The American Museum in Britain is unveiling a £500 000 overhaul in its Grade I listed country house location, undertaken by Chester museum design consultancy Headland Design Associates.
The basement space improvements are part of an ongoing three-phase revamp, which the organisation predicts will eventually cost about $10m (£5.1m) and take three years to complete. As well as the new basement exhibition, an American folk art exhibition will take over the previous café space, a new café will be built and an education and meeting space will be installed.
Headland Design Associates’ brief was to make the neglected basement area more ‘intellectually and physically accessible’ through a new exhibition. The basement has housed the same collection since the museum opened in 1961, but it will now help visitors to put American history in context before they enter the historic room sets and displays found on the floors above.
The work was sponsored by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and involved opening up the ‘dingy’ underground space using techniques including minimal detailing, a limited colour palette, careful lighting and backlit graphics, says Headland director Rosemary Allen. ‘The space was very challenging – trying to open it out and make it feel airy and fresh was a long and complex task,’ she says.
Headland worked with teams of specialists on the details of the exhibition, which include audio elements from Manchester interactive consultancy Resolution, plasma screens and period costumes that may be worn by visitors.
The museum also commissioned a team of architects – led by Edward Nash of Nash Partnership – and specialist consultants who were charged with introducing environmental control systems so that sensitive material, such as native American Indian artefacts, could be safely displayed.
‘When the museum opened in 1961, everything was very up-to-date,’ says museum director Julian Blades. ‘But now we need to move into the 21st century. The basement is our largest exhibition space and we needed it to be directed at different levels, to be all-encompassing.’
Blades has not ruled out the possibility of appointing additional designers to work on the catering, folk art exhibition and education space, but says it is unlikely that much more work of this nature will be commissioned. This is because the museum relies almost entirely on money from private donors based in the US and the continuation of the work is dependent on new funds.
AMERICAN MUSEUM IN BRITAIN
• Housed in Claverton Manor, near Bath
• Comprises 15 period rooms, which show off typical interiors from different eras in American history
• Examples include French wallpaper featuring corn cobs, specially made for the American market, and a reproduction of a New Orleans bedroom at the time of the American Civil War
• Centrepiece of expansion plans will be a 510m2 education centre which is expected to cost £1.9m