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Estimated reading time: 5 min

What is good museum architecture? It’s a question that has been asked in articles, books and countless university papers. For many, it is a question without a clear answer. The architecture of a museum is so open to analysis because, at it’s core, a museum is something which can be constantly changing. The presentation of objects, the very essence of what a museum is, can shift dramatically over monthly periods depending on which artefacts are on display. This makes the job of the architect when planning the space, particularly tricky. Once upon a time it may have been enough to make a space neutral and let the exhibitions do the rest. No longer. Museums now need to house archives, engage the public, fit the landscape (which itself can often be changeable), encourage discovery and, increasingly, embrace technology. Perhaps the biggest challenge facing museums (and architects) is having to adapt to a new generation of visitors and the need to find new ways to enhance the interaction between visitor and exhibition.

In recent decades, we have seen the emergence of museums which have become the focal point themselves which has caused much debate. For many, this stealing of the limelight goes against what a museum should be. Of course, getting to the essence of what makes a good museum should be at the forefront of every architect’s mind when working on such projects but that isn’t always the case. A museum, more often than not, is a public building with a duty to allow for discourse, debate, functions and, crucially, the appreciation of artefacts. Museums will always be defined by how they highlight the exhibitions they host and the very best museums are capable of bringing art to life, as opposed to suffocating it. Below we look at three RMJM designed museums which we think underline our commitment to these wonderful institutions.

Woodhorn: Northumberland Museum, Archives, Country Park by RMJM

Woodhorn: Northumberland Museum
One of RMJM’s most striking projects is, somewhat surprisingly, home to a mining museum in North Yorkshire. Tasked by the client with creating a new building type, our architects sought to combine a museum with county record office facilities offering a valuable source of information to the local and wider community, while embracing the cultural history of the region. The result is the dramatic sculpted roof reflecting the mechanical cutting that once took place underground, evoking the danger and energy of the coal industry. Inspired by coal cutting machines, the building (commonly referred to as ‘The Cutter’) is an emotive yet industrial work which adds context to Northumberland’s story and vivid history.

The museum embraces the juxtaposition of the industrial site and its natural surroundings to create something quite unique and has been consistently praised for it’s innovative approach to the local museum. Tellingly, the original brief was challenged by RMJM which ultimately led to an integrated series of art gallery spaces that had been relegated to remote buildings elsewhere on the site. These purpose-designed galleries, which sit next to the main public archive search room, house permanent painting collections and are considered central to the museums continued success.

National Museum of Libya
The National Museum of Libya, designed by RMJM and funded largely by UNESCO, was described as “a first in the Arab world” and widely praised as being ahead of its time when it was completed in 1988. Increasing the floor space proved key to RMJM’s plan of modernising the museum. An educational centre, capable of accommodating up to 50 children allowing them to carry out practical work as well using video monitors was very well received and the spaces within the museum were praised for their flexibility in allowing for an adoption of new technology while simultaneously allowing for representation of Libyan civilizations.

RMJM’s role on this landmark project was a major redesign and reconstruction of the existing museum within the old city walls. The National Museum sought to preserve and display Libya’s movable heritage, providing an educational and cultural centre for its citizens. The Museum was also notable for a document centre concentrating on the collection and documentation of the cultural and natural environment as well as an academic centre for research and collection. It was shortlisted for the 6th cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The Iran Historical Car Museum by RMJM

Iran Historical Car Museum
The latest museum project RMJM has committed to is the Iran Historical Car Museum, just outside of the capital city, Tehran. This museum differs from many others RMJM has worked on in the past in that it will cater for sports cars, limousines, motorcycles and carriages as opposed to art and historical artefacts. This project also represents RMJM’s first project in Iran but is now one of many museums to sit within the company’s vast portfolio. Originally commissioned as architectural consultant for the museum, RMJM Arta Tehran was subsequently appointed as Interior Designer on the project which seeks to add a sense of culture and history to the industrial zone. For this reason, the studio sought the expertise of a curator and art expert to enhance the cultural exchange between visitors and the exhibitions.

Arta Rostami Ravari, Managing Director of RMJM Arta Tehran, will serve as lead architect on the project explained the value the museum will add to Iranian culture: “You can feel a temporal atmosphere which makes the past alive. The historical cars are manifested as living cultural events which will have significance for visitors. By experiencing their own living past, the visitors may set boundaries for future hopes. The whole design process for historizing the visitors aims to bring the past alive in the present. I think this be the way for many projects over the coming years in this country. We are linked inextricably to the past even as we move forward with new technology and design processes. Architecture in Iran has the chance to offer the best of both worlds.”