For Hames Sharley, 2017 has been a year marked by a number of exciting projects in our Public & Culture portfolio. In particular, the team – led by our Executive Chairman, William Hames – has undertaken several museum commissions, from strategic masterplan investigations for the housing of thousands of priceless artefacts to the design of smaller, boutique museums that are no less important to their local communities. No matter the size of the project, however, we have applied the same set of guidelines in our approach to designing these buildings and spaces.

Here we present a list of 12 considerations when planning and designing galleries and museums.

1. Spread the word and they will come

As a multi-disciplinary design practice, our primary mandate is clear: produce a set of plans from which the buildings and places are created. However, we understand that we also must play a key role in generating a buzz about the project if it is to open its doors to long queues of expectant patrons. The marketing of public and cultural buildings always begins on day one of the planning processes.

2. Exhibiting starts before the place is built

Museums and galleries are often funded by a number of different sources including public and private investment that may not be fully in place from the outset. Designers must collaborate to engage with potential investors and philanthropists through the use of technology such as virtual and augmented reality. These techniques can better illustrate the vision for the project by being more visually engaging than traditional drawings and plans.

3. Engage with the people first

Every project, across every sector, can benefit from a program of stakeholder engagement. This is never more important than in public and cultural projects that hold an emotional investment for the whole community. Key decisions should be run past various community groups, but more than that, these groups should be given an active role in making those decisions.

4. Create narratives and journeys

The very nature of museums and galleries is that visitors should experience them by following a meandering pathway through the buildings. As they do so, they embark on a journey of emotive engagement, and the architecture and design of the space must enhance this. The place must respond to human behaviour in all of its facets.

5. Keep up with the times

The modern world has more and more ways for people to spend their precious leisure time. Many of the newest and most exciting are based on the very latest technology, yet museums and galleries often rely on ancient objects and curios as their main attractions. Therefore, technology must be used sensitively to shine a light on the stars of the show, and the designers of the space must put in place the technological infrastructure to evolve as new innovations are introduced.

6. Maximise the audience

Just as they must use technology to compete with modern-day entertainment, museums must also have a wide appeal to all ages and demographics in order to remain relevant and profitable. Engagement through interactive exhibits that appeal to both young and old is an absolute necessity in a modern cultural building. The designer must accommodate the small and intimate alongside larger statement pieces such as gigantic blue whales and dinosaur skeletons!

7. Acknowledge the local vernacular and its people

Museums are prized parts of their regions and engender a sense of pride in local communities. They are flag bearers for their town or city and often a location’s most visible representation to the wider world. Furthermore, the permanent exhibits may tell the story of the history and heritage of the place in which they are located; the buildings and spaces that make up the museum itself should be no different. Materiality, form and the outward-facing vistas from the museum should be designed to accentuate this.

While museums and galleries are major attractions for tourists, they should also act as a grand form of community centre for locals. Open spaces in which it is appropriate for groups to gather and interact should maintain year-round activity – even outside of tourist seasons.

8. Flexibility is key

Few modern buildings and places are as subject to such regular change as museums and galleries. With each new major exhibit comes the potential for repurposing spaces and in some cases completely altering the shapes and sizes of rooms within the building and its surroundings. Flexibility must be a major consideration in the design of the place from the outset.

9. Find ways to introduce innovative wayfinding

Signage is an essential element, and with careful consideration wayfinding methods can add aesthetic value and become exhibits in their own right. The architectural design itself should allow for sight lines that draw focus to the key exhibits and promote a natural flow through the space, while minimising the need for purely directional signage that may take up valuable room. The flow of the visitor’s journey should be intuitive and the design of the space should always take this into consideration.

10. Avoid sensory overload

As technology advances, more and more museum exhibits employ sound installations, necessitating the careful planning of acoustics. When people move from room to room it is vital that their focus remains on the displays in front of them. Each exhibit should remain a part of the flowing narrative, but the design of the space should allow them to stand alone. Galleries and museums also require resting points at carefully planned intervals through the visitors’ journey.

11. Create a point of difference

All the world’s major cities have dozens of museums and galleries to choose from. Often they have a single dominant, centrepiece, a cultural building that stands as a grand edifice and draws more attention than its neighbours. If constraints of budget dictate that any new or redeveloped project can’t compete in terms of scale or grandeur, then it is the role of the designer or architect to offer a different approach that positions the place as an interesting and appealing alternative.

12. Places of learning

Most people’s spare time is taken up with what can be described as ‘entertainment pursuits’. Museums and galleries are, at their core, places people go to learn and be culturally fulfilled. The design of the space must allow for both enlightenment and engagement in equal measure.

Did you enjoy this article?