Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

More Stories Please

3rd February 2015

It’s amazing what you can do with a story.

The purpose of museums is to house objects that stand at the meeting-point of many meanings.  They can tell astonishing stories – about who we are and where we come from, the barely five thousand years during which we went from a lithic culture to landing a probe on a comet. Our stories are everything.

My Damascene story moment – when I realised what you could do with content and story – came when I entered the competition for the Holocaust Exhibtion at the Imperial War Museum.  The revelation was that I could design with words and sounds, artefacts, typography, graphics, film, AV, installations and photography, as well as working with curators, artists and makers, writers, archivists, film-makers, historians and survivors – and all their stories.  I never cease to be amazed at what you can do with content and story.

Let me take you on my travels through museum-land, and the joys of designing with content and story. Let’s start with a single object and then imagine a pull-shot as the camera pulls back.  My first example is the Holburne Museum in Bath, the collection of one obsessive man who as a young boy was present at the Battle of Trafalgar – one of the boys in ‘Master and Commander’.  After the war he returned to Bath, became a collector and never really left again.  We created a dense, complex, exploded verson of his study, the study where he spent most of his life, poring over his beloved collections.  Our display makes physical the innermost workings of his mind – because sometimes that’s what museums are – the collector’s mind made manifest.

And there is another example of this kind of designing – this time from the redisplay of the Cast Courts at the V&A, a project that’s now partially completed. The objects in the Cast Courts are fakes. The distemper on the walls – which we chose – is a close match to the original, but chosen because of the way that it vibrates with the patina of 100-year-old casts.  Before WWII the laylight overhead was of cast glass, so that looking up would have been like swimming and seeing the meniscus from down below. The patina and the distemper create a powerful atmosphere.

I think that these two examples represent the difference between theatre and design, or between atmosphere and photo-image, or between feeling and form-making.  Design more and more focuses on showcases;  theatre focuses on atmosphere, emotion and story.

Lately I have been thinking about cave paintings. Caves, I think, were the first museums, the first galleries, the first temples, the first comics, maybe all these things – we will never know.  But we can be sure that the images would have looked like a zoetrope as they flickered in the light of a flaming torch.

Which brings me to my second point, that it is amazing what you can do with a shed, a cave or some other simple structure. There are two great shed experiences in the history of museum-making.  The first is Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace – the display of a gardener, as it happens – and the other is Sir John Soane’s Museum, in this case the back of the museum which is essentially a top-lit structure, so a very beautiful shed but a shed nonetheless. Look at images of the Soane Museum and you’ll see that the mass displays, the places where he simulated the Mediterranean light through yellow glass on yellow walls, the places where he played with darkness and shadows – all these were intentional.

And here’s my third point, that it’s amazing what you can do with some darkness, as John Soane’s showed us – a statement which, in itself, runs counter to the modernist worship of light as moral transparency and white as goodness. When we design we always look for the chance to work in the shadows, with darkness as well as light, because that’s theatre.

My feeling is that content is the only way to convey meaning, and that in our work we find a myriad of media that compensate for the limitations of buildings to express meaning in our epoch.

So this is my final contention, that the things, the story, the shed, the colours and the darkness as well as the light, that all these connect. Because all these are what you need to make a museum.

Stephen Greenberg is co-director of Metaphor. Find out more about the Holburne Museum, V & A Cast Courts (pictured) and other projects here