Natural progression

The Natural History Museum has never had it so good since the Earth Galleries opened. And its success has had a knock-on effect all round, reports Liz Farrelly

Reeling from its busiest August on record, when more than 270 000 people visited the institution which looks after all things animal, vegetable and mineral, the Natural History Museum has hit a gold mine. The Earth Galleries opened on 20 July, with the promise of “an exciting new museum experience”. What is a 12m transformation of the fusty Geology Museum, where neat piles of sand and rock gathered from every shire of the British Isles were artlessly arranged in glass-topped cases, has considerably upped the stakes around South Kensington’s museum hinterland.

Out with the paper labels and snoozing security guards, and welcome to the future. Figures of man, from Greek mythology to the Space Age, introduce the themes of the gallery. Atop glowing, crackled glass plinths, surrounded by slate walls and sandblasted with a giant map of the solar system, these line a pathway to the two-storey escalator ascending through a rotating globe of copper, bronze, zinc and steel. And that’s just the Visions of Earth entrance atrium. From the second storey, visitors work their way through galleries which include volcano and earthquake experiences – the latter a simulation of a Kobe supermarket during the 1995 earthquake in Japan.

Spokespeople for the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum stress that the big-leaguers aren’t in competition. As visitors often pack a number of museums into a day’s excursion, the fall-out from one museum’s success boosts the entire area. The Science Museum “surpassed its target for August”, and the V&A had an “exceptionally good month”, attracting just under 200 000 visitors thanks to William Morris, its most popular temporary exhibition in 50 years. And while last year’s Star Trek show at the Science Museum was an undoubted crowd-pleaser, making it the most popular of the South Kensington museums, according to the British Tourist Association, the Natural History Museum is now nosing ahead of the pack.

Attendance figures have almost doubled since the opening of the Earth Galleries. That the museum can pull in around 8000 visitors a day, to while away about four hours within the hallowed confines of Alfred Waterhouse’s terracotta cathedral, is an exceptional achievement. Forget the rival museums, the real threats come from the sensory overload of Hollywood, hyped theme-parks and recreational shopping, from Disney, Alton Towers, Oxford Street and the new Segaworld.

So how has the Natural History Museum achieved this enviable position as one of the world’s most popular museums? Well, according to Dr Giles Clarke, head of exhibitions and education, it’s to do with atmosphere, a commodity the museum was distinctly lacking before the management discovered design. The turning point came with human biology. The scientists and curators were busy concentrating on the exhibits, and working with an in-house team of designers, but they’d neglected to consider the space of the gallery. The result was a tepid, badly-lit, static experience. That was ten years ago, and they were determined never to make the same mistake again.

Jumping forward to 1991, the next large-scale gallery refit, on the opening of the Ecology Gallery, heard audible gasps of surprise echoed around not only the museum world, but also the design industry. The bold intervention of Ian Ritchie’s glass canyon, married with exhibition designer Neal Potter’s displays, realised in a myriad of media, smacked of Parisian grands projets, and at first glance seemed wholly inappropriate for its Victorian surroundings. But the scale suited the gothic height, the critics were stunned and the public was hooked.

With an uncanny sense of timing the Natural History Museum’s Dinosaur Gallery opened in mid-1992, during the build-up of Jurassic Park fever in the US. Designed by the late Ron Herron and Imagination, the gallery combined another spectacular architectural structure – a walkway reminiscent of a huge skeletal backbone. On display were fossilised bones, animatronics – including the cutest sleeping, baby dinosaur imaginable – and lots of hands-on buttons to push and levers to pull. But the element which makes the Dinosaur Gallery so engrossing is the story, told in the crispest language with the clearest of visuals by Imagination’s writers and graphic designers.

In considering how to enliven the museum experience, the management had realised that mixing unique, extraordinary specimens with spectacle was the answer. Exhibits would be displayed in distinctive, sensorially enhanced surroundings, with each gallery interior tailored to the subject matter, creating a variety of spaces. The visitor is tempted to try the complete range of experiences on offer.

By way of a total contrast to the showmanship of the previous two installations, the Primates and Plant Power exhibitions, which both opened in the summer of 1993, offered calmer, more contemplative experiences. In both galleries the existing fabric of the building was rediscovered – the stained glass windows and mosaic floors – and then combined with complimentary materials, an ecologically sound wooden floor, bronze, glass and stone. Primates, designed by architect Pawson Williams, includes commissioned artworks by cartoonist Ralph Steadman and musician Brian Eno, while sculptor David Begbie’s wire-mesh reliefs remind the visitor that we still share basic characteristics with other primates.

Aware of the difficulties of displaying plants, Clarke took a bold step and commissioned photographer Nick Knight to compose computer-manipulated studies of plants. Displayed as graphic panels and designed by Peter Saville Associates, the accompanying text describes the significance of each plant featured.

“Our objective is to ensure that people become more enthusiastic about natural history after their visit,” says Clarke. The design team has a crucial role to play at every stage of the game, from writing the gallery’s “script” and choosing the visual vehicles for each message, to planning the “route through”. Along with these requirements come the practical limitations. While a scheme must be “forward looking”, it has to be legible and indestructible to the grade one listed building and relevant to an audience which ranges from toddlers to grandparents.

As exhibitions are pitched at an average visitor – “the interested layperson, over 15, who will be capable of dealing with abstract concepts” – how do the planners ensure that the message is hitting home, and that there’s enough variety to keep the younger and more learned visitors stimulated? The answer?

Tireless observation of the various species.

By way of surveys, questionnaires, focus groups and simply watching, the staff have got to know their public. Apart from the big hint which the near total absence of visitors to the Geology Museum must have given them, it was through asking visitors about their perception of geology and the earth sciences which led to the recent radical rethink. The overwhelming reaction was that it was dull, dry and irrelevant to everyday life. But when staff replied, “it’s about the most powerful forces in nature, it’s spectacular”, the public reacted positively, and the potential of the subject matter with which they were dealing began to dawn.

Neal Potter, an exhibition designer with experience of both the commercial sector and the museum world, was part of the team working on the Earth Galleries. His company designed and co-ordinated the atrium, working with seven sub-contractors and an engineer. The scale of the whole undertaking could have turned into a nightmare, but for the clarity of the brief and the extra level of co-ordination which came from senior museum staff: Clarke; head of exhibition research and design Dr Robert Bloomfield; and Malcolm McBratney, who was responsible for construction.

Says Potter: “The Natural History Museum knows what its objectives are, from communications, marketing and scientific viewpoints, but it also expects the design team to bring it all together.” With a clearly defined brief, but the freedom to realise it in their own way, designers build a multi-disciplinary team, to produce spaces and narratives which convey complex ideas. A challenge, certainly, but one which has produced some of the most innovative and rewarding modern museum experiences anywhere on this planet.

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