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Stanton Williams completes Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum

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The gallery design uses carefully diffused and filtered natural light to create atmosphere

The new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World has opened at the British Museum, designed by Stanton Williams. The 6m-high galleries contain works of art, textiles and clothing, as well as paintings, stonework, tiles, glass and calligraphy. The gallery design, while protecting the delicate objects on display from any direct sunlight, uses light – both natural and artificial – to give pace to the spaces, aiding interpretation. 

Arranged around two sides of an internal lightwell, five new external window openings have been created within the galleries, which allow filtered daylight to enter through traditionally crafted screens, permitting views of the outside world. These interlocking screens, designed in collaboration with Saudi artist Ahmad Angawi, are made from walnut using a combination of 3D computer modelling and hand carving. 

Rooflights meanwhile provide diffused natural light through translucent glass and external louvres, protecting the collection from the impact of direct sunlight.

The galleries have moved from the John Addis Gallery in the north-east of the museum to larger rooms in the Sir John Taylor’s White Wing in its south-east, increasing display space by one third.

The interior spaces are pared back to emphasise the displayed objects and the architecture. Dividing elements, which feature graphics and digital content, are clad in matt-finished, powder-coated aluminium panels. Throughout both galleries, there is a new timber floor with a slate border, separated by cast iron heating grilles. The galleries conclude with a 5m-high plaster wall for the flexible display of contemporary art.

The albukhary foundation gallery of the islamic world (c)charles hosea + stanton williams (2)

The albukhary foundation gallery of the islamic world (c)charles hosea + stanton williams (2)

Architect’s view

The aim of our design was to celebrate the beauty of the natural daylight that permeates the Albukhary Gallery while simultaneously protecting the objects on display from the potentially damaging impact of direct sunlight. This was achieved by careful treatment of the rooflights to control the direction and intensity of light, and through the insertion of new windows into the external fabric and on to an internal lightwell previously blocked off from the gallery.

The existing gallery consisted of two 6m-high interconnecting rooms arranged around two sides of an internal lightwell. Both spaces were toplit from a series of rooflights designed to provide a uniform, diffused natural light through a combination of translucent glass and external louvres. In contrast to this, the design approach sought the use of light to create atmosphere and to enhance the experience of the gallery. The aim was to channel natural light from above over the central display cases evoking a light-filled courtyard, with more intimate spaces around the perimeter. The result offers a subtle spatial hierarchy to the gallery, accentuating the distinction between the chronological and thematic displays.

To achieve this effect, the lighting strategy was developed in collaboration with Arup Lighting in dialogue with the British Museum’s conservation department. The process began with in-depth analysis and digital modelling to map the unrestricted passage of light within the gallery over the course of a year. This research informed the design solution of a grid of aluminium blades known as ‘egg crates’ over the rooflights; this allowed natural light to be focused vertically while blocking any direct sunlight, in order to protect the objects and prevent the gallery from overheating through unwanted solar gain.

This principle has been reversed over the last rooflight in the first room, where the arrangement of the aluminium blades has been opened up to allow rare shafts of sunlight into the space for the first time. At certain times of the day, controlled beams of sunlight enter the room and cast light across the eastern wall. Their passage highlights the relief and intrinsic material qualities of the non light- sensitive stone inscriptions and lustre tiles on view at the end of the gallery’s primary vistas.

While these strategies were used in the first room, in which less light-sensitive objects such as pottery and metalwork are displayed, a smaller amount of daylight is admitted into the second room, where the collection requires lower light levels for the display of textiles and works on paper. In this way, the design of each space has its own distinct ambience, each of which responds to the specific conservation requirements of the objects exhibited in the room.

While respecting the historic fabric of the building, our redesign of the gallery sought to unlock any latent potential in the architecture of the space. This included the untapped, adjacent lightwell void and the blind windows of the north façade. Both offered scope to connect to light and views beyond and, in doing so, allow visitors to orientate themselves within the museum and its surroundings.

The final design opened up three of the previously blind windows in the first room of the Albukhary Gallery and created two lateral openings onto the lightwell. All are covered by delicate filigree screens to diffuse the light and are combined with new window seats lined in walnut, each with space to seat two to three people. These offer visitors a moment for pause and reflection during their visit while resting, immersed in dappled light.

Sanjay Ghodke, Associate, Stanton Williams

The albukhary foundation gallery of the islamic world (c)charles hosea + stanton williams (5)

The albukhary foundation gallery of the islamic world (c)charles hosea + stanton williams (5)

Client’s view

We have been thrilled to work with a world-class design team, including HOK (conservation and heritage), Stanton Williams (gallery design) and Arup (lighting design). Their collective hard work and passion has allowed us to deliver a project that we are immensely proud of. The design team’s vision has provided an inspired and complementary response to our world-class collection, which allows the museum to tell a more universal story of Islam in a global context. 

Hartwig Fisher, director of the British Museum

501 section (c)stantonwilliams copy 2

501 section (c)stantonwilliams copy 2

Project data

Start on site October 2016
Completion October 2018
Gross internal floor area 620m²
Form of contract or procurement route Framework Agreement
Construction cost Undisclosed
Architect Stanton Williams
Conservation architect HOK Architects
Client The British Museum
Structural engineer Alan Baxter
M&E consultant TGA Consulting Engineers
QS Potter Raper Partnership
Lighting consultant Arup Lighting
Project manager Capital Projects (in-house team at The British Museum)
Principal designer and principal contractor HOK/Coniston/Goppion
Main contractor Base Build by Coniston; Showcases by Goppion
CAD software used Revit/Microstation

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