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The museum question

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technical & practice

This five-page special feature asks whether modern museums are having an identity crisis. Four essays explore how museums should respond to charges of elitism and the need for relevance Admittedly, museums seem to be flourishing: more museums are opening, more people are attending but still many of those in the 'museum world' seem to be undergoing a crisis of confidence. What, they ask, is a museum really for? It is a question that is exercising many established institutions today - how do you make such an elitist concept 'relevant' to the general public?

Nowadays, these cultural institutions are often promoted as places of organised public interaction - civic spaces rather than seats of learning. One of the most talked about aspects of Tate Modern, for example, is its attendance figures. This type of barometer of a successful gallery has been taken up forcibly by the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead.

High visitor numbers are proudly, and regularly, announced, presumably to indicate the Geordies' new-found love of obscurantist Scandinavian performance artists.

Driven by business plans and practical economic considerations, this fetishised visitor number crunching is understandable as an accounting procedure, or even as a grant application technique, but it is surely not permissible as a true indication of real engagement.Marketing opportunities such as the Bond exhibition at the Science Museum or Versace at the V&A, for example, are promoted as ways of getting more people into museums - people that would otherwise not normally attend. But do we really need the buffer - why not confidently promote the cultural and historic importance of the institutions' core artefacts?

Enlightened opinion

The British Museum in London, Britain's first national public museum, celebrates its 250th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, it will be holding a 'festival of festivals', the focal point of which will be its autumn exhibition in the newly restored King's Library entitled, 'Enlightenment: Rethinking the world in the 18th century'. The exhibition will explore the way that Europeans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries perceived the world.

It is fitting to remember the universalist intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment at the very time that museums themselves seem to have lost their way. This AJ special report includes four key commentators in the field, each addressing what they see as the most important issues that should be considered in museum design.

Julian Spalding, author of The Poetic Museum, recognises the dilemma that museums are in, but suggests that 'museums are no longer dispensers of truth and beauty'. For a museum to engage with its clientele, he suggests that it should reinforce the validity of the visitor's relative interpretation of both.

Josie Appleton, author of Museums for 'The People' and contributor to spiked, puts forward a concise plea for the primacy of the artefact. Given that this is the historic core function - almost the definition - of a museum, this should not really be controversial.

However, she concludes with a critical sideswipe at those who see museums as an 'excuse for architecture going against the grain of a museum's collection'.

Katherine Skellon of Land Design Studios, a company that professes a 'fascination for the power and potential of the narrative', takes a practical approach. She defends the importance of 'real' objects as the centrepiece of the museum collection - but suggest that they can be enhanced by appropriate presentation technology. Citing her work at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, such intervention, she posits, is to help 'interpret meaning.'

Tiffany Jenkins is the director of the arts and society programme at the Institute of Ideas. In her essay she condemns the rise of the 'experiential' or 'immersive' exhibition. These, she argues, avoid intellectual engagement except on the most trivial level. Admitting that we all have subjective responses to exhibits, she criticises the manipulative processes employed by many so-called interactive displays.

Terms of debate

The questions under discussion are:

Is the museum 'experience' a sanitary one? Do we need to 'engage' people and, if so, how? Should people be led, or left to their own devices?

What role is there for architecture in the visitor/gallery/museum experience? Should content take priority over presentation?

Should museums and galleries be made relevant or should they proudly flaunt their exclusivity? Is there necessarily a distinction between imposing architecture or inviting architecture?

People attend Bilbao's Guggenheim as much to see the architecture as the exhibition; and have not people visited Frank Lloyd Wright's New York Guggenheim for the past 50 years for the same reason - and then been drawn in to see the exhibits?

Captivating people - is this not one of the functions of design? Is there something different in the current debate? Has the role of design been overplayed?

Museums and galleries now seem to be the automatic response to calls for urban regeneration. Art for art's sake is seldom heard - rather, art and architecture must prove their worth, by displaying their social, economic and therapeutic benefits as a justification for their existence. They seem to have become value-engineered spaces. The following essays are the start of an enquiry into whether this is legitimate or healthy. We welcome readers' comments.

