V&A rotunda

Museums and the Art of Place Making

28th November 2013:  So here is a new way to categorise museums – by those that are likely to survive the current financial storm and those that are not. And in that category of survivors we would place museums that occupy big, sprawling sites, part indoors and part out, and that are close to large centres of populations.

These are museums that are wrapped around with cafes, shops, temporary exhibitions and even gardens.  They are museums where visitors wander through the permanent galleries for the myriad reasons that people always do – to learn a little, to time travel and escape their own lives, to borrow the aura of these strange artefacts – before gathering in the surrounding spaces, to drink coffee, chat, watch a performance, visit a temporary show or let their children play.  They are in fact complete worlds, full of different moods and atmospheres – a proposition that on paper sounds so seductive you would think they couldn’t fail.

And yet they can of course, because place-making – the art of making places that people want to visit – is trickier than it looks. There are a myriad of reasons why people decide to visit a place and then are brave enough to cross the threshold (and interestingly many of them have nothing to do with architecture, though this tends to be where our clients put their money).  The issues running through the would-be-visitors’  minds are more likely to be – Do I feel I belong?  Does it match my mood?  And can I have a cup of coffee as well as look at things? – and they are just as likely to deduce the answer from the details of the lighting, atmosphere, signage and graphics as they are from the formal offer.  The collection at the heart of these destinations is crucial, because it lends the place an aura, a glamour, a specialness;  but the collection on its own is rarely enough, unless it’s very special.  We visit museums for many reasons, of which learning is just one.  The social, emotional and spiritual also matter.

Museums that successfully practise the art of place-making tend to know their story – what they want to say to the world. When you walk through these museums you get the feeling that there is a mind behind the organisation, making it feel thinking, connected and coherent.

Place-making is a subtle art – but much in demand these days, because everybody wants visitors.  Museum directors who do place-making well are also landlords, restaurateurs, events programmers and retail experts, as well as having some unexpected skills, like being able to throw a good party – a detail I love because it is not something they ever teach you on museology courses but you can see the reasoning:  there is nothing that softens up a would-be funder as fast as a good party.

Another detail I love is that it is also (mystifyingly) the case that sometimes the best examples of place-making have cost absolutely nothing.  No one poured money into the design of Brick Lane and yet there it is, one of the best destinations in East London.

So which are the museums that practice best the art of place-making and have turned themselves into successful destinations?  I suggest three of the best in London are the V&A, the Wellcome and Somerset House. Each seems to know its own mind, to have identified its tribes, and to know what it wants to say to them.  As it happens they are all large or large-ish destinations, but size alone is not the point.  There are also some great, small destinations that also practise the subtle and desirable art of place-making.    By Rachel Morris