Museums go up the garden path

A new trend taking root at cultural attractions is sure to appeal to the cultivated masses, says Trish Lorenz

Museums and art galleries have always been a great choice for entertainment on a wet, winter day – the perfect place to dry out as you absorb some culture.

But as our fondness for European café culture and the national obsession with gardening grows, these institutions are realising that they’re also the owners of some valuable outside space. Space that could extend their appeal beyond the cold days of winter to the long evenings of summer.

Last week the refurbished Camden Arts Centre opened its doors. A key aspect of the revamp is its Muf-designed garden (DW 29 January). Tate Britain also announced last week that it will hold its Art of the Garden exhibition in June, designed by NB Studio and Muf, to examine the link between gardens and British art (DW 29 January).

The grande dame of the museum world, the Victoria & Albert Museum, is sowing the seeds of regeneration with a major investment in its central garden area (DW 24 July 2003). A competition to revamp the garden has been narrowed down to a shortlist of three: Adrian Geuze, Kim Wilkie and Kathryn Gustafson. The winner is due to be announced later this month.

So what is prompting this focus on the outside space? Muf partner Katherine Clarke says it’s come about because galleries and museums are realising that ‘the visitor experience is not constrained by viewing the collection itself’.

She says gallery or museum buildings are integral to the visitor experience and outside spaces in particular can add real value.

‘Rather than simply a container for exhibits, museums and galleries are recognising they are [curators] of valuable public space,’ she explains. V&A director of projects and estates Gwyn Miles agrees. She’s responsible for one of the largest museum gardens, with more than 3000m2 at her disposal. She admits the garden has been under-used and says it is ‘one of London’s best kept secrets’.

She says the focus on outdoor spaces has been prompted by a renewed emphasis on visitor needs. ‘There’s a realisation that people want variety in pace, not just a relentless plod through the exhibitions,’ Miles explains.

She sees the function of a garden as the ‘focus for visitor comfort’, a place where visitors can eat and relax, but says it won’t be used as an exhibition space.

But outside areas can move beyond a purely social role. Jenni Lomax, director of Camden Arts Centre, agrees there has been a resurgence in interest in gardens and says many now consider the outdoors as ‘another room’.

While Lomax hopes the Camden Arts Centre garden will be used as a social space by visitors, she also thinks it will ‘excite artists’.

‘As time goes by artists will respond by making work about, with or in the garden,’ she says.

The Tate Modern, with its river aspect, has access to some highly desirable outside land. It regularly makes use of the area as an exhibition space. Last year the riverbank played host to Paul McCarthy’s highly visible inflatable sculptures, alongside benches and seating areas for gallery visitors.

Clarke believes the inclusive nature of a garden or outside space at a gallery or museum can be one of its biggest strengths. ‘Gardens are able to accommodate many constituencies, from academics to artists to children,’ she explains.

But this inclusivity also creates a challenge for designers, as they seek to satisfy a variety of needs.

‘The challenge is creating a space that balances access and its social role with hidden, more personal areas,’ Clarke explains. ‘Visitors ranging from the scholarly to children, artists and staff all feel the space has a special resonance for them. It’s important to listen to them all and find ways of balancing [their needs].’

Clarke counsels against highly formal gardens. It is her view that the space should serve as a ‘decompression zone’, an area for personal reflection. ‘Gardens should allow contemplation, [visitors] should feel they can sit and daydream. It’s not like inside the gallery, where you’re an “intelligent” person,’ she says.

Accordingly, a large swathe of the Camden Arts Centre garden retains a ‘sense of wildness, a sense of the heath or meadow’, in addition to its paved terrace area, which is more focused on accessibility and meeting social needs.

Although details have yet to be finalised, the V&A’s outdoor space is also likely to be less formal. Miles describes its style as ‘soothing, elegant, an oasis of calm’.

‘The urban landscape [around the V&A] isn’t relaxing. The garden will be a tranquil place where people can sit and ponder,’ she adds.

It will also ‘give relief from the inside’ of the museum, says Miles. ‘Displays will be more laid back. It’s designed to be a place where people can relax.’

It seems designers may be asked to think outside the four walls when working with galleries and museums. And the next time you’re wondering what to do on a hot summer day, perhaps a trawl round a museum will be that much more appealing.

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