The relationship between a museum’s collection, its architecture and visitors has come a long way over the past three centuries.
The first museums began as the private collections of wealthy families and institutions or as so-called ‘cabinets of curiosity’ housing rare or obscure objects collected from across the globe. In the 18th century, the rise of Enlightenment ideals saw some of these private collections open to the public.
These openings inspired a string of similar moves in the century that followed, aimed at a wider audience than just a wealthy elite. In 1848, for example, Warrington Museum in the North West of England opened, becoming one of the first purpose-built museums in the country.
Today, the museum has evolved to become much more than an educational hub or a storage house for art and artefacts. The museum is now viewed as a cultural and social cornerstone of communities - a complex space that reflects the society, culture, politics and schools of thought that have helped shape them. Today’s museums invite their audiences to meaningfully engage with their shared heritage, provoking debate, contextualising the world in which we live and enabling learning.
This has had an impact on the way in which architects approach museum design in several ways.
In contrast to early museums, which were generally defined as places for veneration and quiet contemplation, today’s museums, have evolved to become spaces for immersion into powerful new experiences, venues for storytelling, and forums for discourse, aimed at a wider and more diverse audience.
Architecture has an important role to play in helping museums create three-dimensional, immersive experiences from both designs of the design spectrum.
On one hand, the architecture of a museum can provide the spatial backdrop for an engaging museum visit. This might take the form of the ‘set piece’ architecture – take the Great Western Warehouse at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum, for example – where the building itself becomes an artefact, allowing the visitor to explore the visions and ideals of the past, while intertwining almost symbiotically with the collections and stories within.
Great Western Warehouse at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum
At the other end of the spectrum, architecture can be used to help generate powerful moments for the visitor. For instance, the contemporary architectural envelope of the Imperial War Museum North – designed to appear as though the globe has been shattered and then reassembled – both adds to the impact of the stories being told, while also providing calm, contemplative spaces that allows the visitor to reflect on the museum’s often challenging subject manner.
Fundamentally, modern museums are places of exploration, so good museum design must make the act of exploration at once rewarding and accessible. The design of the routes through the building and the physical properties of the exhibition space themselves can also go a long way in creating engaging museum visits by giving people the power to tailor their visits to their needs and interests.
This might involve adapting a building’s circulation to create new paths for discovery that move away from the traditional linear and prescriptive route, or by designing flexible spaces geared to support a range of different exhibitions from traditional object displays to performance art. These design considerations can help stimulate a visitor’s curiosity by offering a new experience at every turn, helping audiences to develop new perspectives and start new discussions - whether it’s their first or tenth visit.
The Living World's Gallery at Manchester Museum
The ‘Third Space’
While creating engaging and educational experiences still sits at the heart of the museum’s mission, over the years its function has stretched beyond simply hosting exhibitions to play a more varied role within the community. Good museums are now also viewed as a 'third space'; detached from work and home life, offering another forum for people to congregate and engage with each other.
From school workshops, social events to weddings, community activity within the museum is common place and reflects its important civic function in today’s world. Accordingly, the architecture needs to recognise that people are as much as part of the identity of the modern museum as the collections it contains.
As such, the role of the architect is to ensure that the museum can accommodate and be flexible enough to perform a wide range of roles for the community. There are many ways to achieve this flexibility and much depends on the nature of the audience, collection and the stories being told.
Most often this will involve providing spaces which can be readily accessible outside of normal museum opening hours, designing spaces that can be adapted for a wide range of uses with minimal need for adjustments, and incorporating quality services infrastructure. Such designs allow museums to be civic spaces beyond their opening hours, generating interaction with an even broader audience.
Norton Priory Museum and Gardens
The Museum of the Future
As we look to the future, we are likely to see museums forge even deeper relationships with their audiences both through their collections and as community spaces.
The museum of tomorrow will be an extension of their communities and will put a greater emphasis on delivering value to the groups that they serve through the provision of improved educational, civic and leisure spaces. With the current policy emphasis on reinvigorating the high street, museums are uniquely placed to bring their civic role closer to the communities they serve.
As museum professionals prepare to enter the next phase of museum development, our role as designers will be to support this evolution and create spaces that continue to inspire, support, educate and embrace audiences.
Stephen Anderson is a director at Manchester-based architects Buttress.