09 March 2010

Weaving Inside Out: A design process for a museum of textiles

The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok. First of 2 postings

“Exhibition is, for me, the opportunity to create a physical encounter between myself and a spectator, and between spectators. In a context where experience dominates, it is left for me to construct the scene. What I create, the formal element which can be transmitted and reactivated, is the set-up itself. The system is fixed, it is an architecture. I don’t tell how it should be occupied, but the visitor is immediately subjected to its influence.”©

We defined the working strategy for this new museum project in Bangkok – a museum dedicated solely to Thai Textiles - from two opposing directions allowing a healthy tension in our design process.

We write tension in the best sense we can imagine – taught, not static, balanced as a creative device.

So this was our approach: to design from inside to out, and, conversely, outside to in. Conceptually we looked at an artifact to be displayed and proceeded backwards to consider the museum-goer outside in the public realm; and naturally we considered a standard route - another visitor, standing at the new museum foyer, proceeding from the exterior, inside to an encounter with an artifact in a defined gallery condition.

One of these two approaches helped us define the gallery architecture, lighting and ceiling designs, derived for example, from geometries found in classic Thai textiles. The other obliged us to consider very closely, multiple and potential viewer experiences in the galleries and to factor in the wide range of potential museum-goers and what their (pre)understanding of the artifacts might be.

Designing the project in this way, taking queues from opposing directions of influence, set the stage for both physical and conceptual encounters – between the architecture and gallery design, between viewer and object; between various spectators – young Thai school children or visiting tourists; between informal or highly constructed installations; between free movement in the gallery to the static positions of objects (finely dressed mannequins) separated and enclosed in glass volumes; and between singular and multiple viewing pleasures.

What we began to create from this approach, in the visitor’s future experience of the museum or the gallery is a direct response to these formal oppositions. The constructed spaces, gallery sequence, proportions, the ability to move freely or in a defined way (e.g. chronological movement), the scale of the vitrines and the materials in the space, became the “constituent elements” of the display environment and the tools we were to work with. Combined in the design and drawing process, they activated the design tension we hoped for. Combined physically in the galleries, they will activate the visitor experience, and in the process bring him/her into a greater awareness of her surroundings and of the visual narrative on display.

This is not an artifice of process, but a means to explore the duality in inherent in the museum – in any museum - weaving together very different expectations of the visitor, inside and outside the building and in the exhibition itself.

The quote above is by Olivier Bardin, Interview by Pierre Huyghe and Hans-Ulrich Obrist in The Fifth Floor: Ideas Taking. Image by Thomas Struth and the Queen Sirikit Support Foundation