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Katherine Shonfield

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The feeling of relief that one is not of an age to see out the next century is an unspoken, but effective, palliative to pre-millennial tension. However, just one piece of news has sparked off the pangs of envy that used to be so common among the middle-aged three decades ago. If you are between eight and fifteen you can now sleep (as in spend the night) with the sarcophagi in the British Museum's Egyptian rooms.

This is, for architects, that most interesting of inventions: the transformation of a spatial (and indeed intellectual and emotional) experience through the manipulation of time.

The museum as an architectural type has been criticised for draining artefacts of their evocative power. The dual role of museums as knowledge stores for researchers and places to attract visitors has been especially uneasy at the British Museum, where the 'display' of Grecian urns three deep in cabinets recalled Selfridges more often than John Keats.

Even at its most imaginative, the museum/gallery event is governed by an oppressive ritual, epitomised by estimates of visitor flows. To gaze even for five minutes beyond the prescribed time is uncomfortably disruptive for everyone. Conceived of in this way, the distinction between the rooms of a museum and the pages of a website becomes increasingly blurred.

But in the notion of the sleep-over, the material power of the museum's architecture and the artefact is reasserted in opposition to the seductions of the virtual. The contemplative possibilities of lying down, as opposed to sitting or standing, with the hours of dreaming ahead of one, promise an unorchestrated and unique exploration of the past.

It has possibilities way beyond its genesis. Who knows, maybe Open House sleep-overs could be just around the corner.

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