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Museum sector must heed lessons to ensure its continued success

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On the 250th anniversary of his birth, Sir John Soane's Museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields holds particularly timely lessons for all those concerned with the design of exhibitions and museums.We know from failed Lottery projects that size isn't everything, that design by committee delivers lacklustre results, and that it is generally inadvisable to design a building in isolation from the contents it is going to house.

Sir John Soane's Museum is compact, highly personal, and explicitly designed as a picturesque setting for the architect's personal collection of art, sculpture and architectural models. It is also rather confusing. It is described as the quintessential house-museum, but offers little of the insight into Soane's daily life that this description suggests. Its exhibits, although loosely grouped by type, are displayed for architectural impact, rather than in chronological order. The collection itself is impossible to categorise.Relics from antiquity and paintings commissioned in Soane's lifetime can loosely be grouped together as the interests of a typical gentleman collector of the age. But the collection of fragments saved from buildings demolished in Soane's time reveal a positively contrary stance - a desire to see value in architecture considered worthless at the time.

There is little attempt to impose a narrative: it is up to the visitor to make links between different exhibits and to draw conclusions of their own.

In this respect it is similar to the work of Ruairi O'Brien, featured on pages 26-37. As with the Soane Museum, O'Brien's Erich Kästner Museum in Dresden offers a richness of experience which belies its tiny size (in this case a single room), keeping the visitor's attention by seeking to stimulate their imagination, rather than by the volume of attractions on offer. It is an approach where personal instinct and aesthetic judgement are prioritised over group discussions about taxonomy, narrative, or the contents of particular zones, and which is efficient in terms of time, resources and space. Cultural institutions and their funders would do well to pay attention. It is also the key to ensuring that, in these post-mega budget days, our museum sector can continue to thrive.

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