proposed colour schemes to visitor-flow predictions. There will indeed be times when changes by the client can no longer be accommodated without affecting the schedule. An open relationship and good reporting mechanisms should ensure that these stages are passed with minimal stress for everyone.

Museum clients are also aware that while architects are always very interested, receptive and quick to respond at the start of a project, they may lose interest as the project nears completion. When defects need sorting out, the client can hold out by retaining fees but the percentage is so small that it does not provide a realistic incentive. Museum professionals do, however, meet regularly and seek and exchange information among themselves. Both good and bad experiences get discussed.

While a landmark building gives an architect the opportunity to be creative, the client's dream does not consist only of a beautiful or striking building. The client must also be convinced of the usability of the space, down to the last working detail.

So the location of WCs for school parties near the children's area is as important to the education officer as the relationship between the stores and the exhibition galleries is to the curators and conservators.

On top of all this, an eye must be kept on costs. Small, incremental changes may appear insignificant at the time but, when added up, can make a dent in a project budget. For example, digging one inspection pit may only cost £500, but 10 pits without serious justification will cost £5000. As a result, museums have begun to appoint both architectural advisers and quantity surveyors themselves when undertaking major capital projects.

Today's museums are business-like and financially accountable - one of the more positive outcomes of lottery funding.

May Cassar is environmental adviser at the Museums & Galleries Commission. This is the first in an occasional series on museums

THE GOOD ARCHITECT GUIDE FOR MUSEUMS

Professional knowledge and experience

Access to specialist knowledge

Communication skills: someone who listens and spends time developing the relationship with the client

Team working: building a project team which includes design professionals and client representatives

Identifying with the client's vision, to the extent of almost looking round corners

Balancing creativity and usability of space

Organisational ability and capacity of the practice to carry out the project

Presence during project, not only at meetings but also on site

Responsiveness to the pressures on the client

Cost-effectiveness

A sense of humour

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