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engage 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture

Editor's Introduction

Karen Raney

Cite this article

Karen Raney
Editor's Introduction
engage 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture
Pages 4-7
Editor: Karen Raney
Summer 2014
Published by engage, London

Experiencing Gallery Architecture is concerned with the way people engage with museum and gallery spaces. How do visitors experience and navigate space? How is sound art, live art, performance, participatory and digital art accommodated? How are the interiors of galleries and their learning areas being designed? What kind of community consultation has been effective in relation to new or renewed architecture?

A number of themes recur in different forms in the articles below. One is the importance of catering for multi-sensory experience and bodily exploration. This concern derives to some extent from the non-object-based art of social relations, participation, performance and sound. It also stems from the growing interest in visitors and their experiences from an educational and marketing point of view. Writers here are keen to stress the fact that museum buildings are containers for people as well as objects.

A related theme concerns consultation. Many consequences flow from the move of gallery education as one writer puts it, ‘from the cellar to the centre’. One is that local consultation, particularly with children and young people, is now written into new build projects. Another is that educators play a greater part in spatial planning. After decades of research and experience, educators are well placed to know what is needed for learning in new or refurbished spaces. However, in a future of dwindling public funds, learning programmes could end up marginalised again for financial rather than ideological reasons, competing for space with income-generating activities.

A third common strand has to do with the nature of the authority that museum buildings embody. A number of the articles address the way architectural space is produced and remade through use. Projects are designed to encourage appropriation and ‘misuse’ of gallery space – breaking the implicit rules – whether this is through subversive questioning, open play, or invitations to the visitor to transgress within limits or to assert their own meanings into a space. This is in keeping with the ‘Social Museum’s’ emphasis on plurality and access, diverse audiences, and social responsibility. In this context, the sheer monumentality of museum buildings may be regarded with suspicion or hostility, as an obstacle to access.1 But an interesting point made by more than one writer below is that the authority embodied by museum buildings may be an important component of the learning that takes place within them. Either it forms the backdrop against which opposition and critical reflection happens, or it furnishes the trusted, known frame of reference within which the unknown can be fruitfully encountered.

Hugo Worthy and Lisa Jacques are interested in enabling open play, physical or narrative, as a legitimate way of engaging with art. They discuss New Walk Museum and Art Gallery’s project, Diversions, which gave children permission to play openly in the main gallery spaces. In one workshop they were invited to draw paths through the space with coloured tape. In another, they used cardboard to build mazes and tunnels around the display cases. A third event involved racing and sprinting. It seems that the significance of these workshops for the children was bound up with opposing the museum’s social expectations, transgressing its authority. The scale and significance of the architecture served as an important backdrop to open play. ‘The grandiosity of the museum was required, both physically in terms of the scale of the space required to play, and symbolically in terms of the meaning of the museum.’

Cristina Federica Colombo observes that alongside centralised iconic buildings there is a contradictory move to disperse the centres of art. The Fondazione Nicola Trussardi in Milan calls itself ‘neither a museum nor a collection’, but a ‘nomadic ‘agency for the production and diffusion of contemporary art.’ Where galleries do have buildings, these are now often designed to be in relation to the physical and cultural environment in which they operate, offering visual and other contact with life outside the gallery. In building projects abroad, such as Ai Weiwei’s in Cao Changdi, efforts are made to honour both globalised models of display and local architectural languages. This writer calls for a multi-sensory approach to museum architecture and exhibition design, drawing on the Italian concept immersiva which means the ‘full experience of a place’, including gestures, sensory perceptions of all kinds and active exploration through walking and touching.

Julia Bryan recounts the five-year development of the Museum of Liverpool, a city history museum that followed on from the much-loved Museum of Liverpool Life. The building itself is striking with unusual features, including renewable energy technologies and large spaces organised around great objects - great in significance and size - such as a carriage from the Liverpool Overhead Railway. Much thought was given to the relationship of the inside of the building to its surroundings, particularly the views of the Pier Head and the River Mersey from the enormous second floor windows. These views are treated as an exhibit in their own right to be explored and interpreted. Intense community consultation was undertaken during the museum’s development, notably with young people and children. An unsatisfactory attempt to develop ‘child friendly imagery’ was abandoned in favour of children illustrating and designing their own spaces, and children’s learning is embedded as well in the overall museum design, for example displays placing works uncased and within reach, and inviting touch where possible.

