Museums of Architecture

by Melissa Woolford |

The exciting and somewhat daunting thing about being a museum of architecture is that unlike a museum of natural history or an art museum, we can’t actually put any original objects (ie. buildings) on display.

This creates problems and opportunities. The problems are that you will only really ever show reproductions of architecture – photos, models, mock-ups and perhaps an installation, but the viewer will always have to imagine the real thing. This makes engaging with the narrative of an exhibition extremely important otherwise it would be akin to going to see sketches of dinasaurs instead of the life-size skeletons or snapshots of a Picasso instead of seeing the framed painting with its brush strokes and vibrant colors.

This being the case, it leads to a few exciting opportunities.

1. You don’t have to use a typical gallery space with walls, a floor and ceiling, but you can use the city, town or location of where the architecture is to be the ‘space’ of your exhibition. This route opens all kinds of doors to creative curating.

2. You don’t have to just show architecture. I mean that architecture always has a rich story to tell, whether it is the context of where it is; why it is being built; the people who commissioned, designed and built it; the new technologies, materials, programme, innovations and more that go into the design; and most importantly who will occupy it and what community will engage with it.

As we all know, architecture is not about the architect, but about the successful use of the building for the people who use it. So, going back to my point about not just showing architecture, to tell the most interesting and perhaps relevant story of architecture you can’t just show a model or an image, you need to tell a story that includes all the points above and more and they can be shown in many ways.

3. You don’t have any rules to follow. Museums of architecture are a fairly new concept, so you can break all the pre-conceptions about what a ‘museum’ should be and start opening people’s minds as to what a new kind of museum can be.

To me a museum is a place where people come to learn about a topic in-depth and in-person. As well, the role of a museum is to support and promote the people behind the work on display, and inspire the audience to get involved and take notice of why the topic is relevant to them.

Our recent health and well being programming is an example of this. Not only do we invite architects to speak on our panels, but we invite clients, users, people in policy, academic experts, and people on the commercial side of the industry to create a more well-rounded discussion of the impact of architecture.

We also do most of our exhibitions spaces where people can happen upon the information during their daily routine. The Vertical Urban Factory exhibition we showed, curated by Nina Rappaport, is an example of an exhibition being held in what was a marketing suite for student accommodation at Argent’s King’s Cross development. (Photos attached).

I also believe that architects shouldn’t just talk to architects, which unfortunately is a common occurrence in the industry, and perhaps in many industries for that matter. By not communicating with experts in relevant and parallel fields, people in charge of policy and users, architecture can go very wrong and valuable insights and information will not taken into account in the design process leading to almost certain failure.

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Melissa Woolford is the Founder and Director of the Museum of Architecture which she started in 2006 to work on growing the architectural industry. She has collaborated with organisations such as the Greater London Authority, RIBA, British Council, The Building Centre and Somerset House and has spoken on new business strategies for the built environment at institutions including: Harvard GSD, UCL, and the Architectural Association.