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19 Oct 2016

Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) blossoms after redesign by Pringle Richards Sharratt and GuM Studio partnership

A unique collection opens to new audiences

Capturing over a Century of English Rural Life, the Museum’s extraordinary collection has been revitalised and made relevant again through a striking series of ten galleries. Each carefully designed space incorporates different learning styles and areas of focus to draw visitors into the stories and landscape of the English countryside.

The £3.3 million HLF-funded project has been led by architects Pringle Richards Sharratt with exhibition design by GuM Studio. Director Penny Richards commented: “Our aim was to make this as much a destination for rural buffs as local families. We’ve done this by contextualising this extraordinary collection: telling stories and creating curiosity about rural lives and landscapes and showcasing the historic value of every day life. The sheer range of objects has been both the central challenge and the joyful opportunity of the commission.”

A key requirement of the project was a responsive and iterative interpretation strategy. The team developed the design working with MERL’s curatorial team, the Museum’s volunteers, University of Reading students and craft groups. Artefacts from a tiny sheep dog whistle through to the iconic Fordson tractor, are displayed, with cross cutting themes of fashion, craft, food and technology to draw more urbanite visitors into the collection. Visitors will delight in the impressive ‘Wagon Walk’, and the new mezzanine area houses the Museum’s unique collection of over 40 ploughs, for the first time providing forensic analysis of the objects.

Kate Arnold-Forster, Director of the Museum, commented: "Pringle Richards Sharratt and GuM Studio have transformed the Museum with designs that have illuminated our collections in new and extraordinary ways. The clarity of their vision, combining inventive new modes of interpretation, introducing beauty, colour, light and humour into our new galleries, has surpassed all our expectations and we believe will have set new standards for the display of rural collections."

Pringle Richards Sharratt provided architectural guidance for interventions to the existing gallery building and proposed areas in which the museum could expand its popular activities for families. The welcome area has been improved; circulation routes offer new and returning visitors different ways of engaging with the collection; and additional educational, display and storage areas supplement opportunities for more in-depth learning.

As exhibition designers, studio GuM worked with the museum’s curatorial team to identify key objects and highlight the stories, skills, technologies and traditions of rural life. The team also commissioned a number of exciting new works to enliven and enhance the collection, including life-size sculpted willow horse.

The Collection
Established at a time of major economic, technological and social change, the collection comprises approximately 25,000 artefacts. All of the objects are contained within the Museum and its mezzanine stores. Working with the Museum, GuM used a novel classification system to structure the experience. A chronothematic approach was used and objects were designated for their contribution to the visitor experience, such as ‘icons’, ‘threshold’ (inviting visitors into a rural narrative) or ‘markers’, (objects to help orientate the visitor). Some objects are clustered and densely displayed, referencing barns and rural outbuildings. Others are left to stand alone, inviting dialogue with visitors. Simple case displays, large-scale images and more complex digital interventions combine to create texture and intrigue throughout the galleries.

9 Oct 2015

Crime Museum Uncovered Exhibition opens to the public

For the first time ever, never-before-seen-objects from the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum will go on public display at the Museum of London in this major exhibition.

Previously only accessible to police professionals and invited guests, the exhibition will reveal the secrets of the Crime Museum, created by serving police officers since its establishment in 1875. GuM were appointed as exhibition designers of The Crime Museum Uncovered in November 2014. We have worked with the Museum of London, with the support of the Metropolitan Police Service and the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC), to create an exhibition that gives insight into real cases and how they were investigated. The visitor journey includes an immersive view of the Crime Museum, or Black Museum as it was known, in 1905. GuM studied a scarce selection of illustrations to build a picture of this historic space and working with lighting consultants DHA, incorporated identifiable features in a modern approach that hints at the past.

GuM employed a variety of techniques during the design development phase, including a series of 1:20 models, 1:1 prints of wall elevations, and folded paper room sets to communicate ideas to MoL and MOPAC. GuM worked closely with graphic consultant, Thomas Manss and Company, to develop striking and emotive graphic treatments throughout the exhibition sequence. The graphics vary from 3m tall image panels, focusing on high profile individual criminal cases, such as Ruth Ellis the last woman to be hanged and the Kray twins, to luggage labels inspired by those used in the original museum.

Throughout the exhibition, the displays seek to present the highly sensitive and powerful collection of objects in a clear and straightforward manner, giving each object the breathing space necessary to tell its story. In this way, we hope to bring visitors close to evidence from some of the UK’s most notorious crimes and criminals, including the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and the Millennium Dome Diamond Heist of 2000. The exhibition also examines some of the challenges faced in policing the capital, tackling themes from terrorism and espionage to counterfeiting and narcotics.

The Crime Museum Uncovered opens to the public at the Museum of London Linbury Gallery on the 9th October 2015 – 10th April 2016.

Featured on BBC's Inside Out London programme on 5 October 2015 (from 18'45" on).

Related content:

Crime Museum Uncovered
7 Jul 2015

Black Cultural Archives is overall winner of New London Architecture Awards

The Black Cultural Archives project won two NLA Awards 2015

  • The Overall Winner
  • The Conservation and Retrofit Award

The citation said:
"Sited at the heart of historic Brixton, the project has brought Raleigh Hall back from the brink and into active use.The derelict Grade II listed building, which had been on the English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register since 1992, was gifted to the BCA by Lambeth Council to provide a permanent home dedicated to black heritage in Britain. The project has produced creative alteration and extension of the former semi-detached houses, and is one of the few places in the UK to meet national archive standards."

Generally, judges applauded the way that many of the shortlist created a new identity for their schemes, but felt that the winner – and overall winner of this year’s New London Awards – Black Cultural Archives, was clearly ahead for its wider contribution to Brixton. ‘As a transformation it is quite stunning’, said Peter Murray.

1 May 2015

GuM appointed exhibition designer for Revealing the Charterhouse exhibition

GuM has been appointed as exhibition designer for the Revealing the Charterhouse project, which aims to open up the Charterhouse and Charterhouse Square to the general public and create new resources on site for visitors, schools and adult learners. The project includes the reception space, where the display will begin, the Norfolk Cloister and the Chapel Cloister & Chapel, where the narrative journey ends. The Charterhouse is the client for the work but the project is built on a partnership with the Museum of London, which is providing support and advice over the learning, curatorial and visitor aspects of the project.

The key aims are:

  • To introduce visitors to the present and past residents of Charterhouse ( brothers, school boys, masters, nobles, servants, monks).
  • To introduce visitors to Thomas Sutton and his extraordinary charitable gift
  • To evoke a sense of time passing and Charterhouse remembering the past
  • To act as a taster, stimulating visitors to explore the Charterhouse in more depth through tours, publications or web resources.
  • To support the learning programme

The concept is based on the idea of REMEMBERING, as a way for visitors to explore Charterhouse People, past and present. By steering visitors to a more intimate and reflective experience, rather than delivering a concentrated history lesson, the display will encourage visitors to develop a personal connection with the Charterhouse and leave them wanting to find out more through a tour. There is an ‘emotional / spiritual approach to the display, but it will be presented through people-centred physical exhibits and made accessible to the exhibition’s target audiences – which include children. In this approach, the memorials in the Chapel Cloister also become a meaningful part of the story, rather than just a visual ingredient evoking age and antiquity.

