Tilting in new directions

31st March 1995 at 01:00
The Horniman Museum in London is being reorganised for its centenary in the year 2001. Victoria Neumark talks to its director about future plans

Halfway up the hill, a strange new building stands in the grounds of the Horniman Museum in south London. The Centre for Understanding the Environment (CUE) has been erected near the playful stone spire of the Horniman's clock. This temporary wooden structure, already in use to host London's sessions of the Jason Project, is to be both exemplar of an ecologically-friendly building and exhibition space for environmental concerns. CUE is the first step in a grand reorganisation and rebuilding of the Horniman, propelling it towards its centenary year of 2001.

In 1901 Frederick Horniman decided to infuse the profits from his successful tea-importing business into the cultural life of south London. He donated a museum purpose-built on the former site of his mansion and its 16-acre grounds to the people of London for their "instruction, enjoyment and recreation". The museum houses unique collections of ethnographic material, musical instruments and natural history specimens. Its beautiful Art Deco building, with its oak carvings, vaulted galleries with cases full of marvels and air of friendly grandeur (the place is always full of families and children), has been a landmark in the childhood of generations of south Londoners. It didn't change, it gently evolved.

It was in 1991-92 that curators started to notice a distinct tilt in the balcony of the South Hall, housing the ethnography display. Showcases added to the iron railings in the 1960s seemed about to fall on to the cases of costumes and artefacts below. Cracks appeared in the walls. In April 1994, the gallery closed and workers began digging out five metres of compacted clay. Heating ducts which had been run through the ground under Charles Harriman Townsend's building had over the decades dried out the London clay, caking and cracking it until it was little more than compressed powder on which the building (Class II*) uneasily shifted. It was not going to be possible to rehydrate the clay, so as Mike Hoolihan, director of the Horniman says, "it was an opportunity for new plans".

The relationship of buildings to their environment has always been a key theme of the Horniman, set as it is within gardens. Its aquarium, with a river running down the side of stairs and rock pools with real waves, is its most popular display. The CUE structure fits into this overall pattern. Its timber comes from sustainable forests, it is insulated with recycled newsprint and painted with non-toxic organic paint. When finished, it will be topped with a living grass and wildflower roof, be warmed and cooled by a system of hollow columns and pierced roof panels which allow passive ventilation, be surrounded by reed beds which filter the "grey water" (or waste) and be heated for a great proportion of the time by solar panels.

Within a tent-like timber frame, architects Architype have created a flexible exhibition space, audio-visual auditorium, seminar room and office. Like a tent, the CUE building has no foundations. It will only last 10 years.

When the edifice is completed (Pounds 60,000 is needed to match existing funding) and the IBM computer is in place monitoring all building control systems, CUE will host temporary exhibitions the first will be on energy replacing some of the space currently out of action in the South Hall. Meanwhile, back at the main building, a storage basement is being hacked out of the compressed clay. Soon a lift shaft will be created in one corner of the new hollow, allowing disabled access to the upper floor. With new imperatives for building and access, "the time seemed right" to Mike Hoolihan for new intellectual directions in the galleries themselves.

The new Music Room, opened in 1993, offers a taste: comprehensive displays, use of CD-Rom, tapes and computers, illustrative photographs and labels, a performance or teaching space incorporated into the design and additional exhibits available in pull-out drawers. (Whereas most museums have 10 per cent or less of their collections on display, the small but dazzling Music Room has 1,500 of its 6,000 objects on show.)

Fred Horniman's own writings sing with the "sheer joy and enthusiasm for objects", says Mike Hoolihan. The overall new intellectual direction of the galleries will follow this enthusiasm. If study rooms are added on to the existing displays, then visitors can walk from an interpretive display on costume, say, into a textile study room where many more samples will be racked and techniques can be explained. The work of conservation and the work of education could thus be blended not just within one building but also within the experience of the visitor.

New ideas, new activities, new directions. A new restaurant in the old conservation block will open on to the conservatory and link the museum with the lovely gardens. The gardens themselves are having a facelift. A nature trail opens in June with a new resources centre in the Dutch barn, a mini-beast habitat and a log amphitheatre for teaching and performances, lectures and talks on gardens and gardening.

New ideas for the fabric of the building range from the almost certain (the opening of the re-vamped South Hall with a fabulous ethnography gallery to equal the Music Room) to the much-needed (a modernisation of the natural history gallery) to the very desirable (a combined education and conservation centre on the site of the old tennis court). This is where the CUE building currently stands. Which is where we came in, for now.

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