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Art museums are the centrepiece of visual culture - local and international, past and present. More than ever, they are becoming the destination for 21st century culture-seeking pilgrims. We delve into the design of art museum architecture in a discussion with the progressive conservation architect and Purcell Partner Liz Smith. Liz has worked on many cultural buildings across the UK including the National Portrait Gallery and the Wallace Collection. With her experience, Liz shares her insight to some key questions about renovating art museums.

Over time, gallery collections have evolved into the world of the public art museum - a place to learn about history, creativity, humankind and ultimately experience art. Traditionally, a gallery was a private collection for the wealthy to share their own art with visitors. In the late 18th century, these were opened up for public display. Often these collections were bequeathed to countries or institutions, sometimes establishing new museums like Sir Hans Sloane’s collection for the British Museum. So, how can art museums of today fit the demand for more art? How can they cater for a growing, and more inquisitive, population?

How far is museum architecture an artwork in its own right?

Many architects have designed elaborate visions to create their own architectural masterpiece for art collections. This is certainly the case for the National Portrait Gallery in London, says Liz Smith, the conservation architect for the new £35.5m renovation with Jamie Fobert Architects.

The National Portrait Gallery

The architect Ewan Christian designed the building c.1890, inspired by European architecture. While obliged to match the Greek Classical style of the National Gallery to which it is adjoined, Christian introduced original design inspired by the Florentine Renaissance featuring various portrait busts of notable artistic figures in roundels.

The National Portrait Gallery

The interior galleries were always intended as a backdrop for the ever-changing art collections. Over time, the galleries have changed in that spirit. This makes for a disjointed set of gallery spaces going through rooms from Victorian, to the 1930s, to 80s design. 

The National Portrait Gallery

A key part of the renovation is to quieten the interiors down to celebrate the Victorian detail whilst lending a fresh and coherent new architecture. There are always waves of trends in architecture, but they risk overshadowing the collection itself. One of the key points is that the project will create a continuous voice for the evolving collection of the future, to reflect the original architect’s enduring vision.

What ways do conservation architects improve visitor attraction in public spaces?

Increasing visitor numbers is a positive thing. The aim is to improve popularity and access to the gallery. When museums were designed in the Victorian period, they were visited by a handful of bourgeoisies. Now several million people enter the constrained Victorian entrance of the National Portrait Gallery. Fortunately, progressive trusts and museums are accepting that change is necessary for the benefit of public access and for the heritage asset of the building. Improving façades, entrances and circulation can transform the visitor attraction and experience.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery

One key façade transformation was the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, a Victorian building with a lesser-known modern art collection. The museum needed to be extended to create more exhibition space and archive storage. Purcell Partner Niall Phillips worked closely with the client to map the experience, including replica size reproductions of the artwork to develop an innovative triangular gallery for a curated route. The new façade engaged the footfall of bypassers and reinforced the idea that it was the custodian of a modern art collection. It continued to evolve the building’s life and attract a new audience.

National Gallery, Gallery B

In museums, there is a constant drive for more space. We often open up back-of-house spaces for collections to come out of storage and be on show. Adaptive reuse is not about expanding but making the best of the existing space. Gallery B in the National Gallery, worked on by Purcell Partner David Hills, is the first new gallery space in twenty years. By discovering and renovating untapped spaces, architects can solve the demand for more art on display.

Purcell has been working with the National Maritime Museum’s team to transform former library and staff office in the Grade I listed National Maritime Museum into four new exhibition galleries. Purcell has carefully renovated the new gallery spaces working with the exhibition designers Casson Mann and museum curators who collaborated on the exhibition design. The scheme integrates technical requirements for floor loadings, conservation and environmental control for the artefacts, and narrative interpretative displays.

Environmental lighting control in Wallace Collection Great Gallery, a space that’s popular for events

How does commerciality fit in? 

All our art museum clients have wanted to hold events in galleries. Beautiful spaces should be accessible for more hours, whether passing through or eating dinner. We design the most effective way to protect the art, so managing environmental space for an event doesn’t change much aesthetically. 