The scheme envisages a visitor journey which will broadly be a reverse chronology, starting in present day Charterhouse (the light) and going backwards through 600 years to the foundation (the dark). At each stage the past become more mysterious as personal memories become fewer, and surviving objects rarer. At the end, the very earliest residents are only remembered physically through their gravestones and skeletons. This light to dark journey will be expressed physically through the ambient light in the room. Visitors will follow a single visitor path which begins with ‘the window wall’ and ends on ‘the dark side’

7 Mar 2015

Black Cultural Archives wins two Civic Trust Awards

The Black Cultural Archives Project won two Civic Trust Awards at the awards ceremony on 7th March 2015 at the Globe Theatre:

  • National Award
  • Special Award for Community Impact & Engagement

The judges' citation said:
"The building makes an outstanding contribution to the quality and appearance of the envionment. Excellence is demonstrated through good design and the local community benefit at social, cultural, environmental and economic levels."

12 Jan 2015

GuM appointed exhibition designer for the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition

GuM has been appointed to design the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition at the Museum of London. For the first time ever, never-before-seen-objects from the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum will go on public display at the Museum of London in the major exhibition, The Crime Museum Uncovered, opening on 9th October. Previously only accessible to police professionals and invited guests, the exhibition will reveal the secrets of the Crime Museum, created by serving police officers since its establishment in 1875.

The exhibition, which is being created with the support of the Metropolitan Police Service and the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC), will take visitors on a journey through real cases and how they were investigated. It will bring them close to the objects and evidence from some of the UK’s most notorious crimes, including the Acid Bath Murderer of 1949, the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and the Millennium Dome Diamond Heist of 2000. It will also examine some of the challenges faced in policing the capital, tackling themes from terrorism and espionage to counterfeiting and narcotics.

Aside from police professionals, the Crime Museum’s Visitors’ Book reveals an eclectic list of high-profile guests over the years. King George V (1865-1936), Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), illusionist, Harry Houdini (1874-1926) and comedy double act, Stan Laurel (1890- 1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892- 1957) have all stepped inside the infamous museum, currently housed within the Metropolitan Police’s HQ, New Scotland Yard.

For six months only, visitors to the Museum of London can gain unprecedented access to highlights from the collection, established in the mid-1870s as a teaching tool to educate officers. The Museum of London has been working closely with the independent London Policing Ethics Panel in the planning of this exhibition and has discussed how to ensure the interests of victims are protected with Baroness Newlove, the Victims' Commissioner. The Crime Museum Uncovered is curated at the Museum of London by curators, Julia Hoffbrand and Jackie Keily. It builds upon the museum’s expertise and follows exhibitions, Jack the Ripper (2008), Dickens and London (2011) and Sherlock Holmes (2014), in exploring the darker side of London.

Museum of London

Related content:

Crime Museum Uncovered
24 Jul 2014

Landmark heritage centre, the first dedicated to Black British Culture, opens in Brixton

Designed by GuM's parent company, Pringle Richards Sharratt, this new cultural landmark is the first purpose built home for Black Cultural Archives (BCA), the leading independent archive collection dedicated to history and culture of people of African and Caribbean descent in Britain. The building provides facilities for BCA’s core activities of education, research and community engagement.

The practice has been working with BCA to transform a derelict Grade II listed building into a state-of-the-art heritage centre ready to meet the ambitions of the organisation providing a local, national and international presence. The opening of the building marks BCA’s return to Brixton, the archive originally founded on Coldharbour Lane in 1981.

Paul Reid, Black Cultural Archives’ Director commented:
“It is exciting and inspiring to have this wonderful new home. Pringle Richards Sharratt have helped us to get this right by providing expertise, ambition and confidence to bring this incredible project to life. We now have the facilities and space we need to collect, preserve and celebrate the histories of African and African-Caribbean people in Britain”.

The project comprised the restoration and refurbishment of Raleigh Hall, a Grade II listed building, declared ‘at risk’ by English Heritage in 1992. One of the central themes of the architectural design evolved from establishing and interacting with the central six central bays of the listed building, which is the oldest and most significant heritage element on the site. The original building now contains a learning zone, a café and shop as well as office and administration spaces.

A new loadbearing limestone wing is expressed as a beautifully crafted stone box placed safely above the ground. This houses the archive store and a dedicated, flexible exhibition space on the ground floor. Designed to the highest Government Indemnity standards it allows the BCA to be considered as a recognised depository for artefacts of national or international importance. All these areas are provided with high standards of environmental conditions and security.

A glazed connection between the listed building and the new wing allows the two forms to be clearly expressed, with the new wing off ering a frame for the restored stucco façades. A new courtyard has been created in front of the central six bays, the glazed heritage doors of the café opening directly onto it. This creates an external event area and a focal point for BCA’s activities. This can be linked seamlessly to the public realm space of Windrush Square when the entrance gates are opened. This connection is echoed in further design elements such as the large shop front windows, which deliberately draw attention to the building. It moves the Square’s centre of gravity towards BCA and attracts interest from the well-used west-facing boulevard with the popular Ritzy Cinema and Tate Library.

Finally, the building completes Windrush Square giving solidity and permanence to its south end. The Square is a new and significant piece of public realm for Lambeth, and a flagship project of the Mayor of London’s Great Outdoors Programme. The Brixton Central Square project was launched in 2000 by the London Borough of Lambeth in association with the Brixton Area Forum.

Malcolm McGregor, Director of Pringle Richards Sharratt said:
“This was an exciting project for the practice. We’re proud that this new home gives BCA the status and presence it deserves, as well as delivering the practical spaces and technical requirements needed to house their important archive. We know from experience that these projects are complex and often lengthy. They have specific and necessary constraints of funding models and the involvement of multiple stakeholders. We see our role to be as much about the design and ambition for the building as ensuring a shared vision for the wider team and keeping everyone focussed on delivery. We believe our work with BCA is a good example of how as a practice we can bring exceptional design with excellent project management.”

Established in 1996, Pringle Richards Sharratt is known for its significant portfolio of cultural projects, including the award winning William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, as well as its track record in urban landscape renewal and regeneration, most recently in Hull and Folkestone. The practice’s work frequently includes HLF-funded schemes.

The £3.5million construction costs of project included grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and London Borough of Lambeth which also gifted Raleigh Hall to BCA.

Sue Bowers, Head of HLF London, said:
“We’re delighted to be supporting BCA’s vision for a major black history and cultural centre in the heart of Brixton. This project has been a long time in the making but all the more worthwhile for that very reason. Thanks to the completion of Raleigh Hall’s redevelopment, people will be able to learn more about the contribution of black Britons to the UK’s cultural, social, political and economic life.”

On the Black Cultural Archives PRS worked with structural engineer Alan Baxter & Associates, services engineer Max Fordham, cost consultant Turner & Townsend and project manager Clarkson Alliance.

The Black Cultural Archives and Lambeth Council are grateful to following trusts, foundations, friends groups and sponsors for their support including:

  • Heritage Lottery Fund
  • London Borough of Lambeth
  • Greater London Authority
  • Biffa Award
  • The Linbury Trust
  • Esmee Fairbairn Foundation
  • Foyle Foundation
  • Garfield Weston Foundation
  • J Paul Getty Jnr
  • Charles Hayward Foundation

Photo: Edmund Sumner

25 May 2014

Museum of English Rural Life receives HLF funding

The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) has been awarded a confirmed grant of £1.7m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) that will transform the way people experience and understand our rural heritage.

The ‘Our Country Lives' project will see the Museum, which is owned and managed by the University of Reading, redisplayed and expanded to create an exciting and innovative visitor experience. New galleries and digital displays will take visitors to the heart of countryside issues and history. The new Museum will explore the relevance of rural life, past and present, to our modern and urban lives, explaining its vital place in addressing questions of identity, environment, sustainability and health.