Collaborative processes

A designer of museum exhibitions gives her views on the importance of the object; and of enhancing the object As non-charging national museums throughout this country compete to bring in the numbers, their task in attracting visitors remains a difficult one due to society's ever-evolving fascination and desire for all things new.

The new museum or visitor centre has to work extra hard in offering a unique and original experience that can't be accessed through the classroom, the Internet, interactive TV or other entertainment modes.

At Land Design Studio, we recognise, in the past 10 years, a transition in museums, and it is our responsibility to track trends and to cater for this glut of Lottery-based (and other) projects, while reinventing new ways of delivering information to an increasingly demanding public.

Substance is surely key to the issue. Too often within exhibitions, galleries, museums, etc, the architecture or the scenic treatment, the graphic or interactive interpretation take over, leaving the real objects behind. Even when there is no tangible collection of objects but a story to be told, this can be shrouded in peripheral layers leaving the visitor questioning - lacking the relevant information. People like real things, and looking at a real object cannot be beaten. Despite being overloaded with a constant stream of data, information and knowledge in our daily lives, our fascination for real stories past, present and future is thriving.

Engaging the visitor

Engagement of the visitor on a macro and micro scale is vital. From the outset and preferably together with the client, being able to determine the strategy and to create the organising principle is a fundamental part of the process in producing a successful experience that works.

As designers for the newly opened National Maritime Museum Cornwall, for example, working with the client and the architects, we set about looking at how the museum should work physically as a building, an exhibition and as a sustainable visitor destination. Due to the number of large objects to be displayed, we created an exhibition display system that knits into the building yet allows the museum to shut down and rotate its collection on an annual basis, thus encouraging repeat visitors and writing into its business plan a form of engagement on a macro scale.

We believe in harnessing people's fascination with real 'things'; displaying the object in its true form, whilst supporting it by a number of means such as graphics, AV software, interactivity, all working to enhance its relevance. On a more micro scale of engagement, we have developed a device whereby a precious or conservation-controlled object displayed in its case can be investigated using a form of digital interface appropriate to that object. The visitor can access a virtual object by using the digital image file, making it possible to manipulate the image, zoom in or spin around.

A 19th century football is brought to life with background materials that describe its origins; a fossilized bird can have its story told. A selected feature in a landscape beyond the gallery space can be 'sucked in' virtually and its meaning explained using interpretation inside the building.

Even in many of today's newest museums and visitor centres, we are still being bombarded with unoriginal, over-stylised and over-designed ways of presenting a story that only cloud the real issues or cover up the lack of knowledge or view taken by those responsible for showing us these objects and stories. Give us the real thing without the shallow layers surrounding it.

Architectural role

The architect's solution is undoubtedly key to the visitor experience. There is nothing wrong in visitors going to see a landmark building as the big attractor for the experience as long as the content serves its purpose and the two work together. There are many examples where this is clearly not the case and should be critically addressed.

Libeskind's Jewish Museum is a classic example of how an extraordinary and fascinating piece of architecture that sets up an impeccable narrative is let down so badly on the inside. Clearly, the designers responsible for the exhibition have not known how to engage with the building at all - resulting in showcases and graphic panels standing awkwardly in cranked angular corridors, and circulation spaces that are frustrating even when the museum is not that busy. This is an extreme example, but similar problems can be spotted in any number of projects.

Understanding the visitor sequence and circulation through a public building, setting up a clear organising principle, is key to the visitor's experience. Our early collaboration with architect Long & Kentish on the NMMC has resulted in a building that is friendly and engaging to the public whether they follow the prescribed route or wander randomly. From the entrance lobby to the shop on the way out, the spaces are a series of diverse events that knit together as immersive, interpretative or emotional environments, making it hard to see where the building stops and exhibition starts.

