Thursday, 1 April 2010

Museums of the Future

The recent presentation by architects Pringle Richards Sharratt for the redevelopment of the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow was certainly an inspiring occasion for the 30 or so people who turned up at this consultation exercise. Councillor Reardon of Waltham Forest Council basked in the glory of the occasion – which was more than a tad ironic, as one member of the audience wryly pointed out, given that only a couple of years ago the Council was trying to close the Gallery and disperse the Morris collection!

Still, let bygones be bygones; for the plans displayed to us at the consultation were indeed impressive. A whole new wing to the Water House building will be built, with a lift and a tea-shop, and a radical redesign of the existing building and display spaces will open out the experience of Morris and the Arts and Crafts in exciting new ways to – hopefully – a much wider range of visitors than currently use the place.

I was particularly taken with the idea of a ‘Ideal Book Gallery, which would let visitors experiment with Morris typefaces and digitally design books; but would also celebrate and explore the stories from The Earthly Paradise (which certainly needs more exposure than it currently gets, with only two of the thirty-odd members of the public present having actually read the thing!).

Much attention will also be given to Morris as entrepreneur and the actual business operations of Morris & Co, a sign of our own times, no doubt; but still, an important part of the Morris record that doesn’t get sufficiently told. But, on the downside, ‘Fighting the Cause’ becomes a single room in the new, expanded complex, which certainly does significantly underplay Morris’s socialist and other activist commitments.

The transformed William Morris Gallery, which is being partly driven by a 2012 Olympics timetable, aspires to become ‘the hub’ of William Morris studies and, on this showing, it surely will. All the other Morris sites and museums will in turn have to raise their game to match what is happening so briskly and encouragingly in Walthamstow.

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