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Architecture tomorrow - museums and galleries

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In recent decades the emphasis in museums has shifted from the objects on display to the needs and expectations of visitors – and these are now the primary drivers in designing a museum, says David Dewing

Like most things, museums change. They have to adapt to new ideas, technology, social demands, and economic conditions. Sometimes change can be piecemeal, a refurbished gallery or a makeover of the shop, but sooner or later most museums need a more holistic and possibly radical and transformative project in response to the changing world in which they operate. My own museum, the Geffrye Museum of the Home, is embarking on this now, with an £11 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant announced last week.

The sector has certainly embraced change in recent decades. Not so long ago museums were seen by many as rather dull, dusty and rooted in the past. Today they are bursting with visitors; galleries are imaginatively designed; and displays are supported by new technology in lighting, showcasing and communication. People enjoy these spaces. Museums have never been more popular.

Making a museum attractive to people means understanding what motivates them

And this is the key: museums are for people. We used to think of museums as places for objects. The curator’s task was to maintain and develop collections and to focus resources on knowledge and scholarship. Museums were temples where important works were safely preserved and placed on display. The buildings and galleries were themselves works of art, monuments. 

But society has changed, and museums have changed. They are still about objects but they are also about people, and about what people want from their visit. The emphasis has shifted from objects being the centre of attention, to visitors’ needs and expectations being the primary drivers in designing and operating a museum.  Museums are social spaces, increasingly used as places for people to meet, enjoy time together, be inspired and entertained and, importantly, to engage and participate.

So in transforming existing museums or designing new ones, the most successful solutions will be those which pay attention to how people are using them today. And museums need to attract wider audiences, reaching out to those people who rarely consider them as an interest or opportunity. Making a museum attractive to people means understanding what motivates them. Successful architecture will be welcoming, not intimidating; circulation and navigation will be clear and logical; toilets and cloakrooms will be easily found, spacious and super-clean. Shops and cafés must be as good, or better, than any on the high street. Getting the basics right is essential.

But what of the galleries? Objects and artefacts are the DNA of museums and their preservation, study and display will always be primary functions. People used to be invited into museums to stand in awe before great works of art or fabulous treasures. There’s still an element of this in most museums, and the sense of wonder and enlightenment is a precious thing. But, for many, objects in themselves are not enough – explanation or information, a way of looking and engaging helps people to understand and appreciate what they are seeing.  Narrative and social context are key. Close encounters with objects, often with an expert at hand, are increasingly popular. Open evenings, nights at the museum, behind-the-scenes tours, talks and activities all provide opportunities for people to get involved. Gallery spaces need to be designed with activity in mind, areas where people can engage and take part, rather than simply pass through as observers.

David Dewing is director of The Geffrye Museum of the Home, London E2.

Architecture Tomorrow

Submit your projects for Architecture Tomorrow here. The deadline for entries is 12 June.

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