Ultimately, good museum design is about striking a balance.

Katherine Skellon is associate director at Land Design Studio. Tel 020 8742 1712 Artefacts or arty fiction?

Should museums give visitors an 'experience' or should they be provided with a deeper, intellectual interpretation?

While its new Falmouth facility opens on the edge of the Cornish waterfront, it is the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, in the heart of London, which is saturated in the sounds of the sea. Visitors cannot avoid the taperecorded effects of waves breaking, sailors shouting or the creaking of ships' boughs. It is enough to make you sea-sick. Much of the space is spotlit, with many galleries in darkness so that the visitor has to squint to see the exhibits and strain to understand the disjointed voices.

Recent exhibitions in many museums have put an emphasis on the space and atmosphere. At London's Imperial War Museum in 'The 1940s House' is a living room enhanced by wartime music and lit as if it were dusk; The Trench makes reference to phosgene and mustard gas. During 'The Big Picture' show at the IMW North, the sparse metallic gallery uses sound and film to plunge the visitor into an encounter where no peace can be found.

These exhibitions are part of an development in museums internationally known as experiential or immersive, and it is the architecture as much as the exhibits that indulges this trend. The idea is that institutions avoid a rational dialogue that communicates with the visitor cerebrally, connecting instead in a sensory and emotional fashion. It is a mockery of how we understand things meaningfully; and a major wrong turn in the battle over the future of museums. It has developed out of a collapsing trust in the audience and a lack of confidence in the material - the former are being patronised and the latter are being downgraded.

Back in Greenwich, the sound of firing guns and shouting, while trying to concentrate on Turner's 'The Battle ofTrafalgar', is less than helpful.What can recreated yelps do that Turner's whirlwind of brush strokes cannot?

Indeed the intended effect seems to be to distract the visitor from the action on the canvas. Meanwhile, tucked away at the very back of a case in the far corner, is a piece of the HMS Victory with an embedded cannon ball.

This really could bring the battle to life but you are directed elsewhere.

The 'experiential museum' belittles what it is meant to represent.

The worst offender is the highly applauded Holocaust Museum in Washington DC by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Through the use of architectural elements, it attempts to get visitors to come into contact with the Holocaust and face the atrocity 'firsthand'. Design architect Freed says that he wanted a 'visceral response'.

Large metal frames projecting inward greet you at the entrance and are supposed to bring to mind the steel gates of Auschwitz. Flattened brick arches are intended to prompt an association with crematorium entrances.

The differences in room shape are designed to have an effect on psychological perceptions. We are supposed to feel insignificant, insecure, confined and isolated. The experience is didactic and hollow. At best, it is representative architecture at its most literal; but there is something insidious about mimicking what it felt like during the holocaust. The historic human tragedy is not something we can role-play at.

This is not to say we cannot understand the Holocaust's gravity and specificity, but it is hindered by the designed manipulation of our senses which paralyses our ability to look, listen and make our own connections.

It scuppers a thoughtful approach - trying to shortcut it with emotion.

But surely we are not so shallow as to be unable to understand the historical details without special effects.

Museums have always had an agenda despite the admirable quest for truth and objectivity.However, historically, they did not tell people what to feel. Facts and opinion can be contested; the interpretation of a painting can be disputed; but it is more difficult to disagree after being told how to feel and when to emote. These lessons can only be obvious and banal.

The 'experiential museum' directs our attention away from understanding the period or artefact and turns the attention on the visitor who is asked simply to consider how they feel and think. Not what happened, how and what does this object say and tell us? The object and the history are lost. The moody museum is about the self not the world.

Museums, their architecture and their content, are turning their back on explaining things, setting out the facts and displaying the object.

Instead, confusion is celebrated and the collection obscured. The focus on feelings is an exercise in self-flattery using the past to make us feel like good moral people. This is just a destructive vanity and vaunts a Dark Age for the museum.

Tiffany Jenkins is the director of the arts and society programme at the Institute of Ideas. Contact 020 7269 9227 Beautiful and true?