National Maritime Museum © Morley Von Sternberg

Restaurants are also a key part of museum business plans. Museums want to be seen as a cultural landmark outside museum hours. We worked on the new entrance to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich which included the creation of a brasserie on the terrace and a café connecting people to Greenwich Park. It acts as a place to enjoy a coffee and then invites them into the collection. 

Could the retail of art on the walls be gently introduced into art museum refreshment areas? Could we walk around the gallery spaces with our paper cups of coffee? Could the curators have a ‘curator’s pick’ label for their favourite thing in the shop? How much could the boundaries be blurred?

How is natural daylight a challenge for gallery space architecture?

The challenge for architects is often the increasing desire for natural daylight for art. A careful management of lux levels and hot spots is important to prevent any damage to artwork.

The Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum was moved into the oldest room designed by the original architect Robert Smirke. The collection of objects needed visibility with high light levels without degrading the objects. With exhibition designers Stanton Williams, the angular cases allow one-to-one interaction with each object.

What’s the museum’s relationship with outside?

From sculpture gardens to rooftop terraces, outdoor spaces connect the visitor to the geographical and historical context. It’s important to link the building to the public realm to a create a connection. 

Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare MBE

Purcell was employed to design and position a plinth to display the ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ artwork by Yinka Shonibare MBE. The sculpture is a scale replica of the HMS Victory in a bottle, with sails made of patterned textiles. It ties together the global history of trade over oceans and the complexity of Britain’s trade and empire, made possible by Nelson’s victories that created freedom of the seas. Located outside the new Sammy Ofer Wing at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the artwork was re-sited from the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square. It has a strong relevance to the museum in engaging the public in the history of ocean exploration.

How is technology instrumental for art museums?

More than ever, architects and curators are designing for an iconic photograph. With everyone having a camera on their mobile phone and the 21st century wave of photo sharing apps like Instagram, design is now responding to the increasing presence of digital life.

In some museums, multimedia guides feed audiences with information and a thematic route. Other museums focus on people discovering the collection and architecture by themselves.

TV programs about art, museums and architecture are a brilliant way to share and spark enthusiasm in the public realm.

Google Arts and Culture makes it possible to digitally explore museum architecture you may never be able to see.

There are endless ways that technology is impacting the design and experience of museums. Many institutions have varying audiences to cater for of all ages, interests and languages. Museums must continue to push boundaries to keep with the times.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery

How far does sustainable design come into account?

A consciousness about the planet and awareness for sustainable design is increasing. In the past, the notion of constant change and flexibility in new exhibition material meant that frequent exhibition changes caused much material waste. This has shifted and there is a call for a level of permanence in gallery design. A lighter touch offers more responsible material use.

Conditioning is another area for sustainability. All art museums in the UK must achieve, and maintain, onerous conditions according to the British standard BS5454 and GIS for art and archives.

We even worked on a new hydroscopic solution, clay plaster used in archive walls. It passively maintains the humidity by absorbing excess moisture and releasing slowly, managing the levels. It was commended by the National Archives as a ‘highly innovative solution’.

How will art museum design progress in the future?

Architecture brings art out of the realm of the elite. It can make art more accessible to the public community. Art-led regeneration is an effective tool. Whether a new build or adaptive reuse, art museums are instrumental in making culture accessible. There is a constant strive for improved, inclusive access in funding streams and design. Inclusions of all people in society including disabilities besides wheelchair-users. How can it be a positive experience for blind and deaf people too?

Leighton House © Will Pryce

Art exists for individuals to give a message to others of how they view the world. How can art inspire people to make a difference? The art museum works if one person can take away a message to make a change. Improving the architecture, design and display can unlock art to fuel social change.

Equally, we’re living in an age that has lost sight of the benefit of making, creating and crafting. Art museums should inspire creativity for the next generation.

Architecture creates a connection between the person, the space and the art. Architects are custodians of the building and objects. Liz states, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to share a chapter of a museum’s history, and to make these important places relevant for years to come.


By Jess McCulloch

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