Ros Croker details a project called You Produce Space, which emerged from participation in engage’s Extend leadership programme. You Produce Space is a gallery tool that encourages visitors to ask questions of the space they find themselves in. Curiosity cards provoke questions and activity cards suggest actions, giving participants permission to challenge accepted rules or behaviours – to claim and ‘re-produce’ the exhibition space.

Andrew McNiven describes a piece of research he undertook into the conditions of display in museums and galleries. Photography was used initially, but he was struck by the relationship between an object, a space and the sonic environment which they share, and soon turned to recording sound. Fascinated by the evocative nature of recordings made in the 1970s, he began creating his own archive of ‘soundscapes’ of museum and gallery environments. Although contemporary art practice has embraced sound as well as other sensory channels, this author takes the view that the modernist emphasis on the visual still dominates the design of exhibition spaces. Sound is still not actively considered as part of the experience, and hence the production of knowledge.

Kenn Taylor summarises some of the changes in gallery education spaces in the past fifteen years, as education has moved from marginal to core provision in most pubic institutions. Not only has the floor space footprint of education increased, but it now tends to be placed more centrally, its uses have diversified, and it is not uncommon for educationally driven programmes to influence the content of the main exhibitions. In this writer’s view, the primary characteristic of a good learning space is flexibility. Flexibility applies to everything from partitions to control the room size, to the nature of furniture and fittings, to lighting and soundproofing. Ideally, display spaces should be available both in mainstream galleries, as is increasingly the case, but also in dedicated spaces away from the public eye, to maintain the balance between public exposure and private exploration necessary for learning.

Rosie O’Donovan describes what happened when a long-term schools project was designed to take place alongside a gallery building project at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. In collaboration with artists, it was hoped that participants of Spacemakers could explore architectural design, structural engineering and construction as it unfolded, and contribute to the creation of the new education wing. Delays and practical obstacles meant that the young people ended up having less of a role in decisionmaking than had been hoped. However, they were introduced to careers in the built environment field, acquired terminology, a feel for materials, and strong opinions about architecture, and they learned a great deal about the gallery and the collection. Teachers reported that the young people came to speak about Kettle’s Yard ‘as if they have shares in it’. The project also appeared to affect the architectural professionals involved. ‘SpaceMakers has allowed the experts to see the importance of engaging future generations with the built environment if we are to create inclusive and youth-friendly spaces, buildings and communities.’

Henrike Plegge looks at two different ‘rooms for education’ in German institutions, one temporary and one permanent. In both examples, the rooms were integrated into the architecture and the curatorial concept. Both are part of the increased visibility of gallery education, its move from the cellar to the centre of institutions. However, increased visibility can have different outcomes in different contexts, suggesting that visibility per se is not enough. Regarding the temporary studio installed in the exhibition ‘The Global Contemporary: Artworlds after 1989’, the organisers reflected afterward that their desire to show visitors and staff an innovative picture of gallery education, led them to focus more on output than pedagogy. In the permanent Gallery For You, in contrast, educators followed their own rules and stayed focused on the participants and their development rather than on presentable outcomes.

Marianne Mulvey’s article asks in what ways architecture can be not only a frame for critique, or an impediment to work around, but an active collaborator with ephemeral art practices. She draws on three examples – the Tanks at Tate Modern, an artist’s intervention at Stroom Den Haag that disrupted the interior architecture of the gallery, and a work at Tate Britain where instructions were written for visitors to perform. Her interest is in encouraging a more tactile relationship with a building in order to understand how actions shape space. Central to this is the idea of a ‘destabilising’ encounter, an encounter with something unknown or unsettling, which is the springboard for learning. Making use of the specific architectural qualities of museums and galleries can provoke reflections on the purposes of these institutions and our place in them, teaching us to be ‘critical occupiers of space.’

1. MacLeod, S. (2013), Museum Architecture: A New Biography. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, p.33.


engage 34

engage 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture

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