Increased space will allow never seen before ‘hidden treasures' to go on display. There will be more opportunities for visitors to handle objects, bringing the stories of the people that live on and work the land to life. Existing spaces will be radically redesigned to enhance the visitor experience. An improved welcome area will include a larger shop and better facilities. The much-loved MERL garden will become an integral part of every visit too, with extra play facilities for children and new food and crop-based planting, reflecting the themes of the displays inside.

Isabel Hughes, MERL curator, said: "Our Country Lives' will connect our visitors to the countryside like never before. The exciting transformation of our galleries will address more recent 20th century history and showcase the vital links between town and country. New displays will revitalise the collections by shifting the balance from agricultural machinery, tools and implements to the stories of the people who used them. Parts of our Collection, never seen by the public, will take centre stage. We also have exciting plans for new events and activities in the coming years, working closely with the local community as well as our rural followers. Ten years after moving to our purpose built gallery, we are thrilled to be able to take forward our plans for the next decade."

The first phase of ‘Our Country Lives' is due to begin this Autumn. During a period of closure, the Museum will work with local communities who will have a chance to participate in an exciting range of projects and activities. TheUniversity's Special Collections Service will continue to provide scholars around the world with access to rare books, archives and manuscripts, such as the Beckett Collection.

The Museum's first acquisitions were recorded in 1951. Established by members of the Department of Agriculture at a time of major economic, social and technological change, MERL was the first museum of its kind in the country. It houses designated collections of national importance relating to the history of food, farming and the countryside.

Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, added: "The University is very proud of the Museum of English Rural Life and the treasures it holds. Redisplaying its collections will ensure they can be enjoyed by new generations of students and academics, as well as the local community. "Although we live in an increasingly urban and globalised society, all of us have ancestral links to rural communities and activities. This Heritage Lottery Fund grant will ensure MERL continues to be a portal to our rural past and engages all who walk through its doors."

Stuart McLeod, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund South East, said: "This is an engaging project which will give visitors and local people from across the community the chance to explore and learn about changing rural life across England. The ‘Our Country Lives' project will build on the museum's existing success by revitalizing existing displays and exhibitions, creating new learning spaces and improving the visitor facilities. These changes, combined with an exciting programme of educational activities and volunteer opportunities, will bring the museum into the 21st century making it a great place to visit for all."

5 Feb 2014

William Morris Gallery Shortlisted for the European Museum of the Year Award 2014

GuM project the William Morris Gallery has been shortlisted for the European Museum of the Year Award 2014.

This award goes to a museum which contributes most directly to attracting audiences and satisfying its visitors with unique atmosphere, imaginative interpretation and presentation, a creative approach to education and social responsibility. Past winners have been both large and small museums, but all developed something which was special and changed the standards of quality in museums within Europe.

The European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) was founded in 1977 under the auspices of the Council of Europe, with the aim of recognising excellence in the European museum scene and encouraging innovative processes in a museum world which still took the more traditional view to focus exclusively on collections rather than on their use for the benefit of society. It was an adventurous initiative, with the founders generously investing their prestige and their expertise, together with a lot of time and energy for something never experienced before on this European scale. EMYA has had a positive influence on the lives of a number of museum professionals and has brought to centre stage small museums with highly innovative contents, which otherwise would not have received recognition at the European level.

EMYA through the work of EMF has also directed the attention of public authorities to initiatives originating in their own countries, which previously were almost neglected and not recognised at the level they deserved. Within the EMYA scheme all museums are equal whether public or private, small or large. Whatever their subject or their nationality, they are assessed on the basis of what is considered outstanding public quality. EMYA has proved to be the longest running and most prestigious museum award in Europe and is an important occasion for promoting innovative approaches in the museum sector throughout the whole continent. The European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) recognises smaller museums with a unique atmosphere, imaginative interpretation and a creative approach to education.

The winner will be chosen at an event in Tallinn next May, where gallery staff will answer questions from the judging panel. They'll also bring with them one object that symbolises our collection and curatorial approach. This is the third major award that the gallery has been nominated for since its reopening. The Art Fund chose it as its Museum of the Year for 2013 and it also won the Museums + Heritage Award for the permanent exhibition.

European Museum of the Year Award Nominee
William Morris Gallery
Art Fund Video of William Morris Gallery

5 Feb 2014

William Morris Gallery wins London Planning Award 2014 for Best Historic Building Management

The award was presented at a ceremony at City Hall on 4th February 2014. The London Planning Awards were established to celebrate those working in planning who make notable contributions to London's landscape. They are an excellent way of showcasing the work of individual clients and London boroughs as well as raising the overall profile of planning in the capital.

The Awards are run in partnership by the RTPI, London First, the Greater London Authority and London Councils. Best Historic Building Management Award is sponsored by English Heritage

Open to projects which have led to investment and re-use of historic places in London. Entries do not have to comprise Listed Buildings, however, they must have local importance or be set within a Conversation Area. Eligible entries include characterisation projects, appraisals, design statements or management plans alongside investment programmes. The judges are looking for projects which:

  • Have relevance to the planning system (as opposed to the detail of the historic or architectural merit) and exemplify good practice in managing the planning process
  • Address planning challenges of bringing new uses to underused/disused buildings
  • Improve the environmental performance of historic building(s)
  • Are not exclusive to just managing historic buildings but can demonstrate how existing conservation areas are being run to an exceptionally high standard

William Morris Gallery
Art Fund Video of William Morris Gallery

16 Jul 2013

GuM appointed exhibition designer for the Garden Museum in Lambeth

We have just been appointed to design the new exhibition at the Garden Museum, Lambeth, where the Museum plans to extend their exhibition displays within the church of St Mary, Lambeth, and to move their café into a new pavilion in the garden. The aim of the project is to double the gallery space and create modern displays (at present the museum can only display less than 10% of a collection which is a unique representation of garden history.

Part of the project is to recreate part of John Tradescant’s Ark, a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ and one of the wonders of 17th century London that included shells and plants, a stuffed penguin and dodo. The Museum is in discussions with the Ashmolean Museum who will loan these objects, which are within its collection, on a long-term basis.

The project is part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project is scheduled for completion in Spring 2016.

The Garden Museum

10 Jul 2013

GuM appointed exhibition designer for the Museum of English Rural Life

The Museum of English Rural Life is planning a major overhaul of their display 'Our Country Lives', and GuM have been appointed as exhibition designers for the project. The Museum is seeking support from the HLF, with the new display complete by December 2015. GuM is working with BT Museum Consultancy and Thomas Manss & Co.

The design will transform through a redisplay the Museum of English Rural Life to engage visitors dynamically in the stories of rural life in the past. This will enable them to explore through the collections contemporary issues around environmentalism as well as local and global sustainability. The project will energise the way a new generation engages with rural heritage through innovative, co-created interpretation and new approaches to audience development for MERL.

MERL holds a unique position among UK museums of rural history as a result of the scope, depth and content of its collection and their importance in reflecting local, regional and national aspects of our rural heritage. The MERL collection has resonance and significance to varied users and audiences; many parts of the collection are, by definition, of local interest to areas near to Reading or to smaller communities across the country in the areas from which is it was acquired. Notwithstanding the Museum’s aim to be national in scope, it was farmers, rural craftsmen and rural communities and families local to Reading who provided rich territory for fieldwork, research and collecting as the Museum’s profile was established in the 1950s and 60s.

Museum of English Rural Life

18 Jun 2013

Talent on display

Exhibition design is getting plenty of press these days with a raft of high-profile shows taking the sector by storm.
Pamela Buxton takes an indepth look at three practices that have made the field into a speciality. FX Magazine.

