October 4, 2010, 7:31 pm
Creating Experiences with Sir John Soane
By Tim Roy
Dynamic Diagrams has been privileged to collaborate with some of the finest museums in the world including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. While our work has ranged from designing the overall information architecture of a museum’s web presence, to multi-media personal histories, to complex interactive kiosks involving 3D models, it is connected by the unifying thread of our focus on user experience. By considering how a visitor will experience an interaction – be it a web site, kiosk, or video – we can help our clients facilitate the most challenging of communication goals: understanding.
There is little doubt that the “big” museums – the Gettys, the Tates, and the MOMAs – garner a great deal of public attention for their collections and the experiences they create. Yet, there is something special about the “small” museums and what they can teach us.
Sir John Soane’s Museum is one such example. Located in London, it was established in 1806 by the architect Sir John Soane in the interest of providing design and artistic resources for his architectural students. By 1833, the collection had been made public under an act of Parliament and upon Soane’s death, in 1837, was placed under the auspices of a board of trustees and a curator, with the sole intent of making the house and its holdings broadly accessible.
Housing almost 35,000 unique items ranging from Egyptian antiquities to medieval objects to architectural models, Soane assembled his own secret world designed to inspire “Amateurs and Students of the Arts.” In his attention to the smallest and most subtle detail, Soane created meaning for those who cared enough to carefully observe and engage. Stories could be found in a letter’s postmark or in the placement of a single carved button. In many ways, this is an early gesture towards producing an experience for a collections’ users informed by a shared language and common goals.
The museum’s web site was recently redesigned and provides an interesting overview of the collection and some of its hidden details. Still, there is no replacement for actually experiencing the museum in person, even if one must patiently queue for admission. The wait is absolutely worth it.
Soane’s house is related to the kunstkammer, the early modern collection of natural wonders and “curiosities,” curated by a single individual to his own taste. Soane’s collection is mostly architectural and sculptural, but it’s an orderly version of that Renaissance jumble: his interests and passions, divided and carefully organized, room by room. He designed the house not to unify the collection or to impose some sort of holistic system upon it, but to display each subset of his collection to its best effect.
Contemporary viewers sometimes have trouble with this experience; we tend to want to see a museum or a collection of works all of a whole, to have a building “flow” naturally, and to impose a strict and often teleological narrative upon a group of objects or the experience we have with them. You can’t do that at Soane’s house: the visitor has to submit to Soane’s taste and to Soane’s interests.
The rooms can feel tight, and a bit claustrophobic. There are no airy spaces for exploration like there are at the Wallace Collection, to name a somewhat comparable London institution, and the shift from room to room, and from collection to collection, can feel jarring. But the abrupt changes between Soane’s rooms, and the quirky and diverse range of his interests, are part of the museum’s lasting appeal. The amount of daylight he coaxed into the house is alone worth a visit.
Careful observation is a given (one can safely assume a museum visitor is there to observe and engage). More than that, though, you must agree to enjoy his collection as it is, in the structure Soane left us. If you can, his house offers unorthodox and unique delights.
Posted by Lucy Boit on October 6, 2010 at 8:49 am
A good example of these early collections is represented by the Augsburg Cabinet interactive we created for the Getty. The online version can be seen at: http://bit.ly/b3IVUf
Recent work at the museum (Opening up the Soane: http://bit.ly/d6rlLa ) may address some of the claustrophobic feelings noted. Changes are now underway that will “enable us to show more of the Museum and its collections, while retaining and enhancing the special atmosphere…”
This will hopefully allow for the exploration desired by visitors without a deviation from Soane’s intended goals.
Posted by Tim Roy on October 6, 2010 at 9:53 am
The architects heading up this renovation are no doubt anxious about tampering with Soane’s designs. But the neo-classicists he collected would have understood and loved the challenge of creating beauty within his limits. It will be such a joy to see when it’s ready.
Posted by Lucy Boit on October 7, 2010 at 5:09 am