Taking Museums to the Public; Evolving Engagement
Blog by Emily Harper, Architect, Austin-Smith:Lord
As restrictions ease and people head #BackToMuseums, what can they expect? How are museums, and more broadly, the cultural sector, evolving? Over the past year the Museums Association has produced a webinar series called Coronavirus Conversations and these have been a fascinating insight into the events of the pandemic, their impact on the sector and how museums have reacted. Most discussion however has focussed on how the sector moves forward.
The covid-19 pandemic saw a vast increase in the number of grants awarded to museums to bring forward or speed up the digitisation of their content and collections. This is obviously an advantage for accessibility and outreach, but where does the pandemic leave the physical spaces museums inhabit? This is of particular interest to us given our experience of working on Museum projects and in particular due to our current involvement in the V&A Collections and Research Centre; a bold new building typology for accessing collections independent of the pandemic which is pushing the sector to rethink the exhibition model.
Digitisation is vital for archiving collections; our experience on the CRC shows just how much museums have in storage that the public have never seen, and it opens up collections to so many more people globally. There is also a place for digital material within museum exhibitions themselves; the design for the CRC incorporates interactive digital explorations of the collection within the store, and integration of digital interpretation into design will be ever more prevalent. However, digital isn’t the whole answer to accessibility and it’s no substitute for experiencing the real thing. Museums are fully aware that after months of working from home, Zoom meetings and the increasing occupation of social media by our parents, many people are disenfranchised with the digital world. More seriously, digital poverty affects approximately 10% of the UK.
So how do we work with museums to design the real thing and provide new, safe spaces?; indoor social distancing, if not legislated then a cautious choice, and ticketed entry will inevitably limit visitor numbers for some time; a reduction in international tourism will increase reliance on local interest and, given the current pressures, a cultural day out isn’t a priority for many people.
Accordingly, and with acute awareness of their impact on wellbeing, museums should be – and many are – looking to take the museum to the people in everyday environments and promote analogue content. Ideas include occupying empty retail units – a side effect of an evolving high street as well as the pandemic; pop-up exhibitions, and using public parks, as well as collaborations with other public services such as hospitals. There is precedent to these methods, but it feels necessary to be seeing them as longer term models for display and engagement; creating more accessible experiences both through physical location and public perception.
In 2017, Hull successfully filled a number of empty storefronts with exhibitions in their bid to become UK City of Culture; In 2019, Manchester Museum displayed the skeleton of Maharajah the Elephant on the concourse of Manchester Piccadilly station while the museum underwent refurbishment works; Austin- Smith: Lord has previous experience with outdoor museums having been involved with the design of Colquhoun Square in Helensburgh, the only exhibition model that will have maintained, or maybe increased, visitor numbers over lockdown; and more recently we have been appointed to convert an ex British Home Stores in Swansea into the City’s new archive and library – a trend set to be utilised by many sectors to transform the way we experience our town centres.
There will of course remain multiple considerations in implementing new museum and cultural environments; health, security, insurance, environmental conditions, collection management and funding to name a few. And as designers and problem solvers, we will have to spatialise these aspects while addressing the overarching challenges in helping museums engage with the public across all timescales; occupying temporary space, adapting current space and creating new space. Creativity is a side-effect of crisis and now the cultural sector needs to capture the zeitgeist and hold on to a new vision of accessibility and inclusivity.