Since exhibition design calls for such a variety skills, it's not so surprising that those who thrive in it have such diverse backgrounds. Whereas the long-established practice Casson Mann came to the discipline from interior design, comparative newcomer GuM grew out of architecture practice Pringle Richards Sharratt while Real Studios, designer of the V&A blockbuster David Bowie Is, came to exhibition design from the unlikely paths of mechanical engineering and physiotherapy. But whatever their backgrounds, they all face the same issues given that the golden years of the lottery-funding boom years are over. There are more diverse audiences than ever to engage and myriad media to deploy with ever-shrinking budgets. Challenging conditions certainly - but it's still possible to pull it off with aplomb.

GuM
GuM (short for Galleries und Museums) is off to a flying start as a specialist in gallery and museum design with projects celebrating such creative luminaries as William Morris and Benjamin Britten. Not that London-based GuM is really a complete newcomer. While the exhibition specialism might be newly defined, GuM springs from seasoned architecture practice Pringle Richards Sharratt, whose work includes the Sheffield Millennium Galleries, the Pitt Rivers refurbishment and the V&A's Märit Rausing Gallery of Contemporary Glass. So often, says GuM director Penny Richards, new museums end up housing exhibitions that do not work as well with the architecture as they should. Often they seemed to have been developed in a bubble of their own, even though the building itself often should be seen as the largest exhibit in the museum's collection.

'We decided to set up GuM to create a design studio which has a special interest in showing the display of exhibits and artefacts in complete harmony with the building - to present a gallery or museum and its contents in a more integrated and sensitive style," she says. 'We sensed that clients wanted their exhibition designers to have their own identity and ideas and to have a degree of independence from the architect. GuM has given us an opportunity to concentrate on developing our approach to a collection, and how to show and interpret objects in an important architectural context.'

GuM was appointed to work alongside PRS at the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow, East London and with Stanton Williams on the Britten exhibition in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Richards and fellow PRS director John Pringle are sure that architects, armed with their spatial know-how, have the right background for exhibition design and are wellplaced to ensure that it is sympathetic with the host building. That said, they do bring in expertise when needed, collaborating with specialists such as Thomas Manss, the graphic designer for both Morris and Britten shows, and Benedetta Tiana of BT Museum Consultancy, with whom they collaborated on the Morris project.

GuM finds the nature of the work hugely rewarding, delving into the archives and working with curators to decide how best to display the objects to effectively communicate the subject. 'It's very invigorating,' says Richards. 'We like the idea that an artefact or a collection of artefacts sets the brief for a project - and we like the variety of objects that we encounter on our projects and learning about them and their stories and significance. We like working with the curators to deciding which objects should lead a particular strand of the interpretation. We enjoy developing the parallel references between the historic and contemporary, and both the constraints and the freedom that come with designing for galleries and museums.'

With his rich life and varied achievements from poetry to design, political activism to publishing, William Morris was a great subject for exhibition design. GuM was particularly keen to convey his modernity, says Richards. As well as scene-setting sections on his inspirations and domestic life, the exhibition includes a recreation of one of his furnishings shops - then a progressive venture for a designer - and a workshop room which shows the techniques behind the designs, from stained-glass windows to block-printed fabrics and wallpapers.

Laid out with a long central workbench inset with displays and interactives, the room is crowned with a piece of printed fabric hung high to allow the pattern to dry - as would have been the case in Morris's day. Not all aspects of Morris's life are so visually alluring, and this is the where the skill of the exhibition designer comes to the fore. For the room on his book publishing for example, GuM introduced a bold black and white striped floor to both graphically get visitors' attention and allude to the ink and page of printing. It would have been easy to get carried away with pattern but GuM uses it sparingly - as solar shading fritting on the cafe roof, on the doors to the lavatories, and in two bespoke items - a linoleum floor with a red marigold motif, and a new stair carpet.

The Britten 100 exhibition, which opens in June at the composer's Red House home in Aldeburgh, will include sections on how Britten composed, his influences, life in Aldeburgh, and a Peter Grimes section set within a dark space like an upturned boat.

In all its work GuM's mission, says Pringle, seeks to avoid dumbing down the subject matter yet still cater for those with little previous knowledge: 'Your challenge as a designer is trying to make something appeal on different levels through how you present it, as well as the choice of objects.' And with several more projects in the offing, including the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, GuM has plenty more opportunities to put into practice its belief in an integrated exhibition design that embraces, rather than ignores, the architecture of the building.

Video of William Morris Gallery
FX Website

14 Jun 2013

Britten 100 Exhibition officially opened at the Red House, Aldeburgh

The Britten 100 exhibition designed by GuM was officially opened by Dame Janet Baker on Friday 14th June 2013 at the Red House, Aldeburgh. This follows the completion of construction of the new archive and the restoration of the Red House and Britten's composing studio. The exhibition is housed above the former swimming pool on the site.

"The space freed up on the site has been used to develop exhibition and education facilities, which will enable the BPF to bring Britten’s life and music to many more people. The opening of the new Archive is complemented by a new exhibition exploring Britten’s life and music with and objects and documents form the BPF’s rich collections. The exhibition will also be interactive including replicas of the original animal headdresses from Noye’s Fludde, which visitors can try on. The exhibition has been designed to appeal to all members of the family."

The exhibition is arranged around some questions you may have, not just about Britten but also about where a composer’s ideas come from and what it means to be a composer. It features highlights from Britten’s amazing archive, including set models, costumes, music manuscripts, diaries, programmes and posters. And lots of wonderful music too. The exhibition and new archive featuring highlights from the BPF's collections are complemented by the Britten Trail, a self-guided walk around Aldeburgh through sites associated with Britten and Pears.

GuM worked with graphic designers Thomas Manss & Co., interpretation planning consultants Bright 3D, lighting designers DHA Design, audio designers Peter Key Sound Design and cost consultants PT Projects.

BPF website
Press release

10 Jun 2013

Winning Tribute to Crafts Master - Museum of the Year

A brisk and beautiful stroll through wood-floored rooms, housing examples of Morris's furniture and textiles, and lucid explanations of his life story
Nick Curtis, Evening Standard

Hooray for the Art Fund. If it hadn’t given the £100,000 Museum of the Year award to Walthamstow’s William Morris Gallery, I might never have made the pilgrimage. This exquisite Georgian villa was home to Morris’s family after his father’s death in 1848. It has been dedicated to the work and life of London’s great “craftsman, designer, retailer, socialist” (as the first room dubs him, among other titles) since it was opened as a museum by Clement Attlee in 1950.

It’s a brisk and beautiful stroll through wood-floored rooms, housing examples of his furniture and textiles, and lucid explanations of his life story, his utopian ideals and his complex relationships with colleagues including Rosetti and Burne-Jones. If anything, the fabrics and wallpapers express Morris’s belief that “beauty is a human need” better than the explanatory panels. The Utrecht Velvet that was used on Titanic, and fabrics inspired by tributaries to the Thames, are particularly lovely.

There’s a changing display showcasing other designers from Morris & Co, and a fine display of paintings by Frank Brangwyn, who was briefly an apprentice at the firm, and whose bequest helped to found this gallery. Good café, lovely gardens, and it was packed last Friday morning. A worthy winner.

YouTube Video
Evening Standard

8 Jun 2013

An engaging introduction to Britten and his music - opening 8 June 2013

When The Red House re-opens on Saturday 8 June the new attractions will include a major new exhibition for all the family, in a refurbished Gallery that stands above Britten's old swimming pool. The new exhibition has been created by GuM, designers of the recently re-opened William Morris Gallery.

