Making an exhibition

With more and more choices for our leisure time, museums and galleries need to shout loud to gain any attention. Design Week looks at how three museums are planning to make the most of themselves

Tate Gallery

The Tate Gallery, emphasises Damien Whitmore, its communications director, is not the Guggenheim. It is not an empire-building private museum, but a public collection. “The Tate won’t create galleries around the world. We are a part of British culture, though we have global manifestations,” he says. The Tate is a recognised brand, though, and the brand is actively under review. A report from Wolff Olins into the Tate’s identity is expected in October.

Outside Whitmore’s office, the muffled sound of drilling and hammering bears witness to the least well known of the Tate’s grand projects: the 32m remodelling of a huge section of the gallery’s 1897 Millbank base to turn it into the Tate Gallery of British Art. Architects John Miller and Su Rogers, who first worked for the Tate’s director Nicholas Serota years ago when he was in charge of the Whitechapel Gallery, and who have recently completed the revamp of the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, are operating here on a grand scale.

Yet the Millbank operation gets very little publicity – unlike its sister enterprise, the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, now being created in the shell of Bankside Power Station opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Understandably: that little baby is costing 130m.

Designed by competition-winning Swiss architect Herzog and de Meuron, the project has forged ahead smoothly and with almost no adverse publicity. In this, it is very unlike the British Museum’s Great Court project, which had to deal with the sacred object of the old Round Reading Room, and wholly unlike the ghastly cock-up of the South Bank Centre, which had to abandon its Richard Rogers scheme amid acrimony and ignominy. Beneath the surface, the Tate is paddling like mad to keep the matching funding coming in, but on top, everything seems smooth and efficient.

But the two London projects are only part of the picture. There’s the Tate in Liverpool’s Albert Dock venture, first opened in 1988 to James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s design, now just expanded and re-opened after a 7m upgrade by Michael Wilford which has removed most of the claustrophobia of the original. There’s the Tate in St Ives by Eldred Evans and David Shalev, a purpose-built gallery that opened in 1993 – probably the only art museum in the world with a place for visitors to stack their surfboards.

Increasingly, there is also what Whitmore calls the “Tate Elsewhere”. He mentions that the gallery’s website is scoring around 50 000 hits a day. It’s a good site, certainly, currently with images of around 8000 works available for perusal on-line. However, it has not yet developed to the point where you can have a “virtual tour” of a current exhibition: on-line information on the Patrick Heron show which was running when I went was still entirely text-based. “Tate Elsewhere” also includes the Tate Magazine, the gallery’s publishing division, and the exhibitions it sends overseas. All part of the brand.

But Whitmore is conscious that it’s time for a reappraisal. “The big question now is over the fact that the Tate is reinventing itself for the millennium. How do we communicate that? Is it one Tate on four sites, or two London galleries and two regional ones, or four distinct entities? That’s why we’ve just appointed Wolff Olins to clarify what we will be in 2001,” he says.

The present identity, by David Hillman of Pentagram, is universally recognised as excellent and will not necessarily be ditched. It is only four years old, but it feels as if it has been part of the fabric of British culture for much longer. Its understated cool, to be found on all the gallery’s leaflets, signs and stationery – with colour variations for Liverpool (orange) and St Ives (blue) – echoes the scholarly managing-director image of Serota. He is as clear a manifestation of his diversifying gallery as Bob Ayling is of the new British Airways. The system is still reviewed by Pentagram once a year, but individual graphics projects are farmed out to small, even one-person, practices which work to Hillman’s templates.

The identity extends to advertising posters, such as the current “conker, apple, rock” poster campaign by the agency TBWA, focusing on how a visit to the Tate can alter perceptions. Whitmore divides his audience into art buffs and those on the fringes of buffdom whom he calls “cuspers”: the award-winning TBWA campaign is aimed at the cuspers.

Beneath the successful graphic identity lies a problem: the schizophrenic nature of the Tate’s current offering. It is both the national collection of British art, and the national collection of international Modern art. On the one hand, you have Hogarth and Reynolds and Stubbs and Constable and the Pre-Raphaelites: on the other hand, you have Rothko, Giacometti, Magritte and Pollock.

Then there is the annual controversy surrounding the award of the Turner Prize to invariably challenging contemporary British artists. And finally, to complete the melange and to add to the confusion, the Tate also houses the Turner Bequest – the vast collection of paintings, drawings and watercolours left to the nation by JMW Turner.

This is what makes Bankside so important. International Modern art will transfer down-river, leaving Millbank to the British, including Turner and, significantly, the Turner Prize. But there will remain plenty © of overlap, most obviously where modern British artists are concerned. Where do works in the collection by world-class British artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Sir Anthony Caro, or Rachel Whiteread go, and how will the division between the galleries be made clear? Will people be willing or able to take in both London institutions in one day?

