Profit from museum boom but visit as well

You’d have thought that museum designers would be feeling the pinch about now. With millennium projects drawing to a close – and the bad press surrounding the Millennium Dome having perhaps dissuaded a few would-be patrons from commissioning experience-type attractions – you’d expect work to be drying up.

But the opposite is proving to be the case, particularly for external design specialists, in light of Budget changes that allow museums to offer free admission from the end of the year. Visitor numbers are expected to rise as a result, increasing demand for new installations and potentially boosting the appeal of museums for commercial sponsors. There will also be a bit of cash in the kitty from tax rebates for museums like the British Museum.

The fact that some of the top London venues will have new directors this year can only help. Mark Jones at the Victoria & Albert Museum has shown through his work at Edinburgh’s Museum of Scotland that he believes in design. Meanwhile, the Design Museum’s incoming director, Financial Times journalist Alice Rawsthorn has long been a champion.

Most of the plum jobs will likely go to outsiders, to keep the variety going, given increasing competition for visitors. This does not bode well for in-house teams, whose days have arguably been numbered since the Thatcherite era when in-house designers started to lose out to external consultants. But it is good news for design overall.

Not so good is that so few designers see museums as a source of inspiration for their own work. My guess is that architects, in London at least, flock to shows put on by specialist venues such as the Royal Institute of British Architects and The Architecture Foundation to understand how others in their profession design, but designers are less drawn to places such as the V&A or the Design Museum with the same passion.

The V&A has been trying to popularise its design offer with shows such as the Ron Arad showcase and BrandNew. When the extension by Daniel Libeskind opens in 2005, we can hope that the design community will turn up in droves to wonder at the building, in the way we all have to Tate Modern. But what happens in between?

The V&A is planning a push later this year to attract more designers through its doors and on to its “friends” list. So watch out for details and support it all you can. After all, design owes so much to its founder William Morris, not least because the Royal College of Art and Design Museum both had early connections there. Entry will be free and a visit might even be fun.

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