The exhibition is arranged around some questions you may have, not just about Britten but also about where a composer’s ideas come from and what it means to be a composer. It features highlights from Britten’s amazing archive, including set models, costumes, music manuscripts, diaries, programmes and posters. And lots of wonderful music too.

The exhibition and new archive featuring highlights from the BPF's collections are complemented by the Britten Trail, a self-guided walk around Aldeburgh through sites associated with Britten and Pears.

Britten-Pears Foundation website

6 Jun 2013

Don't patronise urban communities – give them the William Morris Gallery

The museum of the year was under threat till a council realised that the local people were perfectly able to appreciate fine art
Tristram Hunt, Guardian

"I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few." So said William Morris in 1877 in an address titled The Decorative Arts: Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress.

Well, thanks to the Art Fund, public enjoyment of Morris's arts and crafts is set to grow from the few to the many. Because on Tuesday, the William Morris Gallery was crowned Art Fund museum of the year, which will see its attendance figures rocket. Curators and museum directors will no doubt be travelling to Walthamstow in north-east London to learn lessons on how to display, interpret and market their collections. But the real lessons should be for the left: because the William Morris Gallery's victory must be the final nail in the coffin for any lazy thinking that still dares to equate cultural access with dumbing down scholarship.

Last night's prize-winning was by no means a sure thing. Back in 2007, Waltham Forest council cut back the opening hours, wound down the learning, and downgraded the curatorial staff. Councillors spoke darkly of focusing on the future not the past. They wanted festivals and arts trails, not fusty old museums about dead white men. The subtext was clear: the life and art of William Morris had nothing to offer modern, multicultural, multi-ethnic Walthamstow and it was easier just to do Zumba and face-painting. It was all the more shocking, given that this was a Labour council thinking about terminating a gallery focused on the legacy of Morris – a man who founded the aesthetic tradition within the Labour movement. What was more, the gallery had been opened by Clement Attlee in 1950 as part of the Labour party's postwar commitment to ensuring popular appreciation of the arts as part of a social democratic state.

Rightly, the response from the arts community was damning. However, even more encouraging was the response of local people, who regarded the gallery not as a paternalistic embarrassment – but as a source of intense civic pride in an otherwise culturally deprived part of the capital. As protest organiser Ian Dungavell put it: "The council should be developing the gallery and getting more people in it. It may be beautiful, but it is not art for the elite. William Morris thought it was art for the people." So, under council leader Chris Robbins's street-savvy leadership, the Labour group performed a welcome about-turn. Wisely, they saw the gallery as an asset rather than drain on resources – and decided to allocate £1.5m of council tax funds to the museum, securing a matching £1.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The money paid for a total refurbishment, new collection displays, a learning and research centre and new school resources.

The result is a triumph. The gallery does so much: it positions Morris within the topography of north-east London as it edges into Epping Forest and Essex; it explains the roots of his gothicism and relationship with Ruskinian design; it describes the birth of his commercial practice and commodification of style; it deftly charts the nature of his socialism and how his art interacted with his politics; and it explores his remarkable cultural legacy.

The gallery does all this with scholarship and insight in an open and accessible style. There is no dumbing down here, but a great programme of outreach. No compromise on aesthetic and curatorial excellence, but an equal commitment to ensuring that as many people as possible come to understand the importance and wonder of William Morris. As a result, one of the poorest boroughs in the country now has one of the greatest museums in the country. From the dead-end thinking of 2007 with its terrible assumptions that socio-economically challenged communities and multicultural neighbourhoods cannot appreciate fine art, we now have museum of the year.

As Morris himself put it in The Beauty of Life: "Beauty, which is what is meant by art, using the word in its widest sense, is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life."

Art Fund Video
YouTube Video
Tristram Hunt, The Guardian

4 Jun 2013

William Morris Gallery wins the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award 2013

Transformed from local gem to world-class attraction, the William Morris Gallery has been awarded the prestigious title of Museum of the Year for its major renovation and creative reinterpretation of the life and work of Morris – the revolutionary Victorian designer and social activist – for a diverse range of 21st century audiences.

Pringle Richards Sharratt were architects for the gallery redevelopment together with its sister company GuM Studio, who carried out the exhibition design. The team included interpreter Benedetta Tiana of BT Museum Consultancy, graphic designers Thomas Manss & Co. and DHA lighting consultancy.

The judges said: “This truly is Museum of the Year. Its extraordinary collections, beautifully presented, draw the visitor engagingly through Morris’s life and work and through the building itself. Setting the highest standards of curatorship, and reaching out impressively to its local community.”

It won for a redevelopment that brought a rather tired museum thrillingly back to life. At one stage the gallery was facing cuts and, it was feared, closure at the hands of the local authority, but after a community campaign Waltham Forest council became its saviours, agreeing to invest £1.5m, matching the £1.5m offered by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The new gallery reopened in August last year and is one of the borough's jewels. Stephen Deuchar, director of The Art Fund and chair of the judges said the local campaign and the council response were to be applauded. The local authority discovered "what they might have thought was a sleepy old museum that could be humanely put down, could in fact be revitalised and that is what has happened. In these difficult times for an area of London facing many other pressures, to put in £1.5m was a great and responsive act."

The renovated gallery reinterprets Morris for a 21st century audience, telling the story of his life and considerable achievements in the grand Walthamstow house he grew up in. It has space for visiting shows and will be the first venue when Jeremy Deller's current exhibition at the Venice Biennale goes on tour next year. The refurbished gallery was setting the highest standards of curatorship, said Deuchar. "The collections are not only important but they are very beautifully presented, in terms of the physical fabric of the showcases and also the interpretation – the labels are erudite and accessible. There is a great curatorial coherence to the collections and that comes across in every square foot of the museum. The architectural transformation of a fine but tricky Georgian building had been beautifully done”.

This year's judging panel included journalist Sarah Crompton, historian Bettany Hughes, MP Tristram Hunt and artist Bob and Roberta Smith. The award was announced at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 4 June 2013, broadcast on Radio 4's Front Row programme.

Art Fund Video
YouTube Video
William Morris Gallery crowned Museum of the Year 2013

15 May 2013

GuM wins best Permanent Exhibition award at the Museums + Heritage Awards 2013

GuM won the prize for best Permanent Exhibition for the William Morris Gallery in the 2013 Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence, at a ceremony held at 8 Northumberland, London on 15th May 2013.

The judges said: "It is a bright and engaging museum which has been transformed beyond all recognition. Despite the limitations and challenges of the historic building in which the museum is located, the redevelopment has facilitated a huge organisational rebirth with a fresh interpretation of the collection which has veered away from a memorial route and which has realised the true potential of its internationally significant collections."

The shortlist comprised:

  • V&A Furniture Galleries (NORD Architecture)
  • The Science Garden at Thinktank (Birmingham Museums Trust)
  • Treasures (Natural History Museum) - Joint Highly Commended
  • Titanic Belfast (Event Communications) - Joint Highly Commended
  • Cutty Sark (Cutty Sark)
  • William Morris Gallery (Pringle Richards Sharratt & GuM) - Winner

YouTube Video
Museum + Heritage Awards 2013

The award reflects the innovative design and interpretation within the project brief and budget. Particular attention is paid to the impact the exhibition has had on the overall museum, gallery or heritage attraction.

