BSc Sociology student Bethany Buckingham tells us about her placement at the Holburne Museum looking at museum architecture and its effect on community engagement.
Museums are historic institutions of society. Traditionally set up to care for and display collections, they have an important place in engaging communities in culture and heritage. Yet being historic, they often neglect to engage with communities of today. It's not uncommon for visitors to stand intimidated in large buildings, staring at unknown paintings from behind a rope, whispering in fear of causing a disturbance. Many people even feel museums are not places designed for them.
However, leaders in the museum industry are innovating ways to break down this barrier between the general public and museum collections. A new trend is taking off towards museum ‘openness’; open to all with no one excluded. The traditional role of museums is being expanded from the practical - conservation and display - to the social - inclusion and participation. Museums are becoming more visitor-focused to enable visitors to relate to a collection in their own exploratory way. And from my experience at the Holburne Museum, it seems innovative architecture is leading the way in this.
My experience of the Holburne Museum in Bath
As a BSc Sociology student at Bath Spa University, I undertook a voluntary placement at the Holburne Museum for a degree module, ‘Community Engagement'. Being immersed in the museum I saw first-hand how the physical space enables locals and tourists, adults and children, able-bodied and disabled, to engage with the collection.
The glass rear extension gives the museum a contemporary appeal and transparency as well as flooding the building with natural light. Seeing from the outside in enables visitors to feel comfortable on approach. Seeing from the inside out connects visitors with the natural greenery. The bustling cafe transforms the museum into a social hub. Hanging pottery and discovery drawers enable visitors to experience the collection from all angles. All the while, the Georgian part of the building, built from traditional Bath-stone, maintains a connection with its history and heritage.
When Bath Spa's Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries invited me to conduct a piece of research into inclusion in the creative industries, I instantly knew my topic. Using my connections at the Holburne, I researched the role of architecture in creating a socially inclusive and participatory museum. I had the privilege of interviewing the lead architect on the 2011 redevelopment Eric Parry, former Director Dr Alexander Sturgis, Head of Visitor Services Spencer Hancock, and Learning and Engagement Lead Louise Campion, on their insights.
Donated by William Holburne to the city to serve as “the nucleus of a museum of fine Art for Bath” (Sturgis, 2011), the Holburne’s collection has always been intended for community engagement. However, a large collection cramped into an old dark building made it inaccessible. Therefore, staff at the Holburne developed a vision to bring the museum alive again and foster the spirit of ‘openness’ by redeveloping its buildings.
Architect, Eric Parry, was brought in to work on a design. This consists of a glass and ceramic rear extension which gives the illusion of a top-heavy floating structure. While this design caused controversy by appearing starkly different to Bath’s usual Georgian Bath-stone architecture, locals and planners were won over by its revitalising impact on the Holburne and resulting benefit to the city. It celebrates the museum’s heritage by re-establishing a line-of-site directly through the museum from the city to the pleasure gardens beyond, which was lost in previous building work.
On a practical level, it enables greater social inclusivity and participation by broadening the Holburne’s physical capabilities. Increased space enables more of the collection to be displayed. A fuller and richer programme of exhibitions and events can be hosted. And a new cafe transforms the museum into a social meeting place. This encouraged a 500% increase in visitor numbers after re-opening in 2011 (The Holburne Museum, 2012).
Equally, if not, more importantly, the atmosphere of the museum was given a new lease of life. Visitors can feel comfortable and confident to explore. A contemporary image makes the museum more approachable and less formal, ensuring visitors feel relaxed once inside. The transparency of the glass makes the Holburne far less intimidating. And the capacity for interactive displays and creative responses in the Sackler Discovery Centre transform the visitors’ relationship with the collection.
An inspiration for other museums to follow
The Holburne Museum is evidence of the drastic impact that architecture can have on making museums more socially inclusive and participatory. Of course, Parry’s design was deeply responsive to the specific context of the building's history and the Holburne’s vision for the future. My report indicates how other museums may learn from the example set by the Holburne. Giving recommendations, it draws on the specific impacts of Parry’s design to suggest that other museums should adapt their physical spaces in response to their own community contexts.
- Sturgis, A. (2011) 'Introduction', in Angelo-Sparling, S. and West, E. (ed.) The Holburne Museum. London: Scala Publishers Ltd, pp. 5-13.
- The Holburne Museum (2012) Development project report. Available online (Accessed: 07 June 2021).
Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.
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