William Morris said we should have nothing in our houses that we don't believe to be beautiful. How do we make that judgement?

Museums used to know what they were about - the pursuit of enlightenment. As a result, they knew what they should look like - Greek temples. But you won't find any museums built with Classical facades today. Many of them - the Pompidou Centre, the Pyramid at the Louvre, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Jewish Museum in Berlin - have become the visual icons of our age, so much so that they are often referred to as modernday cathedrals. But, if they are, it is not at all clear what are they in praise of.

Curators today can no longer expect the public to be automatically interested in what they collect and show. Time was when a dinosaur bone would draw the crowds. But who wants to see dead things in a museum when computer animation can now bring extinct beasts to life in your living room? If museums don't find a new role for their collections, heritage theme-parks and interactive educational attractions will take centre stage, as they have already begun to do, and the many wonderful things our ancestors preserved for us will remain safely tucked up in storage, benefiting noone bar the occasional scholar.

This would be a sad loss, because museums contain countless artefacts that have endless potential to interest not just the well-informed but the public at large. No virtual simulation or material replica can ever supplant the sensation of looking at the actual paint Leonardo himself applied to a canvas, or an actual pair of shoes taken from a victim of the Holocaust. Genuine artefacts, when imaginatively interpreted, can offer vivid and often surprising insights into the past.

Architects can help museums achieve this goal. After all, they can, if so minded, stimulate our visual awareness. The downside of the Enlightenment was that, as we understood the mysteries of creation, the wonder was drained from the world we can see around us. A key task facing museums today is to help restore wonder to our jaded gaze. This aim needs to be included in every architectural brief for a new museum.

So far, the challenge of heightening awareness has only found superficial expression in architecture.

As tourist attractions, new museums need to be eye-catching. But museums preserve those artefacts whose meaning is supposed to be lasting.

The celebration of lasting visual meaning has not found architectural expression to date. In fact it is almost as if, in many cases, museum architects despise the artefacts their buildings are designed to contain.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim in New York is architecture's revenge on art. How else can one explain a gallery designed to display paintings and sculpture in which all the walls curve and floors all slope? The foyer spaces of Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin are a sculptural tour-deforce, but its elongated, cramped exhibition galleries are execrable. No wonder it took the curators two years to work out how to use them. It is amazing that their needs were not part of the brief, but this museum, like his 'Spiral' for the V&A, was designed from the outside in. There are two failures here: the failure of architects to serve the needs of collections; and the failure of curators to ensure that they do.

The most notorious example of this curatorial timidity was the Tate's decision not to build a new museum for its Modern collections, but to convert the Bankside power station instead. This was not the cheap option - the Guggenheim in Bilbao cost half as much to build as Bankside did to convert - the decision was purely curatorial. Sir Nicholas Serota argued that Tate Modern would be 'a better museum' than the Guggenheim. He did not trust architects, or his ability to brief them, to create a new museum of modern art for our age, even though architecture has made such an exciting contribution to contemporary visual culture.

Tate Modern and the Bilbao Guggenheim are, in one way, very similar. Oddly old fashioned as museums, they each require obeisance. There is an important issue here: museums today need to treat their visitors as equals, not as acolytes.

Truth and beauty are much more relative than they once were, though still vital to mankind's well-being.

Museums are no longer dispensers of truth and beauty, but now need to invite their visitors to join them in the search for truth and beauty. This will require both the curator and the architect to work together to attract visitors in and, once there, hold and develop their interest. The interior of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington prepares you emotionally for the displays (though its exterior remains just a bland block in the capital). The intriguingly beautiful exterior of Marianne Dählbuck and Görån Mansson's Vasa Museum in Stockholm beckons you across the harbour, hinting at the wonders within. These indicate a different dawn.

The new age of museum building has barely begun.

