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The Thematic Museum. Interpretation & Archive

By Brian Gallagher 18.05.12

The potential of culture to generate big business is a reality long recognised by both the public and private sectors. It could even be argued that visiting galleries and museums is becoming an increasingly important bonding ritual in our highly diverse and individualistic contemporary societies. Temples to pay homage to the objects and paraphernalia that connect us and have helped shape our world.

The thematic museum is a category apart, very often inspired by a particular and specific individual, group or physical artefact the role the museum performs is important in terms of both archive and interpretation. This bringing together within a distinct location (under the museological focus of the chosen theme) can be a significant tool for understanding precisely why something is of value in the first place as well as its preservation for future generations. The science of exhibition and display in this context is a separate discipline in itself and one that exists in parallel with the actual container or building. The architecture has to walk the line between somehow representing the theme while also responding to its overall context but without becoming a kitsch parody of it in the process. When the two come together successfully (design and exhibition) it can be a powerful and rewarding experience for the general public and a valuable resource for research and investigation. 

The recent revelations regarding the number of publicly funded sporting and cultural developments that are now either seriously underused or being closed due to problems with ongoing funding or simply a lack of interest has put local government budgetary spending under the spotlight. Over the last decade before the recession hit every municipality, no matter how small was vying to achieve the Bilbao ‘Guggenheim effect’. Build something spectacular and the public will flock to see it, without thinking about the ongoing maintenance, running and staff expenses that are inevitably incurred. As the recession in Spain deepens the casualty list grows longer. The Oscar Niemeyer Centre in Avilés is the latest victim, currently closed for two months because of lack of funding despite local support. Think of the pharonic excess Galicia’s City of Culture (designed by Peter Eisenman) a behemoth that no one seems willing to put a final price tag on, or indeed Barcelona’s Forum 2004 building (designed by Hertzog and de Meuron) and recently taken over as a branch of the city’s Natural Science museum another example of a piece of infrastructure built with public money but with no long term purpose. The fit between programme and building in this case just does not work and more than anything is testament to lazy and wasteful planning.

This collection of eclectic projects may seem to have little in common, a mixture of private and public initiatives situated in rural and urban locations, they are all however bespoke buildings commissioned for highly specific reasons to fulfil an explicit function. Whether it be the 20th Century’s most renowned painter, the world’s most famous football club, treasured archaeological artefact or indeed nuclear energy these buildings celebrate those things that bring colour to life and that have emerged from passion rather from mere speculation. A standard against which all such infrastructure should be held.