Unlocking the vaults

No longer are archives private, dusty affairs, requiring special permission for access. Where once interactivity was the buzz word in museum design, now it is archives and how institutions can bring their previously hidden treasures into the public gaze. As it’s not just a question of flinging open the archive doors, this vogue is throwing up new opportunities and challenges for designers.

At the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre in London, 35 per cent of the scientific collections will be accessible when the CF Moller-designed building is completed in 2008, compared with the previous 5 per cent. Tate Britain opened the Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, designed by John Miller & Partners, to display its British Art Archive in 2002. And, while the Victoria & Albert Museum itself only has 9 per cent of its collections on permanent display, 99 per cent are viewable in study rooms.

Paul Goodman is collections director at the newly renamed National Media Museum in Bradford, whose accessible archive facility, Insight, was one of the first of its kind when it opened in 2001. ‘Some museums don’t realise that it’s not just about giving access, but helping people to understand why an item is important and being able to engage with it emotionally,’ he says. ‘If you’re going to open up your doors, you have to make sure it’s communicated properly and that it’s protected.’

A huge interest in family history has increased the profile for archives, boosted by the ease of access that new technology allows. ‘In an increasingly volatile world, the only certainty is the past. People are looking back to get some perspective on their lives,’ says Justin Cavernelis-Frost, head of archive policy at the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. ‘Archivists are becoming mediators and passing on their enthusiasms to other people.’

‘The Department of Culture, Media and Sport is saying that collections have to be more relevant and accessible,’ adds Stephen Richards, head of creative development at the National Railway Museum in York. ‘In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, archives were ivory towers. Now it’s more about a dialogue. A designer’s role is to help communicate – help the museum to tell the story.’

Museums and galleries are not the only ones dusting down their archives. Scientific research organisation the Royal Institution is in the throes of a £20m refurbishment project, due for completion in 2008. The new archive room will include ‘touch and turn’ display options to allow remote examination of papers. The Royal Institution’s building is being reworked by Sir Terry Farrell, and Event Communications is designing its exhibitions and reading room.

‘Suddenly, archives are being seen as a portal into the past – living witnesses that give all sorts of fascinating insights,’ says Cel Phelan, research and marketing director for Event Communications.

The consultancy is turning the John Murray Archive in the National Library of Scotland into an accessible facility. It plans a permanent exhibition of the various figures – such as Lord Byron, Jane Austen and Winston Churchill – in Murray’s archive that will explore what being published meant to them. ‘It’s an absolute treasure trove. The challenge is how to get people to connect with them,’ Phelan says.

The National Railway Museum, one of the first to create an accessible warehouse in archive back in 1998, is now updating its facility. The £3.8m Search Engine project, designed by Darnton Elgee Architects, will include a visitor centre with café and library, plus temporary exhibitions and access to the warehouse-style stores.

‘The warehouse is more like a gallery, but has an informality that people warm to – an Aladdin’s Cave. It’s a design statement, but a subtle one,’ says Richards. But he is concerned that throwing open the doors of archives could change their very nature.

‘The behind-the-scenes becomes very exciting for everyone,’ he says. ‘What worries me is that if it stops being a hidden world, you’ll have to find a different attractor.’

For some institutions, accessible archives aren’t the answer. The Crafts Council has a vast collection of applied art in storage, images of which are available via its on-line Photostore resource, but it is keen to increase access through loans or in temporary touring shows.

Cutting-edge digital technology is also enabling the exploration of archives in permanent gallery displays. At the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, Land Design Studio incorporated archival items alongside a screen version of the object, which could be explored digitally both in the gallery and on-line. ‘It’s unlocking the glass case,’ says Land’s Peter Higgins.

But many more institutions are still getting to grips with how best to increase access to their archives, and it is up to designers, among others, to see how successful this will be.

Latest articles