Successful museums need more than cash

The Earth Galleries have not only provided London with a great new party venue – as those celebrating Design Week’s ten year birthday last week can attest. They’ve given the popular Natural History Museum an extra boost (see feature, page 14).

It’s a classic case of creative curating and design coming together to give the people what they want – knowledge combined with fun. And it’s something both the Natural History and Science museums have put high on their agendas in recent years, with memorable results.

Significantly, the big London museums have achieved much of this without help from the National Lottery. The Earth Galleries did attract cash from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but the Lottery wasn’t in place when most other new galleries were mooted. Their success is due to the clear objectives of the in-house team and their commitment to using outstanding designs to enhance the visitor’s experience.

But Lottery funds are now there to be tapped, and many a museum is set to revive plans put on hold for years through lack of cash. Clearly museum projects can’t go ahead without funding, but nor can they hope to succeed without long-term commitment of ideas and resources.

Take the La Villette science and technology museum in Paris. Opened in a blaze of glory in the mid-Eighties as one of the late President Mitterrand’s grands projets, the converted abattoir still attracts the crowds. But how much is this due to the delights of the surrounding parkland rather than the museum? The integrity of the exhibits within the massive space isn’t always intact; some have been changed, but many have lost their appeal, and clever features such as the external greenhouses and the light-sensitive “eyes” set in the roof just don’t work.

Millions of francs were thrown at La Villette, and it enjoyed Government patronage. But despite the building’s innovative design by a host of international stars, it hasn’t lived up to its expectations. A stronger vision and better management is clearly what it takes.

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