Julian Spalding is the author of The Poetic Museum, Prestel, March 2002, and The Eclipse of Art, Prestel, forthcoming (March 2003) Collective values Is it legitimate to build a museum without knowing its content, and how then do designers cater for travelling exhibitions?

It is no coincidence that museum architecture and design are experiencing a heady boom at the very time that 'the museum' itself is suffering from an identity crisis.

Every few months, it seems, another new museum project hits the headlines. During the past couple of years we have had Tate Modern, Imperial War Museum North, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Natural History Museum extensions, and the British Museum's Great Court.

In the pipeline are Daniel Libeskind's spiral extension for the Victoria and Albert Museum and a new National Gallery building.

This museum-building frenzy can be seen across Europe and America.

After seeing what the new Guggenheim did for the industrial wasteland of Bilbao, many cities hope that they will be next. Guggenheim is not just an art gallery. It is a brand that can be drawn up and transplanted around the globe, for an immediate buzz .

New museum exhibitions place design and special effects centre stage.

But all this enthusiasm for a visitor 'experience' around museum artefacts has its origin in a disenchantment with these artefacts themselves. There is an assumption among many in the museum world that artefacts and art cannot inform and inspire on their own. The real things that museums are built to house - paintings, Greek statues, stuffed animals - are seen as old-fashioned and dull.

But, actually, the frenetic building activity that gives museums an appearance of dynamism springs from this crisis of faith at the institution's core. The museum of the 21st century is all about image and mood simply because it is no longer convinced about the value of its contents.

New projects such as the Baltic Centre and the Jewish Museum in Berlin became famous before they had anything much in them. Collections become an excuse for architecture.

Admittedly collections are the formal reason for why a museum building needs to exist, but they remain incidental to the project.

Museum buildings that place the precedent on architecture detract from their contents. The Guggenheim Museum in New York houses its Picassos, Matisses and Cezannes in a low-ceilinged circular room; the paintings are obstructed by columns, but, suffice to say, there is a nice view down into the shop. The movie show in the Imperial War Museum North is very atmospheric, but it also means that visitors are unable to see exhibits for 10 minutes out of every half hour.

By taking this approach, museums are undermining their main asset. The wonder of the real thing remains the only thing that makes a museum a museum, rather than any other stylish new building. These real things, in all their splendour, strangeness and variety, do still hold an attraction for the public at large. I never visit the main Egyptian galleries at the British Museum in the daytime because you can't get anywhere near the statues because of the crowds. The recent Aztec exhibition at the Royal Academy has people queuing around the block. It is the Mona Lisa, not the glass pyramid, that attracts visitors to the Louvre.With the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, for example, it is the other way around - there, the building is everything.

Maybe that is why visitors to the Baltic stay for only 40 minutes But going against the grain of a museum's collection is also bad for museum architecture and for design itself. The best architecture is that which seeks to bring out and enhance the building's core function, rather than ignoring or trying to distract from it.Museum architects that begin from a strong sense of the value of the building's contents work to the good of both.

Think of the Natural History Museum in London, with animals and plants moulded into its elegant design. The building draws its beauty from the collection that it was built to house. The Greek columns of the British Museum, meanwhile, speak of the Enlightenment's pride in its national storehouse of knowledge.

Of course, museums of today cannot just mimic those of the past.

Doric columns might have worked for the 1830s but they would look insincere coming from 2003. Museum buildings today need to find their own ways of drawing upon and enhancing their collections. There are no right or wrong ways to do this - but architects should start their work from a point of appreciation of the museum's artefacts. The collection is not an inconvenience for the building - it is its point.

A side-room extension housing the arts of Oceania at New York's Metropolitan Museum gives an indication of how this might be done. A row of totem poles is placed in front of a long, narrow canoe. The ceiling of the building rises up to a point above the totem poles, then plummets down behind the canoe. This is a building formed around the objects - the function of the walls is to enhance the size and spiritual power of these carvings.

Both architecture and art benefit from this cooperation.

Josie Appleton is the author of 'Museums for 'The People''. Contact 020 7269 9230

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