Constructing effective museums

Posted after a trip to Washington, USA, in October 2009

I’m sitting in the vast atrium of the National Building Museum. Like most big buildings in Washington its classical style looks ridiculously overblown on this scale. The columns, big as giant cedars, are fakely gilded. I expect any moment a throng of lions and spear-holding soldiers to appear and play out a Ben Hur style epic. Instead around me are big men, not in togas but in the uniform of chinos and clutching takeout coffee, talking loudly about construction projects. Though Washington is not a skyscraper city it is one of monumental high-spec buildings, very many of which are museums and memorials. It’s a city in memoriam to a long past America as if it is an ancient civilisation. America borrows, buys or, you might more positively say, salvages or earns this heritage and then pays it respectful homage in its museums. The overall effect of trawling all Washington’s museums is to feel that America believes itself to represent the descendancy of the universal civilisation, as if it is an ark or a higher ground following all the bad times, the unsettling age of diaspora. The message is: At last we can settle, build and cohabit.

This belief seems to power America’s official (if not entirely widespread) acceptance of its cultural diversity. Washington’s museums act for the nation as a kind of camera obscura reflecting the world and space beyond, its realities inverted. Because the museums are so closely set together the juxtapositions, say of the Museum of the American Indian next to the Air and Space Museum, make for some uncomfortable ironies. Each museum makes its own statement, a particular mix of pride and sorrow.

This is a city besotted with the statement that you can make with buildings. One display at the Building Museum is about the utopian plan of early Washington, which aimed with its architecture to create ‘grandeur befitting greatness’, to give proof that America was leading on the world stage. Mike Edson, the Smithsonian’s Director of Web and New Media Strategy, believes that the city’s museums don’t accept that they can more effectively realise learning and social change using the web and distributed media. He says they have to get over their love affair with bricks and mortar. I agree with him in many ways. A display about sustainable communities in the Building Museum was empty of visitors whereas some of its content was distributed in panels on Metro trains, reaching thousands of commuters every day. Any space that has been taken over from the Earth needs to be used with responsibility. The question ‘what is the most responsible thing you can do with museum space?’ is a fraught one. When the British Library was scoping what it should do with some unused land in Camden I suggested it should be a community permaculture garden with an outdoor sheltered wifi workspace. Of course I didn’t mention the idea often or loudly as it seemed mad. If you can get sponsorship for a building, which gives a public monument to the sponsors, then surely that’s the only sane course? The Library decided to build a digital access centre, as it is easier to get funding for a new building than for updating existing digital infrastructure.

We might think that the old approach which simply put stuff on display is comparatively irresponsible and that we must construct ‘rides’ or immersive narrative spaces. I’ve been on some great museum ‘rides’ and I know they’re popular. But the ride approach is expensive and difficult to get right. Often there is too much noise, too many words and you are bombarded with messages. You feel you can’t rest in a space and simply look, draw, talk and reflect. The old gallery approach can at least create more space for a variety of interpretations and activities.

A final reflection on Washington: On my last day, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, only 5 years old, with interpretation that is very thought-provoking and moving. I wandered into a large research centre on the top floor, with banks of PCs, a library and some education rooms. No visitors were in there. I talked to a fascinating Guatamalan woman demonstrating weaving. Then, I met Caleb Strickland, who worked at the Museum. I asked him why the centre was so empty. He said this was a problem they were trying to fix and they would have to rethink the space. The separation in this museum’s functions between immersive narrative spaces and investigative/reflective/creative space was too extreme. They need to take some of the museum into the research centre and put the web on those PCs at the very least. But, then I went down to the restaurant and realised what the radical solution could be. The restaurant was totally packed. It offers 6 stations of food from different American Indian cultures. In contrast to standard American food, this was exciting and healthy, and leading visitors to talk to each other about what they were eating. It was buzzing. Now this is where the museum was happening. What if the restaurant could be expanded, with more interpretation here about Indian cultures, with art installations, cooking demonstrations and cultural performances? And in turn, could the development of the research centre be inspired by the restaurant?

Like this idea, I’d be interested to hear about examples of museum development projects (or outdoor heritage/public art etc) which go beyond the orthodoxy of immersive narrative space without denying meaning-making. I’m thinking of spaces that make the best use of people being together in a physical building, where people can be creative, share ideas and stories together, follow their own investigations and, most importantly, develop skills and plans to take action to make a better world.


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