London… a thriving, bustling metropolis, with endless opportunities for recreation for its denizens. Besides open air attractions, like Hyde Park, there is a plethora of museums that are vibrant, activated and above all, free.
It was not always like this though; by the end of the 20th century, the same-old exhibits and the tired info-graphics had ensured that at least for locals, museum hopping would not be their first choice when it came to whiling away a few hours of their free time. The been-there, done-that feeling was what needed to be gotten rid of, and the much needed impetus for growth/ regeneration came from an unlikely source – the National Lottery. From the late 1990s, funds raised from lottery ticket buyers were pumped into the Arts sector. The moneys collected and injected into the system were unprecedented.
The Millennium Fund supported two major Arts projects in London: the ‘Great Court’ at the British Museum (by Norman Foster)
and the Tate Modern at Bankside (by Herzog & de Meuron)
The Great Court was essentially a project whose aim was to cover the courtyard of the British Museum with a glass & steel roof, while maximizing the space freed up when the British Library’s (seen below) collection shifted to a dedicated new building at St. Pancras.
This covering of an open air space enabled the possibilities of programmes that enlivened and energized the public space. The Tate Modern also did this, not only at a building level, but also at an urban level. The number of visitors to the entire South Bank area of London experienced an exponential increase post- the Millennium.
Inside the Turbine Hall, interactive exhibitions (such as the ones photographed above), made the contemporary art displays more approachable to the general viewer.
In 2000, both these buildings opened to the public, and it was not just the building or the interior that was noticeable, but the well-thought out circulation routes and the fresh graphics and signage. The renewed public interest in these museums was sustained through programmatic innovations – temporary exhibitions, evening/ night events (Late Fridays or Nights at the Museum).
On the other hand, the V&A is unique in that there are few paintings on display – it is largely a museum of objects. So from the 5m tall David in the Cast Courts to the designer contemporary everyday items such as scooters and kettles to architectural models of renowned buildings, everything falls under its umbrella.
It managed to sustain itself and grow in popularity purely on the basis of these non-design based interventions, successfully attracting large groups of students, professionals and tourists.
But the process started a few years earlier, when in 1991 the hallowed National Gallery opened the new adjoining Sainsbury Wing, designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. This playful post-modernist take on one of the most ‘British’ of institutions, situated bang on Trafalgar Square, evoked many polarizing reactions.
But it ensured that the building remained firmly in the public eye and visitors came in droves. The new building, while evoking the memory of the main wing, pared down its elements and created fuss-free spaces whose scale was suited to the smaller scale of paintings displayed there.
While infrastructure projects such as the Millennium Bridge, the Millennium Dome and the London Eye helped invigorate London at an urban level, these institutions got down to the brass tacks and made a difference at a human scale and humane level. As a student, I have fond memories of spending many a pleasant weekend afternoon, aimlessly wandering through the numerous ‘rooms’ of the National Gallery or the V&A, happily drinking in the atmosphere and gazing admiringly at the endless Classics, which one had hereto only seen in books. Personally, these visits help cement a lifelong love of Impressionism, and though it was unknown to me at that time, helped in providing an inspiration for many a future project. When the weather outside is cold, the pocket is light and the mind curious, there’s little more a young person can ask for from life, than a few hours spent at one of these wonderful repositories of Art.
All photos © Sahil Latheef | excluding the photos of the National Gallery, which are from Creative Commons