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AJ Writing Prize Shortlist: A review of The Collection, Lincoln’s museum of archaeology, by Mike Hawkins

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The Collection was built in 2005, designed by architects Panter Hudspith to house the extensive civic archaeological collection within the dense fabric of old Lincoln, between the cathedral at the top of the hill and the railway station at the bottom

A carefully sculpted building that confronts the world with a heavy materiality, it is part of the wave of publicly funded new ‘landmark’ cultural buildings that flourished under the last government.

Architecturally, the building is influenced by the idiosyncratic playfulness of Aalto, Scharoun or Haering; part of Colin St John Wilson’s ‘Other Tradition’. It is primarily divided east-west into two main volumes, according to what Kenneth Frampton describes as “…the site planning principle of Aalto’s later career, wherein a given building is invariably separated into two distinct elements and the space in between is articulated as a space of human appearance”. The glass link that connects the two conceptual halves of the building bridges a new pathway carved through the site, serving the lower entrance and the courtyard, envisaged as a place of assembly and performance during the summer.

From the north, the main entrance is clear and provides level access from the street. Approaching from the south, the planning of the site draws you into this space at the heart of the building, but struggles to deliver you to the lower entrance. The success of the new route and yard will become apparent over time, as the public chooses whether or not to adopt them as the architects would like.

The larger southern volume that houses the main gallery presents a textured but predominantly blank face to the world, sitting on a plinth punctured by horizontal slot windows, formed by the storage spaces . North of the link are the foyer, shop and café areas, well lit by large bronze framed windows that open up the building to its context. For a building concerned with history it is appropriate that the high quality of materials used throughout will allow the museum to mark for itself the passage of time - bronze door handles show a pleasing brightness, polished by visitor’s hands whilst the frames darken to a deep brown.

The thin courses of split-faced limestone, effectively a cladding, will weather according to its own far longer timescale. Internal walls show the detailed surface of the self-compacting concrete that provides the structural frame for the building; proprietary formwork was lined with 75mm horizontal timber planks, echoing the module of the stone outer skin. Tie-rod holes left from the casting reveal the true method of construction, and are plugged with satisfying plugs of varnished wood. The main café space is double height, emphasised by vertical timber cladding above the counter, in happy contrast with the mean internal spaces of many museum buildings. Large box windows overlooking the courtyard provide semi-private booths for extra tables and chairs.

Passing over the bridge to the exhibition spaces you can turn back on yourself to see a spectacularly framed view of the Romanesque-gothic Cathedral at the top of the hill. However, be careful lest you fall down the steps behind you, as several visitors have done.

The ‘orientation’ gallery is an impressive glass roofed volume, tapering to thin vertical strip windows at east and west that provides a flexible space for functions or large installations. Artists have been commissioned to create site-specific sound-works, some using the south ‘sound wall’ to play with the effect of sound on our spatial perception. Stones left out of the construction allow the sound to permeate the wall, subverting it’s solidity whilst suggesting a more mundane function such as air-conditioning. The walls are naturally lit from the top and sides, and artificially from slots between the wall and floor. This has the effect of de-materialising the floor, particularly in the two passages that provide access to the largest space, the hall for the permanent collection.

Entering the main gallery you might think that you have walked through the lobby, bar and front of house only to end up back stage (maybe the atrium, with its performing wall, is where the action takes place, or maybe it is the ‘amphitheatre’ in the yard). For the ‘backstage’ to be the space of display, may be a smart move. It suggests that the viewer is a knowing participant, wizened in an age of cynicism. The actors have gone and the viewer can imagine or re-enact for herself the narratives suggested by the exhibits. The materiality of the building is ever present, but the scale has increased and detail has taken a smaller role. Cast pillars define the structural grid and support the massive smooth faced concrete sawtooth roof. The roof level daylighting avoids the artificially lit ‘suspension of (dis)belief’ seen in many museums (or the pressure for wall space that leads curators to block up windows).

Historically, the name of the museum connects it directly with the wunderkammer, the ‘cabinets of curiosities’ that began as private collections of preserved animals, fossils or strange man made objects popularised in the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 18th century, the ‘age of enlightenment’ the public institutional museum was born and scientific categorization of exhibits began to divide them into “geology, ethnography, archaeology, religious or historical relics, works of art… and antiquities”. The new wonder rooms and museums aimed to show the superiority of the modern western world, both by celebrating a spectatorial, linear view of history and by linking the present with the ‘great’, predominantly graeco-roman civilisations of the past.

These developments culminated in the great exhibitions of the nineteenth century that celebrated an industrialising capitalist society and merged the consumption of curiosity with that of commodity. The well publicised failure of the most recent exhibition of this type; the millennium dome at Greenwich, London, shows how difficult such ideas have become in the post-colonial, post-industrial, pluralistic age in which we live, characterised by Jean-Francis Lyotard and others as the post-modern condition.

Academics and museums have begun to address this breakdown of meta-narratives (religion, science etc.) by reassessing the traditional representation of history that has demeaned the importance of everyday life and the underclasses (be that women, ethnic minorities or the working and peasant classes). History as the celebration of a series of elite-male achievements in war and science is a reductive conception, representing a worldview that although widely held, is difficult to justify in our postmodern age.

Drawing funding from sources like the National Lottery, cultural institutions are under pressure to attract visitors from a broader demographic and both methods of exhibition and choice of exhibits have for some time now tried to reflect this. However the reality is that the traditional meta-narratives provided a convenient tool for the art of exhibiting the past, as well as a means of understanding ones place in the world.

Museums were arranged chronologically and hierarchically reflecting the dominant worldview - once questioned, the exhibition of history becomes far more difficult. It is also true that the artefacts of the elites last longer and are more easily available to the historians. Metal jewellery and armour, fine pottery and artworks have historically been owned by the few not the many and as such often take up a disproportionate share of exhibition space, representing the ‘achievements’ of an era. For some more radical thinkers (particularly the Situationists), the very act of preservation sterilises both objects and actions in the interests of maintaining a historic continuum.

Panter Hudspith have attempted to avoid the politics of display by providing a neutral container for the treasures of Lincoln. Contrary to the spaces of reception, circulation and consumption, the space of display is surprisingly regular in form. It provides a single non-hierarchical, orthogonal space in the manner of the Sainsbury Centre and suggests a fundamentally modernist desire for clarity, simplicity and flexibility.

The heavy cast columns are a strong visual element; defining a notional grid that must be worked with or against, otherwise this is a highly ‘flexible’ space. Adaptability is certainly a useful attribute - “long life, loose fit”, and presumably this was an intrinsic part of the brief, but in a specifically cultural building a more diverse exhibition space could have helped as well as hindered exhibition designers in the future, and hinted more strongly at the plurality of post modern life.

Furthermore, the galleries themselves are said to constitute less than a third of the museum. The Collection is a beautiful and sensuous building, carefully carved into context in the steep streets of an old city. A solid materiality gives gravity to both internal and external spaces, but there is a perhaps a danger that the exhibition and understanding of historical artefacts may appear to be a secondary concern. History is violent, tumultuous and shocking; differing readings are conflicting and contentious.

For me the smoothly inflected civilised order of The Collection struggles to convey the provocative nature of interpreting the past.

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