Mainly hidden away from view, slotted in between two pre-existing wings, lays the British Museum’s newest and largest addition in the last 260 years of the building’s history: the aptly named World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC). Covering an area of 18,000 square metres, with 70% of the new built being below street level, the cost of the project totalled £135 million (US$ 211 million) and was completed in approximately seven years.
The Centre brings together the museum’s collection, conservation and research functions for the first time since the BM was first opened to the public in 1759, the new extension adding some vital loading, storage and temporary exhibition space.
In the past the museum had to adopt a ‘creative’ approach to the way it organised its activities involving the movement of oversized collections or in the way it accommodated loans of large objects; it now has the opportunity to use among other facilities, the largest truck lift in Europe with a capacity of 42-tonnes, 5000-square metres of storage below street level and the largest x-ray facility in the country (accessible directly from a loading bay). This arsenal of wonders will no doubts allow the museum to reaffirm its world-class standing.
In October 2014 News in Conservation was kindly invited to a ‘behind the doors’ tour of the new Centre; a tour guided by none other than the Museum’s Keeper of Science and IIC Vice-President, David Saunders.
As we entered the new building, the architecture immediately took centre stage. The industrial feel permeated throughout the visible black metal beams and the vast expanse of glass. The latter afforded the internal space an amazing light even on a gloomy rainy day like the morning of the visit. A brief walk through some swanky open-plan office space lead us to the first of a series of conservation studios located on the upper levels. These are open, adaptable spaces with plenty of natural light, albeit according to one of the conservators, not as ‘perfect’ as the light they used to have in the old studios.
Most of the furniture is on wheels, creating the flexibility that the variety of works passing through these doors no doubts requires and the general feel is of an uncluttered place. To increase the feel of space and continuing with the modern industrial look, there are no dropped ceilings, beams are exposed and lighting fixtures suspended on pantographsthat can be lowered from the ceiling right onto the conservator’s benches.
One of the interesting features of the studios is the interconnection that has been created between different areas of conservation. For example, the textile studio is separated from the paper studio by a ‘communal’ area used for wet treatments that can be used by both disciplines. This makes sense from a practical point of view and it also facilitates the exchange of experiences that at times is lacking within different conservation disciplines.
Dotted at the periphery of the central open-plan area there are a number of special rooms used for specific projects, again with built in flexibility to adapt when the need arises. Lab areas are separated from the open-plan setting and there is even a room to dye textiles and other materials.
The studios are indeed impressive but the show-stopper had to be the final studio that we visited: the sculpture studio with its own entrance and direct access forlorries to deliver large sculptures undergoing treatment. Like the
rest of the building, this space is simple and minimal but its volume makes it spectacular. A gigantic hoist runs along the ceiling and can transport statues of enormous proportions to the opposite end, where a separate room serves as treatment/examination area.
Housed in the subterranean levels of the building are the research facilities. These comprise of laboratories and testing rooms fitted with state-of-the-art equipment and inhabited by the scientific research arm of the department. In addition the sublevels also include office accommodation and library facilities within an impressive atrium space, well lit by a large roof light, allowing daylight to penetrate.
Although the Centre is provided with a sophisticated environmental control system, when we met, David was quick in clarifying that the preferred approach is for a ‘loosely’ controlled environment within the studios. This reflects an approach to energy conservation that is nowadays shared among museums and a trend that is rethinking the traditionally accepted parameters of environmental control for collections.
My first impression of the place was very positive; I was impressed, and I can’t think of a better adjective to describe my reaction. The space makes sense on many different levels and although you may always find details that could have been executed better (considering the budget) I am sure that the Centre will provide happy hours of work for the lucky conservators, students, interns, researchers for years to come.
On a purely esthetic note, the space does not ‘invite’ you in straight away. The internal design and architecture express modernity with a sophisticated industrial feel giving you the impression of a place that wants to be admired, photographed but not necessarily messed about for mundane daily routines. Speaking with one of the conservator that I met that day, my impression was substantiated to a point; I was intrigued to hear that many conservators had the very same first impression when they moved in. No doubts in time the space will form its own personality and that people will adapt to their new surroundings soon enough.
I now have a final note on colour: grey, grey and more grey – you may say fifty shades ofgrey…
All images in this article were taken by the author with permission of the British Museum. The British Museum remains the copyright holder