2 Apr 2013

William Morris Gallery shortlisted for the Art Fund Prize for the Museum of the Year

On 2 April 2013 the William Morris Gallery was announced as one of the ten finalists battling it out for this prestigious award. The Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2013 is the UK’s largest arts prize, celebrating the very best museums and galleries, highlighting and rewarding the innovative and creative ways they bring objects and collections to life for the public. An independent panel of judges comes together to put the spotlight on the ten museums competing for the Prize. The winner will be presented with £100,000 and crowned ‘Museum of the Year 2013’ at an award ceremony in London on 4 June. For more information please visit www.artfund.org/prize.

Museum of the Year Photography Competition
We need your creative talent to help us make a splash and show just how much the Gallery means to its visitors.

The Art Fund has launched a photography competition calling on the public to submit photographs inspired by any of the ten finalists. They are looking for the most innovative, atmospheric and even humorous images that really capture the spirit of the venue. Help us tell the story of the Gallery, its fabulous collections and its visitors by entering the competition today. The deadline for submitting photographs is 15 May 2013. The Art Fund will pick their favourite images of the ten finalists (one for each venue) and then hand it over to you – the public – to choose the winner. The fantastic prizes include an Apple ipad mini, a year’s National Art Pass, a selected image published in Art Quarterly and two tickets to the Museum of the Year ceremony on 4 June at the V&A, London. More information on how to enter can be found by visiting www.artfund.org/prize.

22 Mar 2013

William Morris Gallery shortlisted for the Museums & Heritage Awards 2013

The William Morris Gallery has been shortlisted for the Museums & Heritage Awards 2013 in the Permanent Exhibition category. The Awards ceremony will be held on 15th May 2013.

Entries for the Permanent Exhibition award highlight excellence in the creation of a permanent exhibition within a museum, gallery or heritage attraction or the opening of a new attraction within the period of
eligibility. The judges will be looking for evidence of innovative design and interpretation within the project brief and budget. Particular attention is paid to the impact the exhibition has had on the overall museum, gallery or heritage attraction.

The permanent exhibition was designed by GuM in collaboration with Pringle Richards Sharratt.

YouTube Video

30 Jan 2013

GuM designing Britten 100 Exhibition

GuM has been appointed as exhibition designer for the Britten 100 exhibition at the Red House in Aldeburgh where Benjamin Britten lived and worked for much of his life. Britten 100 is the global celebration on Britten's centenary and has been launched by the Britten-Pears Foundation.

The Red House is being refurbished and new archive built as part of the celebrations and GuM is designing the exhibition which will feature the highlights from the BPF's collections. The project is partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project is due for completion in June 2013.

The project includes the design of the Britten Trail, a walk around Aldeburgh through sites associated with Britten and Peter Pears, with an associated audio tour. The Trail takes in the Scallop by Maggie Hambling, the Moot Hall, Aldeburgh Parish Church, the George V coronation shelter, the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh Music box office and the Peter Pears Gallery, the Baptist Chapel and the Aldeburgh Music Room.

GuM is working with graphic designer Thomas Manss and audio consultant Peter Key.

1 Nov 2012

William Morris Gallery - Review in Museums Journal

William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, London
Caroline Worthington, Museums Journal, Issue 112/11, p60-63, 01.11.2012
Like many others, Caroline Worthington welcomes the reopening of a gallery dedicated to the designer, artist and writer William Morris.

William Morris was 49 when, in his own words, he crossed “the river of fire”, becoming a socialist with a capital “S”. One of the unexpected delights of the redisplayed and revitalised William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, east London, is finding the artist, craftsman, poet and design entrepreneur’s humble-looking satchel. It is easy to imagine it stuffed with pamphlets and a copy of a speech expounding his vision of a better world. In the 1890s he was averaging 100 speeches a year, giving three in one day sometimes. The small museum that celebrates his life and work, which is in the house where Morris grew up, reopened in August after a £5m modernisation. A further £5m has been spent on the surrounding garden and park. Morris had a fairly conventional middle-class upbringing at Water House, a Georgian villa that was a healthy distance from London’s suburban sprawl at the time.

Pre-Raphaelites
The displays aim to help visitors meet the man in his many guises. We learn that he was originally destined for the priesthood. There is a touching letter to his mother explaining why he decided instead as a young man to devote his life to art, having encountered the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at Oxford. There he met his lifelong friend and fellow artist, Edward Burne-Jones. His model and muse, Jane, became his wife in 1859. The museum owns the newlyweds’ piano from the home Morris commissioned, called the Red House, in Bexleyheath. Visitors can listen to the folk music that the Morris’s enjoyed recorded on the piano and love poems he wrote inspired by medieval legends. The young Morris rode around Epping Forest in a suit of armour. You can see the armour that an Oxford blacksmith made him, alongside an account of the short-tempered and chubby Morris struggling to get out of it.

William and Jane Morris’s happiness was not to last, however. Jane’s lengthy affair with Brotherhood founder, the poet, painter and womaniser Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is rather glossed over. It is poignant to imagine Morris finding solace in Iceland, having left his wife, daughters and Rossetti at Kelmscott Manor in the Oxfordshire countryside. By the time of his temporary exile to Iceland, Morris had established the firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co to offer good design and affordable luxury to discerning Victorians. Morris was a savvy businessman and he actively promoted the company at trade fairs in Philadelphia, Boston and Paris. This meant he found clients as far afield as the Barr family in Adelaide, Australia.

“Swinish luxury”
There are some choice quotations reproduced in the museum’s gallery about some of their major commissions, including this one: “I spend my life ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.” One of the museum’s galleries is dressed as Morris & Co’s Oxford Street shop. Visitors can flick through books of fabric swatches and wallpaper patterns just as the shop’s customers did in the past. There is a vivid image of the impression Morris the shopkeeper made on one visitor: “His hair on end and in a nonchalant way, he began show me one or two of his curios.”

Horrified by industrialisation and working conditions in factories, Morris established his enlightened alternative, the Merton Abbey Mills. The model workshops on the banks of the Wandle in south London had gardens to grow dye plants, a dye works, which made use of the river water to rinse fabrics, as well as a weaving shed. The story of Abbey Mills is particularly well told. Long swags of fabric are draped from the ceiling and printing blocks from the collection are suspended in mid-air – a reflection of the young Morris’s ambition to “transform the world with beauty”. A workbench provides space for simple interactive displays. You can have a go at carpet knotting, designing stained glass or scaling up a tapestry, while drawers are designed as showcases and home to delicate textiles. Among the apprentices at the workshops was Frank Brangwyn, who became a successful artist and designer. Without Brangwyn there would not have been a William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. Brangwyn shared Morris’s view that art should not exist for the privileged few and donated most of his private art collection to the borough as “a humble offering to the people of Walthamstow in the hope that they will enjoy art and remember Morris”.

Future shows
The gallery was opened in 1950 by Clement Attlee – then prime minister and the local MP, another middle-class boy turned socialist. A small display of Brangwyn’s work is featured upstairs. While a computer provides glimpses of what is in store, it is a shame more space has not been found for the Welsh artist’s work. The same is true of non-arts and crafts work in the collection, so you find a Rodin bronze tucked away in a small room downstairs called rather grandly the discovery lounge. The artist Grayson Perry is an admirer on Morris and has a studio in Walthamstow. Post-refurbishment, the museum’s opening exhibition featured Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry. Charting man’s journey from cradle to grave in contemporary Britain, it is peppered with leading brands encountered along the way, making it feel very Walthamstow for those who know its thriving street market.

