Reshaping museum space: architecture, design, exhibitions
Suzanne MacLeod (ed.), Routledge, 2005. Distributed in Australia by Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0415343453. RRP $70.00
Review by Michael J Ostwald
Front cover of Reshaping Museum Space

Suzanne MacLeod's edited volume Reshaping Museum Space is concerned with the tension that exists between constructed and curated space. In this contested scholarly territory architecture is often portrayed as fixed and immutable: the public face of the institution and a representation of the architect's personal creativity. In contrast to the architecture are the objects it houses and their relationship to each other. These housed works are the cultural, artistic and historical artefacts that are displayed, arrayed in space and interacted with. In both cases, the building and the exhibition, design and curation skills are brought to bear on complex problems with financial and political constraints. Appropriately, both architects and curators are each equally valued and criticised for the single-minded vision they bring to their work. Indeed, MacLeod suggests that if a suitably broad definition of both architecture and exhibition is adopted then the two fields have much in common. However, not all of the authors in her book agree.

The volume brings together 17 chapters broadly focused on the topic of museum space. Following a lucid and detailed summary by the editor, which draws together the primary themes in the work, the book is then divided into four sections: the first on the nature of museum space, the second on architectural issues, the third on interior space and the last about urban or overarching issues. As with any edited volume of this kind there is no central unified thesis; instead a wide range of approaches, opinions and topics are offered for the reader to peruse and assimilate. The chapters range from descriptions of the process required to procure a major public building, and its economic impact, to the history of enlightenment representation and the ordering of knowledge.

Disappointingly few of the chapters attempt a serious multidisciplinary approach to the topic; the majority focus exclusively on one theme or another: architecture or exhibition. For example, Jon Wood's chapter on exhibiting the artist's studio and Christopher Marshall's chapter on the experience of the contemporary museum as a type of gallery are both excellent descriptions of exhibition design. In contrast, Sophia Psarra's chapter on space layout and Moira Stevenson's on the development of the Manchester Art Gallery are focused squarely on more functional and pragmatic aspects of architecture. While these chapters and many of the others are informative and timely, perhaps the most interesting chapters are those which attempt to theorise the relationship between the building and its contents more carefully. For example, Elaine Heumann Gurian's chapter on the psychological limitation of access to space and Helen Rees Leahy's chapter on the politico-social ramifications of museum and exhibition layout both bravely draw connections between architectural and exhibition design. Richard Toon's chapter on black box spaces for exhibitions also bridges neatly the architecture of the Arizona Science Centre and its exhibition design. MacLeod's own paper on the history of the Walker Gallery in Liverpool also begins to merge architecture, politics and exhibition into a cultural history of the changes occurring in museums. Such chapters, which are sited most clearly in the contested territory between architectural and exhibition design, are potentially controversial but they raise some of the most interesting themes in the volume.

One proposition, which is repeated in variations in a number of the chapters (including Gurian's, Toon's, MacLeod's and David Fleming's) and is never adequately explained, is that the spaces in modernist museums were not conducive to the type of 'transparent', 'inclusive' or 'visitor-centred' experiences that contemporary museums and galleries demand. This proposition is never convincingly argued, because the explanations that are offered for how such collaborative and transparent exhibition spaces are created and maintained revolve around a range of technological devices for encouraging visitor interaction and subtle shifts in the way in which artefacts are sequenced or framed. None of the strategies outlined for producing a collaborative exhibition environment necessarily involve architecture in any direct manner and the criticism of modern architecture appears to be largely based on its overabundance of natural light (not good for video and preservation), limited flexibility (not of walls, but of services) and inadequate seating. A related and equally spurious inference found in a number of chapters is that because architecture is typically displayed in publications without people or furniture there is something inhuman or inappropriate about it.

A second theme, which is repeated throughout the book as both a positive and a negative, involves the role of architecture in producing iconic spaces as opposed to useful and flexible exhibition spaces. There is a clear division between some of the chapters which praise architects who have worked seamlessly as part of a team and have produced communal multipurpose spaces, and other chapters which praise architects who produce grand, dramatic public spaces which draw visitors through their iconic presence, not necessarily through their content. While this division connects many of the chapters, it is never adequately resolved; and despite a few exceptions the majority of writers reject the often spectacular one-off iconic buildings in favour of more sensitive approaches to creating architecture which expresses the social and communal intention of the museum. This same tendency leads to many of the chapters having a focus on small regional museums and exhibitions. The fact that contemporary iconic buildings also have flexible space requirements is noted by MacLeod in her introduction, but throughout much of the book there is an implied criticism of the larger institutions as populist and commercially driven. An architect perusing this book might expect to read about the way in which important spaces in London's Tate Modern, Washington DC's Holocaust Museum, Berlin's Jewish Museum and Bilbao's Guggenheim all evoke particular emotional responses which attune visitors to the nature of the exhibitions they are about to attend; yet such cases are curiously absent from the work.

A third theme that can be uncovered from a reading of the book positions flexibility and technology as a universal panacea for creating more inclusive and educational exhibitions. This belief is never seriously challenged and is repeated, with variations, throughout the book. In a volume which questions architecture and space, a similar level of questioning of the curatorial strategies which are driving the criticism of architecture and space might also be expected.

With a large number of books already in the market on museum architecture and on exhibition design, a book connecting these two topics is definitely overdue. Filling this gap, Reshaping Museum Space offers a brief and clear overview of the changing patterns of museum use, a summary of the current desire for more didactic and reflective exhibition design, and useful information about the procurement and economic positioning of museum architecture. Despite this, it is most successful for the oppositions it illuminates rather than the solutions it offers. Various chapters criticise populist design solutions while others praise them. Recent iconic architecture is both supported and damned while contemporary exhibition designs are rarely criticised at all. Finally, many of the chapters claim to be concerned with the way in which visitors experience objects within space, but few actually consider this experience in any detail and the theories of phenomenology and crowd psychology are curiously absent from a work which purports to be about people in space. Ultimately Reshaping Museum Space successfully extends the debate about architecture, exhibitions and design, rather than pointing it in a clear direction.

Professor Michael J Ostwald is head of the School of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Newcastle, Australia.