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A living room for the city: How to reach a museum’s social potential

The concept of a museum and its role in society has evolved dramatically over the past 20 years. No longer considered primarily a venue for those seeking to develop their educational and cultural expertise, the most successful museums now offer a wide variety of flexible social spaces that appeal to a broad visitor audience, made up of both transient visitors and members of the local community.

Whether this takes the form of cafes, restaurants and bars for formal or informal dining, engaging retail spaces that draw shoppers away from the high street and through the museum doors, or open flexible spaces that can be used for a multitude of social and educational activities, the make-up of our museums is changing.

Tate Retail

This shift in use and the perception of what a museum ‘is’ has led to a rethinking of the design and strategy of both new-build museums and the redevelopment of existing institutions.

Each has the potential to play a vital role in the regeneration of cities and local communities, breathing new life – and, crucially, economic investment – into disused urban spaces, delivering valuable places for people to come together to socialise, explore new cultural channels and build stronger connections with their local community.

The ripple-effect of good design

One of the strongest recent examples of this is the Turner Contemporary in Margate. Since it opened in 2011, the gallery has welcomed over 3 million visitors, injected over £68 million into the Kent economy and led to the opening of over 150 business in Margate.

These aren’t just daytrippers either. The draw of the Turner Contemporary – with its rolling programme of temporary exhibitions, café serving seasonal cuisine overlooking Margate harbour and light-filled retail space – has also contributed to a rise in local overnight stays, with 66% of visitors staying in paid accommodation in summer 2018.

Turner Contemporary

The figures are impressive. The introduction of a single cultural venue – supported, of course, by the local council and wider factors such as infrastructure like HS1 – has had a profound and tangible impact on this local community. Not only has Turner Contemporary been popular during the wetter winter months but visitor numbers remained high last summer, drawing tourists off the beach and through the gallery doors.

It sets a strong template for other towns and cities across the UK and beyond in dire need of regeneration, demonstrating the ripple-effect that a new, well-designed cultural building can have, both socially and economically.

Meet, relax and enjoy museum culture

More recent still is the V&A Dundee which opened its doors last September on Scotland’s east coast as the country’s first ever design museum. Part of a £1bn waterfront regeneration scheme, over the past few months the V&A Dundee has been inundated with overseas and domestic visitors, drawn by the collections themselves and the venue’s remarkable architecture and design.

Not only does the V&A offer an extensive programme of exhibitions exploring everything from videogames to robots and the future of design, but its interior spaces have been intelligently designed to deliver ‘a living room for the city’ – a brief given to us at the beginning of the project.

This expansive venue now delivers a series of free, open and inspiring spaces for the local community and tourists to meet,

relax and enjoy museum culture. From the highly-flexible café and shop – designed with an open plan aesthetic to add a social dimension to the main entrance hall – to the second-floor restaurant which looks out over the River Tay, each social space within the museum has been carefully crafted to invite visitors to linger, socialise and explore.

Are museums the new meeting spaces?

At a time when property prices are astronomical and many smaller retailers from pubs to artisan coffee shop are being squeezed off the high street, museums have a duty of care for their cities. As large-scale investment projects they have the potential to reinvigorate a local community, acting as a catalyst for change and the regeneration of disused spaces.

Closer to home, they also have an opportunity to deliver intelligently-designed and free-to-use social and retail spaces for their local communities. When the high street is in crisis, where do people go to meet over a coffee or a glass of wine after work? Museums can bridge this gap.

How Can Design Shape a Museum’s Social Potential

At the V&A Dundee, the Tatha Bar and Kitchen has 114 covers inside and another 36 on the terrace overlooking the River Tay; a stylish and contemporary space that evolves with the needs of diners from morning through lunch, and onto a bar-based offer in the evening.

The innate flexibility and relaxed ambiance of the space makes the Tatha Bar and Kitchen an elegant and sophisticated destination for after work drinks, work meetings or a catch-up with friends, competing with any high-end bar – with the bonus of being within a world-leading cultural destination.

Use the talent you have

As centres of design and cultural excellence, all museums have the raw materials to engage directly with their visitors, creating unique interactive experiences that build long-standing social and emotional connections.

Already working within the museum walls are historians, curators, educators, artists…the list goes on. Each of these individuals has something truly valuable to offer. Their knowledge and expertise.

Whether that’s introducing an origami expert to guide visitors in creative approaches to gift wrapping (soon to be seen at the M+ museum in Hong Kong) or putting on a series of masterclasses with specialist craftspeople from potters to artists, there are so many opportunities for museums to maximise on this readily-available wealth of talent already on hand.

From a commercial standpoint, visitors often come away from these experiences inspired and keen to continue their individual creative pursuits and are therefore encouraged to invest in purchases direct from the museum on merchandise such as reference books or artist materials.

A lifeline for every city

Whether starting from scratch with a newbuild development or embarking on the redevelopment of an existing venue, every museum has the potential to become a lifeline for a city. A central hub of social, educational and cultural excellence, and a catalyst for change in the local area.

As the public increasingly turns away from static retail and actively seeks meaningful experiences, new sources of knowledge, and unusual spaces to meet and socialise, museums are in a powerful position to bridge the gap between a high street in crisis and a growing demand for stronger connections to places and experiences.

(Image Credits: Shutterstock)

About the author – Callum Lumsden

Callum Lumsden is recognised as a leading retail design expert for cultural and visitor destinations. His design agency specialises in creating memorable and profitable stores that create revenue and reputation for major destinations around the world.

Lumsden are proven experts in retail strategy and design, branding, merchandise system design and visual merchandising. Callum’s design work in the sector has given him a unique and authoritative knowledge of the commercial opportunities and challenges open to cultural and visitor destinations globally.

His expertise and ongoing passion for the cultural sector is driven by his personal challenge to make each project a success both experientially as well as commercially. He is best known for the award winning Tate Modern Bookshop, the hugely successful retail offers in the British Museum and his UK TV appearances with broadcaster and retail guru Mary Portas.

Callum has recently completed the highly acclaimed retail and F&B offers in the V&A Dundee and is currently working for a wide range of design projects including MoMA (NYC), M+ Hong Kong, and the expansion of the Harry Potter Studio Tour for Warner Bros. in Leavesden

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