Whitmore’s hunch, and I feel he’s right, is that they won’t – since they will each be so big and so relatively distant from each other. Visitors will take in, say, Bankside and the Design Museum and/or Shakespeare’s Globe, and might do Millbank with the National Gallery and/or one of the South Kensington museums. Certainly, there is no way you can pretend that both London Tates are really just one gallery. So the question of how to identify and promote them becomes steadily more pressing.

And, of course, there is the architecture. Serota’s predecessor as director, Sir Alan Bowness, was a James Stirling man and commissioned him to work up a complete masterplan to extend the Millbank site. The Clore Gallery, home of the Turners, is the only fragment of the Stirling masterplan to have been built: designed in 1980, it opened in 1985. Even Stirling’s strongest admirers would not claim it as his best work – somehow brazen and uncertain at the same time, it isn’t a patch on the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart which he built concurrently.

Anyhow, the Stirling office moved on to Liverpool for the Tate’s first outpost: a brave attempt to bring about urban regeneration through the arts. Despite the gloominess of the Liverpool Tate mark one, a gloom belied by its jaunty blue and orange colour scheme and graphics, it pulled in more than twice the numbers of visitors anyone expected. Now, in Wilford’s expanded version, the plan is to get visitor numbers gradually up from the previous 500 000 a year to a million.

St Ives was a transitional building for the Tate – Evans and Shalev’s architecture is more clearly Modern than Stirling in his Post-Modern phase, but is undeniably Arts-and-Crafty. The Bankside architect Herzog and de Meuron, in contrast, is a Serota architect par excellence: modernist and rationalist. The day Serota announced the practice as the winners of the international competition, he proudly donned a Swiss Railways watch for the occasion.

Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were the architects who most appreciated the existing architecture of Giles Gilbert Scott’s old oil-fired power station, and knew exactly how to set it off. The device of running a “light beam” along the top, either side of its central chimney, was inspired: such is the scale of the place that the “beam” is, in fact, a long glazed two-storey building in its own right.

Ever since 1897, when the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate funded the eponymous gallery and imposed his own distinctly unsubtle architect, Sidney RJ Smith, on the project, the Tate has proved able to draw people irrespective of its site – Millbank is scarcely at the centre of things, after all. Bankside at first looked like another bit of fringe land, but the subsequent successful approval and funding of the Millennium Bridge across the Thames to St Paul’s steps has changed all that. The pedestrian bridge, by Sir Norman Foster with engineers Ove Arup and sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, will plug the new Tate into the tourist honeypot around the cathedral, and connect with the well-heeled patrons of the City of London.

Despite assurances from Whitmore that there is unlikely to be another new Tate, I wouldn’t rule anything out. Scotland, East Anglia and the North East spring to mind as untapped areas: perhaps they should consider franchising the name to blue-chip collaborators within the UK, if not overseas. I suspect they may well have spent more than enough money on capital projects for the forseeable future.

Horniman Museum

Any school kid in south-east London can tell you about the Horniman Museum. A charming building dating from 1901, on the upper level it houses a stunning collection of musical instruments. But, is is the array of artefacts from ethnic peoples from around the world that attracts the school parties.

“It’s about the African diasphora,” explains Horniman keeper of anthropology Anthony Shelton of the African Worlds exhibition in the South Hall, which Jasper Jacob Associates is transforming for reopening in November.

The adjacent Collectors Gallery, a more academic facility tracing the history of the Horniman, again by JJA, is due to open next spring.

Shelton has been with the museum for three years, having previously worked on Brighton’s celebrated exhibition on fetishism. It was he who brought in JJA almost two years ago to rethink the installation within the listed interior, spurred on by a vote of Government money. He describes the Horniman as a “sleeping giant”, housing the third largest ethnography exhibition in the world, and wants to use the revamp to build an international profile for a venue which currently counts 80 per cent locals among its 250 000 visitors a year.

JJA won the job in an unpaid pitch against Carter Wong and Ronayne Design, among others. Shelton asked the shortlisted contenders “to dream. I wanted the designers to sculpt a 3D space,” he says. “It seems wrong to design against the architecture.”

The result promises to be a more architectural interpretation of the double-height space with its perimeter gallery at first-floor level than the more usual “objects” or “interactive technology” approaches to museum design. Giant steel structures, sheathed in glass fibre and braced back to the edge of the 380m2 gallery, will reach up towards the ceiling from the new light oak floor, while 5.5m-high ramps will draw visitors up through the exhibits.

