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'My heart persuaded me to move the Museum of London to Smithfield'

Sharon Ament, director, Museum of London
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Director of the Museum of London, Sharon Ament, tells the AJ of her hopes for the institute’s new home in West Smithfield market

When did you become aware of the possibility you could move from your home in the Barbican into Smithfield?
We started discussing the prospect of relocating from London Wall to West Smithfield late in 2014 - we also considered redevelopment on our existing site at London Wall. A very detailed site options appraisal convinced my head, but alongside all of the analysis that showed that West Smithfield was a potentially very viable option, it was my heart that really persuaded me.

There’s something magical about those buildings and the prospect of being in a very dynamic environment next to a working wholesale meat market. Personally, I can’t think of a better place for the Museum of London than West Smithfield. It will inhabit buildings that feel like they could have been made for a museum. 

The museum deserves a better sense of arrival

Is there anything you are going to find hard to leave behind?
There’s a clue in the name of our present location, London Wall, it’s going to be hard to leave that behind, after all it defined London for thousands of years, and for that matter also defined Smithfield or Smooth Field which existed as a gathering and market in what was then outside of the City. By being outside of the City it flourished. Whilst London Wall has been a fitting home for us since 1976, the only museum properly dedicated to London deserves a better a sense of arrival, more exhibition space and better back office facilities, the ratio between back of house and front of house space is out of proportion because of the contorted nature of our building, wrapping round Iron Mongers hall as it does and hiding behind a roundabout.

Our visitors want a museum that’s easily accessible. What’s fabulous is that our content is magnificent, so that when you actually find your way into our London Wall site, visitors are enraptured and there’s much more of that which we want to put on display in West Smithfield. 

What kind can of spaces are you hoping to create at Smithfield?
Astounding, evocative, surprising and human-scale spaces that bring you directly into contact with London. We are asking designers to reflect the site’s evolution from a place of physical exchange to a culture and knowledge exchange. In doing so we will hope to create a museum that will resonate with Londoners to become a place of hyper-engagement, perhaps into the night, after all, we will be in Smithfield, one of London’s most 24 hour spaces. New ways of engaging digitally minded visitors, as well as those with an analogical, bent will feature strongly, representing London as the world’s most inventive, creative capital. 

We’ll address heritage issues with great sensitivity

How are you going to address the heritage issues given the vehement opposition to previous plans for the site?
With great sensitivity, taking people along with us. In seeking a site which fits the museum’s profile, there could hardly be a more resonant, quintessentially ‘London’ site than West Smithfield. The area was first settled as part of Roman London, and it speaks to the capital’s working and social history, as well as to its modern incarnation: fashionable, sociable, design loving and ever-changing. What was a market, a place of physical exchange, will now become a culture and knowledge exchange where people are inspired by, and connect to, London. In reimagining this nationally significant landmark, we have the opportunity to combine historic Smithfield with 21st century elements to create a powerful identity for the museum through architecture which is vital and memorable. 

What do you want in an architect for this project?
Our brief to architects will be to conceive a new superlative museum with an exquisite and charismatic identity, combining historic West Smithfield with contemporary interventions - we think we will recognise what we want when we see the responses. 

What don’t you want?
It is important that neither we, nor our partners in this project, close our mind to any possibility. Our relocation gives us a once in a generation opportunity to rethink what it means to be a modern museum for London ie the worlds true global city. That doesn’t happen very often, so we are very conscious of those who will come after us, the people who will be working here but mostly the researchers, visitors, school groups, tourists who we hope will be captivated by our new place. Therefore we enter this project with an entirely open mind and ask all of our partners in creating a new Museum of London to do so as well. 

Are you interested in hearing from smaller, up-and-coming architects – perhaps even those from overseas?
Very much so. This is an international design competition and we strongly encourage both emerging and seasoned practices to enter. We’ve shown sympathy to emerging designers by setting a relatively low turnover threshold of £2 million (in relation to project value). We also welcome collaborations between architects. 

Do you have any top tips for those entering the contest?
Understand London and think London.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Chris Rogers

    You might usefully have questioned Ament on why, if "a better a sense of arrival" was important at the current site, the street-level entrance originally promised in the recent remodelling was quietly abandoned and, if "more exhibition space" was another goal, why a vast amount of space in the same scheme is wasted in the emptiness of the Sackler Hall, café and City Gallery. It’s pretty clear that they weredesigned primarily for corporate entertaining and events and, whilst I understand the need for this as a source of funds, I do wonder why some demountable exhibits could have been included to make the most of the space when not in use for this purpose.

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