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Ditchling Museum, A Homage To Craft by Matthew Northover

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Designed by Adam Richard Architects, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft gathers beneath its eaves a collection of artefacts and artworks that reveal the artisanship of the area’s historic residents while unfolding a narrative of ‘The Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic’ and their austere devotion to a virtuous life. Challenged by the consumptive excesses of modernity and the cacophony of ceaseless industrialisation, this group operated in Ditchling during the early 20th century, acting as a voice for society’s conscience and exploring the intimacy of craft as the antonym of mechanised production.

The bucolic setting from which the guild drew inspiration has largely preserved its charm over the last century. Nearby low-lying enclosures of flint ruins trace the outline of past shelters and weather-beaten benches on the village green offer temporary respite to passing walkers who sit to survey the countryside. Amid this archetypal quaint English landscape and beneath the frowning gables of the Church of St Margaret, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft rests amongst bright foliage and the village’s still pond. The building itself is an assemblage of the old and the new, reiterating forms and material compositions prevalent in the local vernacular while redefining their potential through the increased flexibility afforded by updated methods of manufacturing and construction. Unfolding to the public in a linear sequence, the successive exhibits and spaces sculpt a narrative that conveys emotionally charged meanings through the orchestrated revealing of sensed phenomenon.

The listed Cart Lodge abutting the public green has been reconfigured to act as the museum’s public entrance and although the restoration work has been extensive the idiosyncratic geometry of the original timber supporting structure has been retained and is displayed to the visitor as they pass through the barn’s wide threshold. The rough grain of the warped wood crosses overhead in uneven patterns that widen and wrinkle, tracing visible reminders of the forces that maintain the roof’s stability. This ageing network of supports bears onto a rugged wall of dull bricks and sharp flints that cast jagged shadows under the spotlights. The cool stone and dim interior provides a respite from the glaring summer sun, easing the visitor into a slower and more contemplative state between the vestibule and the first exhibit.

Leaving the shadowy barn one ascends the staircase into the introductory room which is flooded by natural light from a single floor to ceiling opening situated symmetrically on the room’s central axis. The ceiling is vaulted with sheer planes of cross laminated timber, the surfaces of which are lightened through staining and are further illuminated by the brilliancof the daylight. Juxtaposed against this bright ambience is the perceivable weight of a single vast display cabinet, the aura of which demands visitors’ attention. A curious assortment of articles is housed within this Wunderkammer, a tantalisingly cryptic display that conveys the oddity and beauty of the crafted object.

At the opening into the main exhibition space the enclosing timber structure retreats upwards towards the lofty ceiling as if it were weightless, revealing the heavy stone walls of the gallery that bear down onto the ground below. Beyond this threshold the daylight is consumed by a darkness selectively punctuated by the soft artificial radiance of small lamps.

Traversing the displays through this gloom the religious images are given a sombre weight by the shadows of the carved objects and the dark recesses of the stone reliefs. A monolithic barricade stands resolutely at the end of the hall eclipsing the only source of daylight which comes from a tall window concealed behind this ominous sentinel. Around its perimeter the block seems to glow with a halo of light that invokes the mystery and thrill of the space it conceals. With this heightened sense of anticipation these commonplace corners become mysteries to be unravelled by the inquisitive body, transient joys derived from exploration and discovery.

Dividing the entire hall is an axis that extends from the main gallery to the print gallery at the opposite end of the exhibition. At its tip this symmetrical composition enshrines the guild’s hallowed tool, a dark cast-iron printing press which lies dormant beneath a tall arched enclosure. Flanking this altar are solitary columns of timber, partly clad in slate tiles that invite the hand to caress their smooth surfaces. Within this room the museum’s hushed ambience assumes the form of the quiet reverence observed on consecrated ground. Calming symmetry, muted tones and settled geometry coalesce to sustain this peaceful setting.

Sacred spaces encourage a feeling of reflective solitude akin to the act of studying and so the nearby reading room provides a similarly contemplative setting for visitors to rest, surrounded by robust wooden bookshelves stacked with intriguing titles. In this space the mind is not oppressed by a stiflingly low ceiling, instead the high chamber gives a sense of freedom to the reader who gazes upwards to the bright window above them. The room’s lower level is lined with timber that emanates warmth and encloses the body with a reassuring tactility while the surfaces out of reach withdraw into the ascetic pallor of whitewashed plaster.

The capacity of carefully assembled materials to impress meaning upon the psyche is characteristic of the enigmatic beauty of craft. Relationships and hierarchies established in the composition of things are understood subconsciously as the mind continually transmutes sensed phenomenon into abstracted notions such as harmony and discord. This intuitive reading of our environment provides the framework to which the sublime architecture of Ditchling’s museum appeals as it enters into a dialogue with the intangible realm of feeling that make us human.

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