Back in the day, municipal museums were built to look like palaces – awesome, cathedral-like spaces with marble floors and imposing doors. They were all about important personal collections and even more important audiences.
Thankfully things have moved on, and the conversation today centres around accessibility, combating ‘threshold fear’, and making these spaces more welcoming and inclusive. Rather than stuffy ‘curators of culture’, the dream has long been to make these attractions part of the fabric of daily life.
And there has been some success. Look at The British Museum. Built in the 1750s, it has four vast wings and 43 Greek temple-inspired columns, all designed to celebrate ‘the wondrous objects housed inside’ and convey a sense of national importance. Yet today, with its Great Court (designed by Norman Foster in 2000) filled with shops and eateries, it has something for everyone. Those wanting to absorb the two million years’ worth of culture within, and those who want to take in a smaller collection, perhaps with the kids, and then enjoy something to eat and drink, or a little retail therapy.
But where so many institutions still miss a trick is in creating cohesive, ‘whole brand’ experiences that appeal to allcomers, however they choose to access a space. Yes, they may have bolted on a museum shop, or even somewhere to have a coffee, but so often they fail to match up to the overall experience. It risks coming across as a bit of an afterthought – and doing nothing to make people with different priorities and needs feel welcome.