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

13th November 2013:   I am in search of the perfect City Museum.

It’s the writer Alberto Manguel who’s got me going on this quest.  Manguel writes beautifully on books, reading, libraries and the shimmering insubstantiality of all cities (but especially Buenos Aires, the city he loves most), ‘Like all great cities Buenos Aires does not exist, except in the memory of those who live or lived there.  It has no comprehensible form, no definable shape, it changes even as you walk through it . . .   Once when walking with Borges through that area of Buenos Aires known as El Bajo the old blind man described to me the seedy bars and gas-lit corners of his youth, when he could still see and which for him had the solid presence of brick walls and shuttered windows . . . Buenos Aires apparently had changed but the real, the unending Buenos Aires remained for Borges the same one of his earlier days.’

And this – give or take some poetic flourishes –  is what I feel about most cities, that they are as much about dreams and lives and memories and feelings as they are about bricks and mortar.  What is true of cities is also true of museums – each is an enclosed world and – in each case – no two people ever walk through the same experience.  And this being the case, why shouldn’t a City Museum, like the city itself, have a shimmering insubstantiality because it is alive with the ghosts of everyone connected to it?

So here are two interesting-but-not-perfect examples of city museums – both from Venice where I was last week – the Palazzo Mocenigo and the Casa di Goldoni.  Neither, to be fair, would quite describe themselves as City Museums – but both of them are about a house in the city and the family who lived there, so they are at least a part of the City’s story, if not the whole story itself.  And both of them are theatrical in the way they present themselves – but then why wouldn’t you be in Venice?
The Palazzo Mocenigo has just re-opened and I can see that a theatre designer has been this way because someone has covered the windows in scarlet, pea-green and yellow ochre rouched silks, so that when the sun filters through, each room sings out with a single, brilliant note of colour.  The effect is lovely but when I pick up the room guides I see that the explanations are still stolidly fixed on things – this painting, that table – and I am none the wiser about the Mocenigos as people.
Someone (the same person?) has filled some of the rooms with perfume bottles and I am charmed by the opportunity to lift the stoppers and sniff the different perfumes.  But the perfume story lies on top of the experience, it is not really embedded into the Mocenigo story, and again I am frustrated.  I have a minor temper tantrum in the bookshop (‘What, no guidebooks? Then how will I know what I am looking at?’) and another one when they tell me no photographs on my i-phone – but then how can I show my friends what I have seen and encourage them to come here?

And so I go on to the Casa di Goldoni, Goldoni being the 18th century Venetian playwright.  It’s a beautiful building with a water gate (‘Ah, so this is how they came by water’), a lower courtyard and a beautiful flight of steps to the upper storeys.

Once again a theatre designer has come this way, because someone has laid out playing cards on the tables (a lovely touch) and laid a dress across a sofa so that you can imagine the languid, reclining body inside it.  Someone also has hung the walls with 18th century puppets and laid out a puppet show – a major way of telling stories then – but now of course I want to know what Goldoni’s plays were like, or indeed an 18th century puppet show?  All I wanted was a film  – even silhouettes projected on the walls would be lovely  – to show me how the puppets came alive and what a Goldoni play was like.  But nothing.

But then I step outside and I am struck again by how very strange this city is. Not the Grand Canal (pretty though it is) but the silent rocking of green water in the side canals; the half-drowned look of the place as if I had stumbled upon an apocalypse;  the single lamp that lights a window niche at night where my alleyway turns a corner;  the way doors open blindly onto water;  the figures that cross bridges, appearing and disappearing, or that appear at the end of alleyways, always walking away from me;  the echoing footsteps;  the sensation of a labyrinth.

I wonder if Venice was as astonishing to Marco Polo as it is to us (probably not – cities were more wondrous then, if his book is anything to go by).  And I wonder why it is that we see an eerie, haunted, dream-like quality in Venice (a ‘Don’t Look Now’ feeling) whereas for Goldoni it was a gentle backdrop to gossip and domesticity.  So what did people dream of in the 18th century if not of ghosts and hauntings?

And then of course it dawns on me – as it has probably dawned on you already – that if ever there was a city that won’t have a great city museum it is Venice, because here the city is the museum and the museum is the city.

And so my search for the great Museum of the City goes on.  Do you know one?

By Rachel Morris