John Soane once gave a party in his house at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields that extended over three days - the prime minister, the poet Coleridge and the artist J M W Turner were among the guests. When John Summerson was curator of Sir John Soane's Museum, he organised festivities at number 13 for members of the MARS (Modern Architectural Research) Group. A few years ago, Charles Jencks chose the Soane as the venue for the launch of the Maggie's Centre project, with Frank Gehry on hand to explain the designs for the centre he was building in Dundee. The Soane (it opened to the public after Soane's death in 1837) was established by the great architect for the benefit of 'amateurs and students' of architecture, painting and sculpture - he stipulated that it should be maintained 'as nearly as circumstances will admit' in the condition in which he left it.
Sometimes seen as the symbolic mausoleum of a man whose later life was marked by personal tragedy, the museum has become increasingly a place where past and present, tradition and modernity meet - appropriately enough in the masterwork of a man who was described back in the 1920s, when his reputation was being rescued from the neglect and misunderstanding of the Victorians, as 'the first modern English architect'. This dialogue has been a major theme in the work of the museum in the past decade, strongly encouraged by its curator since 1995, Margaret Richardson, who retires next year.
Richardson came to the museum in 1985 (from the RIBA Drawings Collection) as deputy to Peter Thornton (ex-V&A), who was appointed curator the previous year. 'It was a difficult time for the museum', she recalls.
Summerson, a revered historian, had retired after nearly 40 years in charge. 'There was no staff beyond the warders and ourselves, and just one typewriter.' Summerson's achievements as curator were considerable. Paid for three days' work a week, he spent most of his time in the museum, even appearing on Saturdays to give public tours. He succeeded in securing the first government grant for the museum - the endowment that Soane had left for its maintenance and to ensure that it could be open, as he insisted, free of charge had dwindled. For the first time, the museum could be opened on a daily basis. It now receives about £700,000 in annual grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
'Without the grant, we couldn't survive, ' says Richardson. 'But we still have to fundraise and generate income - we're always on something of a knife-edge financially.' Whatever other qualities her successor possesses, he or she must certainly be an effective chief executive, able to balance the books and convince government and private backers of the value of the museum's work. Back in the mid-1980s, the museum, which extends into number 12 and part of number 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields (both flanking houses are the work of Soane), was in poor physical condition. 'It leaked like a sieve, ' Richardson admits. Damaged in the war, it had been patched but was in need of comprehensive repair. A breakthrough came when property giant MEPC gave the museum £1 million over five years, with the government agreeing to match the donation. In 1990, architect Julian Harrap began a restoration programme that included the reinstatement of Soane's original interior decor, where it had been lost, as well as a vital repair of the street facade of number 13, which was in dire structural condition. Work on the three rear courtyards is nearing completion - the reconstruction of Soane's fanciful 'Pasticcio', dismantled as unsafe many years ago, was recently unveiled.
The opening of an exhibition gallery in number 12, designed by Eva Jiricna, was another advance. Previously the Soane had been unable to host visiting exhibitions, or to put on public show selections of the magnificent collection of drawings in its possession, including the archive of Robert Adam's office. Philip Powell, a long-serving and very active trustee, was instrumental in seeing the gallery project to fruition - 'he was a fantastic supporter, ' says Richardson. Exhibitions during Richardson's incumbency have ranged from several shows of Adam drawings to the work of Will Alsop and Daniel Libeskind and the current exhibition of the great 20thcentury Classicist Raymond Erith. Another recent treat has been the display of Alessi tea and coffee sets, designed by architects including Alsop, Hadid, Nouvel and Fuksas, in the main rooms of the museum - the counterpoint of the objects and their historic setting is 'like a treasure trail, ' says Richardson.
Her first retirement project is the completion of a major book on Lutyens, an architect whose work she has long championed. But she is a broad-minded spirit and no enthusiast for most contemporary Classical design. 'I would hate to see the museum promoting any one architectural style', she says. Soane, she points out, has inspired a remarkable variety of modern architects, Philip Johnson, Rafael Moneo, O M Ungers, Michael Graves and Richard MacCormac included. 'Architects love the Soane and we get lots of students here - for them, it's a living place, not a dead museum of the past.' The Soane has countless admirers but, unlike many well-loved small museums, no local community to support it.
The Lottery has been 'magnificent' in its support for the museum, says Richardson.
When number 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields came on the market in 1996, the museum seized the opportunity to acquire the third of Soane's houses, long used as offices. The lead was taken by the Sir John Soane's Museum Society, a supporters' organisation that has been instrumental in fund-raising, but with the bulk of the money coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund (also a generous backer of the courtyards project). By 2006, number 14 will contain an education centre, a new model gallery, additional seminar and study rooms and much-needed office space - some of the Soane's staff currently work in offices that are little more than large cupboards.
Add to Richardson's other achievements the fact that the first proper catalogues of the museum's collections are being produced, revealing the true significance of, for example, the medieval stained glass collected by Soane, and you realise the degree to which it has advanced in recent years as a scholarly institution as well as a visitor attraction. One spin-off of the ever-increasing interest in Soane's work that gives her particular satisfaction is the restoration of some of his long-neglected country houses, Pell Wall and Moggerhanger.
'This job is 100 per cent hands-on, ' she says.
An appointment is expected by Christmas but there is no doubt that Richardson will be a very hard act to follow.