Hopefully, the museum will continue to aim as high with its future shows. The artist Jeremy Deller seems a natural choice. In the room about Morris the socialist and firebrand conservationist, Deller appears on a video refl ecting on Morris’s politically inspired art and life. Arts and crafts pilgrims will rejoice that the William Morris Gallery has reopened, especially when a decade ago its future looked bleak due to underinvestment by the local council. Waltham Forest’s decision to secure Heritage Lottery Fund money to restore the museum, and the grounds that surround it, is to be applauded. When I visited both were busy with families rubbing shoulders with Morris enthusiasts.

Caroline Worthington is the chief executive of Bexley Heritage Trust

Project data
Cost £10m
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund; Big Lottery Fund
Other supporters the Allchurches Trust; Clothworkers Foundation; the Drapers’ Company; Esmée Fairbairn Foundation; Foyle Foundation; Friends of the William Morris Gallery; Garfield Weston Foundation; Heritage of London Trust; the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation Morris & Co; J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust; Kathy Callow Trust; Leche Trust; Mercers’ Company; Monument Trust; Pilgrim Trust; Radcliffe Trust; Sanderson & Co; Textile Society; Wolfson Foundation
Architect Pringle Richards Sharratt
Exhibition design GuM Studio
Interpretation consultant BT Museum Consultancy
Graphic design Thomas Manss & Co
Lighting design DHA
Project management Faithful+Gould
Engineer Ramboll UK

9 Aug 2012

William Morris Gallery - Daily Telegraph

William Morris Gallery re-opens in Walthamstow – Seven magazine review
Judith Flanders
The re-opened William Morris Gallery is a fine tribute to the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement

William Morris has been in and out of fashion so often that the sympathetic watcher can get whiplash following his reputation. Lauded by his contemporary, the great critic John Ruskin, by 1904 he was merely “a great man who somehow delighted in glaring wallpapers”. Yet Morris, the forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement and pioneer of furniture and fabric design, was never only about design. As a pioneering socialist he wrote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.” And in this ebullient, confident reopening of the William Morris Gallery, we see his life and work spread out for the many, as he would have hoped.

Morris grew up in Walthamstow, and lived in this splendid Georgian villa as an adolescent (an indication of his background is that the three storey Grade II building was where his mother downsized after his father died). The building has been sensitively restored, with its features respected and enhanced. The curators have opened a world, moving from conception through creation to the sale of the goods.

Morris opened “the Firm”, as he called Morris & Co, to produce well-designed objects of daily life, be they wallpaper, textiles, glass or furniture, for the middle classes. There is a splendid interactive game where you can “be” Morris and try various business plans to keep the Firm afloat. (I swiftly bankrupted the company.) Then the workshop techniques of printing, dyeing, weaving and tile design are explored (with more excellent interactives), where many of Morris’s designs are on display, followed by a room dedicated to end-products – jugs, stained-glass windows, curtains, chairs.

There is a “book” room, showing Morris’s vast contribution to both the art of the book and the art of the woodcut, and a final space, dedicated to his campaigning work. Along with socialist causes, he also established the world’s first conservation movement: the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (known to his family as “Anti-Scrape”), one of the main influences in the formation of the National Trust. The gallery’s renovation, undertaken by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, is not only sensitive to the original fabric of the building but has also created an equally sympathetic surrounding for temporary displays.

The first is Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), all 15 metres of it. For our consumer world, Perry’s tapestried cavalcade transforms the Seven Ages of Man into the Seven Ages of Shopping, beginning at birth, following along a red river – of blood? – waltzing through adolescence alongside Topshop, before ending in old age with “grey-power” brands: the National Trust, the Post Office, PG Tips and the Duchy of Cornwall.

It is fitting that these rooms face Lloyd Park and William Morris Gardens, community spaces in keeping with Morris’s belief in art and craft not simply for the elite, but for the population at large. The gallery was for decades a place for Morris enthusiasts to visit once. Now, with this attractive new face to show the world, the gallery is likely to become a place for enthusiasts and locals alike to revisit regularly, once more situating the old socialist in the middle of the people he served.

This review also appeared in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph

1 Mar 2012

Fort Nelson - Review in Museums Journal

Fort Nelson, Hampshire
Simon Stephens, Issue 112/03, p54-55, 01.03.2012
Museums Journal returns to Fort Nelson to see how the project looks now it has been fully completed. By Simon Stephens

Fort Nelson was one of a series of forts built along the Hampshire coast in the 1860s to protect the coastline from a French invasion. But shortly after they were completed, the Prussians defeated the French and the threat was removed. As a result, Fort Nelson was never fully garrisoned and instead had various roles, including an anti-aircraft ammunition store during world war two. It was abandoned in the 1950s and was falling into disrepair until Hampshire County Council acquired it from the Ministry of Defence and restored it. The fort opened to the public in 1994 and became part of the Royal Armouries a year later.

The latest stage in its development has seen the Royal Armouries spend £3.5m on improving the interpretation and making the visitor experience a more comfortable one. This has included the creation of education facilities and a new visitor centre and cafe. The Royal Armouries’ project has vastly improved the interpretation of the history of the site itself, but the complex is also home to the Royal Armouries collection of big guns, and this is what will attract many visitors.

Keeping it simple
The first gallery is the Voice of the Guns, a spectacular glazed space that has been cleverly integrated into the existing structure. A massive section of an Iraqi supergun thrusts up from the ground floor to the mezzanine level where you enter the gallery. This modern-day weapon is nicely contrasted with a huge bronze Turkish bombard dating from 1464. The interpretation that accompanies the two guns sets the tone for the rest of the museum. It’s informative without being over-complicated, although the technical details are there for those who want them. The main graphic panels keep things simple: “The Great Bombard, firing huge stone balls, was the heavy demolition weapon of the Middle Ages.”

The text accompanying the supergun is similarly straightforward: “Everything about the design of [Dr Gerald] Bull’s new gun was ‘super’. The barrel would be nearly three times the height of Nelson’s column. The projectile that it would fire would be almost as big as a telephone box.” The graphics panels are at a good height for kids and adults. Protection of the exhibits is kept low-key, with “do not sit or climb” signs preferred to barriers in most cases, which allows visitors to get really close to the objects.

While the big weapons in the Voice of the Guns gallery are the undoubted stars of the show, there is a lot more to see. The next few galleries are far smaller in scale and provide a history of Fort Nelson itself. This kicks off with a gallery called Why Was Fort Nelson Built? Here, like some of the displays that follow, finding suitable objects has obviously been a bit of a challenge. The space is dominated by large graphic panels and there is a bit of repetition, with an image of Lord Palmerston, who commissioned the study that led to the construction of the five forts, appearing three times, for example.

Attention to detail
An AV display at the front of the gallery asks: “Why did Britain feel threatened?” “How did Britain expect to be attacked?” “What did Britain do to defend itself?” Each question is answered by a short film that gives a clear and easy to understand explanation, although the image quality is not fantastic, maybe because the AV is screened on a tabletop.

The next gallery, How Was Fort Nelson Built? follows the same format, featuring large graphic panels and a tabletop AV. But there are a few more objects in this space, including examples of 17 building materials that featured in the construction of Fort Nelson, many of which visitors can touch. As well as the information about the key players behind the development of Fort Nelson, such as Lord Palmerston, there is also information on those who laboured to build it, such as the navvies, who “tramped from job to job with a reputation for hard drinking and riotous living”.

Subsequent galleries show visitors what Fort Nelson looked like in different periods of its history, the role of the artillery volunteers who were based at the site, and the work of the Victorian hospital. There are nice touches in these galleries, including a kit inspection display and various things to pull out and, sometimes, smell, including an infected wound that really should be avoided close to lunchtime. There are also two beds sitting side by side, one spanking clean, the other blood-soaked and on the floor; a simple but effective way of showing how the nurse Florence Nightingale developed practices to improve hygiene in 19th-century hospitals.

