Studio MB redesigns Middle Eastern palace as “immersive” national museum

The former Al Salam Palace was badly damaged and consequently abandoned after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – it has taken Edinburgh-based Studio MB five years to complete the transformation.

An immersive new national museum, housed in a formerly abandoned royal palace, has opened to the public in Kuwait.

The Al Salam Palace Museum showcases the country’s 300-year history and was designed by Studio MB. The Edinburgh-based creatives have spent the last five years on the project, having won the commission from the Amiri Diwan, the royal household of the Emir of Kuwait, back in 2013.

The development of the museum gives a new life to the palace, which had previously been damaged and abandoned after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The history of the palace and the country

Within the full-scale restoration of 15,000 square metres of the palace, 26 exhibition galleries have been created.

The brief for the space was twofold, says Studio MB founding director Craig Mann: “Firstly, [we had] to tell the history of the palace; its building, the role it played for Kuwait, its destruction and its recent rebuilding; and secondly, to tell the history of Kuwait through its fifteen rulers since its creation in the early 18th century.”

Large reception rooms, which in the past played host to the likes of the Queen and Prince Philip and Prince Charles and Princess Diana, have been reconstructed. These are supplemented by “immersive” audio visual (AV) installations.

“Innovative, interactive exhibitions”

On the first floor, two wings of the building have been rebuilt to house the nine galleries which recount the history of the country.

Throughout, there is an emphasis on AV elements, with holograms, floor projections and graphic devices being used to tell the narrative. The result of this, according to Mann, is a broader appeal among visitors.

“The innovative, interactive exhibitions communicate the history and heritage of Kuwait in a way that engages all ages,” says Mann, who adds that a total of 96 separate AV deliveries have been designed for the space.

Indeed, one of the largest uses of AV in the museum can be found in the central atrium, wherein the team has installed a 290-degree AV presentation. Alongside this, a five-metre wide display, known as the “Well of History”, has been set into the floor.

The state of the building before the transformation

“Peeling back the layers of history”

When the team first visited the palace, Mann says the state it was in was “quite shocking”.

“It was evident that there was a lot of structural damage to the building, from shattered walls and torn away interiors, to fire scorched rooms and bullet holes where attempts had been made to deliberately destroy it,” he says.

The overarching challenge, therefore, was how the team could interpret the building in a way that stayed true to its origin, given also that many of the records of the palace had been destroyed during the country’s occupation.

“As no plans for the original building existed and the few photographs of the palace that were available were only of the same few public reception spaces, it initially offered a real challenge to interpret how the building was originally used,” he says, adding that the team had to “peel back the layers of history” to piece together the puzzle.

Similarly, sourcing the artefacts and historical content was also a challenge. Relying on their research team, Studio MB retrieved “historical records, photographs and archival film from key UK-based museums” in order to substantiate the narrative. Additionally, many of the artefacts on display were sourced by the Royal household itself.

“So much to be proud of”

The Royal Inauguration for the Al Salam Palace Museum was held last year, and after a few weeks of VIP tours, the doors have opened to the public this month.

Mann ends: “There is so much to be proud of in this amazing building, for the achievements of the client team, the country of Kuwait and for ourselves as the museum and experience designers.”

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