“You’ve got to seduce people through the project,” says Shelton, which is what JJA creative director Michael Cameron hopes to do with what he calls “interventions”. “It needed something to engage the height of the space,” says Cameron. A light, airy canopy with projections on it links the “observation towers” together.

Cameron describes the structures as “a response to the inherited architectural space. We never sought to imitate it.” JJA has opted for “quite humble materials, such as MDF” within the 630 000 construction budget, he says. The idea is to “empower” the 2000 objects on display rather than dominate them.

As for the displays, Shelton wanted to introduce “a sense of alienation”, because the objects have been taken from their original locations. They are viewed as “a series of glimpses”, he says, while Cameron says JJA has tried hard to create very specific settings. “There has been no attempt to contextualise the exhibits in a faux African environment,” says Shelton.

JJA has also handled graphics, which include pull-out boards on nine themes. These include men and women; ancestors and morality; patronage; and creation and recreation.

The two main galleries are the start for Shelton, who describes himself as project-led. The Horniman is sliding down the hill as the London clay on which it is founded dries up, and it has won Government money to rectify the situation. A 10m Lottery grant has enabled the museum to bring in architect Allies & Morrison to design an extension, and there are the musical instruments to be redisplayed within the 400m2 upper gallery.

Geffrye Museum

The Geffrye Museum in London’s East End is a gem. Set in Grade I listed 18th century almshouses, amid well-tended gardens and mature trees, it provides both an education and a welcome solitude for locals and visitors alike. American tourists would call it quaint. They come here to gaze at the room sets portraying the changing style and taste of the English urban middle classes from 1600 to 1900.

This collection of furniture and artefacts is now being brought firmly into the 20th century to be housed in a new 5.3m extension by Branson Coates Architecture. It will almost double the size of the present museum and potentially increase visitor numbers from 55 000 to 80 000.

The concept for the new extension was first dreamed up six years ago, soon after the museum became an independent charitable trust. It has been made possible by private sponsors, a 3.75m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and funding from Dalston City Partnership and the Corporation of London. “We interviewed six architects and invited four to come back with outline concepts”, explains director David Dewing. Branson Coates was appointed “because its ideas were the most exciting and it had a respect for the almshouses”. Construction started in March 1997.

The new horseshoe-shaped building lies to the east of the almshouses on the site of an old playground. While the brick walls and traditional tiled roof are in keeping with the existing buildings, the architect has also introduced contemporary design elements such as the glazed canopy supported on olive green metalwork.

One of the main design concerns was that the new extension should not be visible from the gardens fronting on to Kingsland Road. There is no main entrance and nowhere to stand and appreciate the new building for what it is. “It has been designed as an inside-out building,” says Dewing. “From the point of view of the people who would be approaching it, from the inside of the museum. I think it is a very clever building.”

Visitors will enter the new space at first-floor level – a continuation of the journey from the almshouses. Here, the space opens out into a “lobby”, with a new, larger shop displaying an improved merchandise offer and views ahead into the 20th century galleries. Off to the left, the “lobby” becomes a piazza complete with café, undulating glass roof, York stone flooring, and views out across the gardens. Branson Coates has designed the interiors for the café and shop.

The 20th century galleries curve around the horseshoe of the new building and continue the walk-through history of domestic interiors. These have been designed by Ronayne Design which has worked with the Geffrye since 1991 and was reappointed from a shortlist of five to design the displays for the new galleries. In the centre of the horseshoe, a spiral staircase opens up to the floor below with its education room and conservation workshops.

The journey into the 20th century starts with an introductory area complete with information panels and a replica chair from the four new periods. Then come the four display areas: a 1910 Arts and Crafts interior; a Thirties flat; a Sixties Span town house; and, combining old with new for the end of the decade, a warehouse loft conversion. In between the columns around the staircase, precious objects from each period are displayed in glass cases. Signs and display graphics in the new building are by designer Sally MacIntosh.

Moving further round the horseshoe, you enter the dialogue area where you will be able to interact on-screen and flick through scrapbooks in ring-binders with the pages sealed in plastic – “a bit like the Argos catalogue,” says consultancy principal John Ronayne.

Down the spiral staircase to the floor below and you enter the world of the Geffrye Design Centre, supported by a grant from the European Regional Development Fund. This showcases contemporary furniture and decorative crafts from local designer/makers, bringing the museum’s collection into the present day. Improved education facilities for study groups and school children of all ages are provided with two rooms set aside for both lectures and the more hands-on activities. As Dewing says, the Geffrye Museum caters for “toddlers, OAP’s and everything in between”.

Also on this level are the environmentally controlled spaces, one for temporary exhibitions, and the other a conservation storage area with access from the delivery bay.

Externally, the gardens are being overhauled to provide a series of period garden rooms. The new extension is scheduled to open in November this year.

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