Later on, there are some galleries that are not part of the recent refurbishment. The focus is again on the Royal Armouries’ cannon and guns. The graphic panels are not as tightly worded as the new galleries but the displays still have a clean and accessible feel about them. There is a lot to see at Fort Nelson. As well as the galleries, outside spaces feature displays of gun firing and there are the extensive ramparts to explore with views over Portsmouth and the surrounding countryside.

There are also the atmospheric tunnels that run under the parade ground and were designed to get people safely and quickly to their firing positions. These could provide an opportunity for further development at Fort Nelson to add to what is already a very satisfying visit.

Project data
Cost £3.5m
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund £2.26m; Royal Armouries capital budget £500,000; Garfield Weston Foundation; Department for Culture, Media and Sport/Wolfson Galleries Improvement Fund; Foyle Foundation; John Ellerman Foundation; J Paul Getty Jnr Charitable Trust
Architect PRS
Exhibition design and build Haley Sharpe
Main contractor Mansell
Project and commercial management Greenwood Projects
Project management ProjectSmart

30 Jan 2012

Exhibition Design

Nowadays pitching for a project is an art in itself – particularly for small museum exhibition design projects where interpretative planning or a heritage strategy forms part of the brief. The challenge is to draw together a team of like-minded designers who can develop a brief, and use their joint skills in Museum and Gallery Planning to provide the client with an imaginative proposal at a price that is appropriate. The multi-skilled facet of Exhibition Design is part of the challenge in putting together a bid – lots of different skills all wrapped up in a single entity and needing to be managed, as well as co-ordinated, in many cases, with a base build contract.

And then there is the testing issue of the programme. It’s much easier when an Exhibition Brief looks ahead and sees completion within a 12 month period – but what about those longer term projects with extended stop and start periods stretching the development of museum or gallery planning over two or three years? How can we make sure our bids are competitive, when the risks are more open-ended? The answer is that you can’t – even when you dream up the lowest possible number, someone else will have got there first… so the answer is to provide a client with real quality of thought at all stages of project, and to be able to guarantee a constant and versatile team, from the earliest glimmer of an idea, to the final delivery, whether it is a modest exhibition, a complex archive, the design of a visitor centre or a major museum.

At GuM, we approach design with vigour and imagination, and try hard to pitch our bids about right, but we don’t cut corners on our thinking, because it is through our thinking process that we can bring value to a client.

1 Sep 2009

Pitt Rivers Museum - Review in Museums Journal

Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Nicky Ryan, Issue 109/9, p42-45, September 2009
Nicky Ryan is relieved that the revamped Pitt Rivers Museum has tyaken the bold decision to retain its distinctive displays.

There is more than timing in common between May's reopening of the Pitt Rivers Museum and the sequel to the Hollywood blockbuster, Night at the Museum. The film and the refurbished international centre of anthropology and archaeology both raise questions about the changing nature and relevance of museums. The plot of Night at the Museum 2 involves the closure of the Museum of Natural History for renovation and a battle to save familiar exhibits threatened with permanent storage because of visitors' waning interest in static displays. The exhibits in question are ultimately retained within the modernised museum, but only after they have been converted into animatronics. By contrast, following the launch of the redeveloped Pitt Rivers Museum, the media response was one of relief as there was little obvious change to the objects on display. The museum has preserved its High Victorian character, its maze of glass cases and hand-written labels; high-tech gadgets are markedly absent.

The premise behind both Night at the Museum films is that artefacts are only interesting when brought to life. Interactivity is viewed in a literal sense that presupposes inanimate objects hold no appeal for visitors. The Pitt Rivers Museum challenges this view with its densely packed cases organised by category, full of objects as diverse as shrunken heads, drinking horns and breast implants. Interactivity is about visitors discovering their own route through the labyrinth of vitrines, using wind-up electric torches to illuminate the artefacts and opening drawers to reveal hidden objects.

Against a backdrop of museum modernisation that has resulted in many institutions stripping back the number of exhibits to create more circulation space and replacing object labels with digital multi-layered information, the Pitt Rivers has made a bold decision to retain its original form of display. But if everything remains the same, where has nearly £10m of funding for the museum's refurbishment and extension gone? The most striking aspect of the work has been the restoration of the dramatic entrance panorama from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Formerly obscured by a 1960s exhibition gallery, this has now been removed to facilitate an unimpeded view across the museum to the huge totem pole from Canada's northwest coast.

Architects Pringle Richards Sharratt have designed a new entrance platform with steps down into the exhibition space incorporating a small shop and reception area to either side. From the platform the Victorian hall with its triple-tiered, wrought-iron balconies and rows of mahogany display cases looks spectacular. An East African sailing boat suspended from the rafters reinforces the drama. Low-lighting levels, necessary for the preservation of the delicate exhibits, shroud the museum in gloom and add to a period atmosphere and sense of mystery.

Education facilities
Improvements have been made to the museum's education facilities. Education staff wanted to retain many activities within the exhibition spaces of the museum in preference to working behind the scenes. An open-plan area called the Clore Learning Balcony has therefore been located on the lower gallery for educational and family activities that include object handling, storytelling and art-based workshops. The displaced exhibition cases have been returned to the ground floor and eight new display cases created around themes of painting and decoration. Other improvements include better lifts, lavatories, disabled access and the installation of an environmental control system to help preserve artefacts as well as maintaining a pleasant temperature for visitors.

The decision by the Pitt Rivers Museum to retain its Victorian character and typological organisation of material culture could be seen as an easy option. However, the history of the collection and its method of display have attracted significant criticism, particularly over the past two decades with the rise of the 'new' museology and a concern with the representation of other cultures.

Founder's conditions
The museum was founded in 1884 when Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers donated his personal collection of more than 18,000 objects to the University of Oxford. The conditions attached to his gift were that a museum would be built to house the objects, staff should be employed to teach visitors about the collection and the artefacts should be displayed to "type". It is the organisation of the exhibition into categories of object and the ideology implicit in this form of display that has proved so controversial. In the 19th century there were two main types of museum display: an arrangement to typology or a system based on geographical provenance. The former, which included the juxtaposition of objects from different regions to form and function, was thought to provide evidence of their similarity and to demonstrate the linear development of material production. The objects in Pitt Rivers' collection were used to illustrate his views on the evolution of design and technology and formed a series that began with simple designs and ended with more complex ones. What Pitt Rivers saw as a systematic scientific classification of objects is rejected today for its ranking of different cultural groups according to an unacceptable evolutionary hierarchy. Although objects remain organised to type, the museum explains the rationale for this as a way of showing "different cultural solutions to common problems, and the diversity of human creativity and belief systems". It would be wrong to suggest that by perpetuating aspects of its historical development, the museum has failed to keep up with the times. The Victorian display hall, with its multiplicity of objects from around the globe and tiny handwritten labels that have become museum material in their own right, is like a giant diorama. This is a museum of the museum. It is not frozen in time but animated by additions to its collection and fresh perspectives afforded by new research.

Nicky Ryan is the principal lecturer in cultural and critical Studies at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London

Project data
Phase 1 (completed November 2007)
Cost: £8m
Main funders: Higher Education Funding Council for England £3.7m, Oxford University £3m
Architect: Pringle Richards Sharratt

Phase 2 (completed April 2009)
Cost: £1.5m
Main funders: Heritage Lottery Fund £1m, DCMS/Wolfson Foundation Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund, Clore Duffield Foundation, Monument Trust
Architect: Pringle Richards Sharratt
Exhibition design: in house