Hidden treasures

While high-profile, big-ticket exhibitions generate lots of PR and much-needed income for museums, their permanent collections – the reason they were set up – often go unnoticed. Scott Billings looks at three attempts to redress this situation

The blockbuster museum exhibition has become something of a high-impact affair, a drama-filled, academic equivalent of its silver screen counterpart. Just as the Science Museum’s The Science of Aliens show drew on extra-terrestrial sci-fi excitement, the British Museum’s hugely popular Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master had all the allure of a sumptuous biopic.

In the glare of these temporary exhibitions, a museum’s permanent, unchanging collection of objects can seem relatively lacklustre, a dusty backroom to the main theatre. While museum funding remains scant and hotly fought over, opportunities to revive a permanent collection are few and far between. This means curators are often reluctant to take the risks they might with a temporary show. Yet it is these objects, and their stories, which form the very building blocks of a museum.

The idea that objects tell stories lies at the heart of most contemporary exhibition design, and given the chance to reinterpret a collection, curators and design consultancies will piece together narratives that weave objects, concepts and the physical space into a single, streamlined experience.

The £50m reconstruction of the UK’s oldest museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford, is currently the largest project of its kind in the UK, and is taking just this approach. A whole new edifice – designed by Rick Mather Architects in order to display its art and archaeology artefacts – has also permitted a radical rethink of the way the exhibitions are put together. The Ashmolean’s curatorial teams are working with Metaphor on a narrative journey – dubbed Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time – that will draw connections between the geographical span of the collections (principally Europe, Asia, parts of Africa and small areas of North America), as well as cutting across the museum’s departmental silos.

The Ashmolean’s head of antiquities, Dr Susan Walker, is closely involved in the redesign process. ‘A challenge is to reconcile two different traditions of museum presentation regarding how much information and context is displayed,’ she explains. ‘Historically, archaeology shows lots of contextual information, but art departments present objects as art in their own right, with very little or no interpretation. But there is a pressure to contextualise more, as we’re obliged by our funders to seek out new audiences.’

Metaphor will introduce a consistent graphic style throughout the museum for the first time and each floor will also house an ‘orientation gallery’, a kind of launch pad to the ideas and themes that visitors will discover in the gallery proper. Consultancy director Stephen Greenberg highlights the need to keep a permanent collection alive. ‘Visitors want to know at a profound level why they are in a museum – the opening area has to be powerful, visceral and emotional,’ he explains. ‘People will walk into the Ashmolean and see this great table, which starts with flints at one end and ends with greenhouses at the other. It spans cultures and time: depicting the development of sea trade, or journeys across the Silk Road.’

Meanwhile, a comparatively parochial collection, but one that will still have an undeniable resonance for designers, is to be redisplayed at the London Transport Museum this autumn, following a two-year, £20m refurbishment.

London Transport Museum director Sam Mullins has taken full advantage of Heritage Lottery Fund money and worked with Ralph Appelbaum Associates to deliver a repositioned and reinterpreted museum, looking to the future of transport, as well as its past. ‘It became clear that we couldn’t just be a history museum,’ he says. ‘To only show how [former London Transport chief executive] Frank Pick made trains work on time and look beautiful is not enough. We need to look at how transport makes London and other cities in the world work. To ignore the future would be a chance missed.’

At the centre of the exhibition – literally and metaphorically, according to Mullins – is a ‘jewel box’ of design heritage. By his own admission, design was handled ‘pretty poorly’ in the previous museum, although its role for London Transport now threads throughout. A dedicated design gallery, curated by David Worthington, targets the art and design community as a new audience group for the museum.

Developed with RAA, the London Transport Museum scheme is narrative-led. So much so, says Mullins, that the objects themselves come a close second to the stories they illustrate. ‘I think we are changing the nature of what a narrative museum can be, by looking to the future,’ he explains. ‘This means we have to be more savvy to what’s going on around us, much of which is very political. I want to be a venue for the big transport debate.’

The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, east London, reopened its Time Galleries last year, following part of a £15m display overhaul by design groups Casson Mann and Thomas Matthews. Here, the primary aim was to retell the story of genius clock maker John Harrison’s endeavours to solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea. The new design offers a picture of the thousands of lives lost to the oceans through mis-navigation as a dramatic contextual backdrop.

‘Ultimately, we had to find a balance in the design,’ says Casson Mann associate Jon Williams. ‘It had to have impact and encourage the visitor to look at familiar objects afresh. We looked for a design solution that both responded to and underpinned the narrative and subject.’

The LT Museum, London, reopens this autumn and the Ashmolean in Oxford reopens in autumn 2009. The Time Galleries reopened at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 2006, and a new addition to the museum, the Space Gallery, opened on 21 May

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