Holburne Museum, Bath

The Holburne Museum has been reinvigorated by an extension that opens up the building and its collections. By Nicky Ryan
Nicky Ryan
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As I was sipping latte and eating sourdough toast in the Garden Cafe of the remodelled and extended Holburne Museum, the slogan “an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached” came to mind.

This strapline, conceived by Saatchi & Saatchi as part of its 1988 advertising campaign to promote the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), attracted widespread criticism.

Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, the director of the V&A at the time, was accused of dumbing down and promoting entertainment at the expense of institutional integrity. A couple of decades later, it is common for cultural venues to dedicate prime space to catering.

Museum cafes have taken on the role of the 18th-century coffee house, acting as a hub of social activity, a place in which to see and be seen. The Garden Cafe at the Holburne Museum fills the ground floor of Eric Parry Architects’ three-storey extension.

With its stylish interior decor and 180-degree view of the surrounding landscape, the cafe is the heart of what is a very modern intervention into one of Bath’s landmark Grade-I-listed Georgian attractions.

The new building is a transparent glazed pavilion intersected by moulded ceramic fins finished in a mottled blue and green. Designed to reflect the changing colours and patterns of light and landscape, the extension provides a modern counterpoint to the classical appearance of the original building.

Initially, the project was delayed by objections to its form and cladding but record attendance figures (20,000 visitors in the first month after reopening in May) point to great interest from visitors.

Social spaces

The centrality of the cafe to the museum experience does not signify any downgrading of the 4,000-item collection donated to the city of Bath by 19th-century naval officer William Holburne.

And it is not evidence of unrestrained commercialism on the part of the Holburne Museum, although opportunities to raise revenue through corporate and private entertainment are crucial for the survival of such establishments.

Instead, the importance of the cafe to the £11.2m renovation project resides in its role in the reorientation of the building to the gardens and the revival of the  kind of social activities that once gave the place its particular character and identity.

Holburne Museum was originally built as a tavern by Charles Harcourt Masters in 1795 and later extended to offer accommodation. The Sydney Hotel, as it was known, provided a focal point to the vista at the end of Great Pultney Street and a gateway into the commercially run Sydney Pleasure Gardens.

It served the function of casino and entry pavilion into a hexagonally shaped and picturesque landscape of grottoes, labyrinth and follies.

This speculative development was part of Bath’s transformation in the latter half of the 18th century into a city increasingly visited by tourists for its fashionable entertainment as well as hot springs and architecture.

The Sydney Hotel and Gardens became a meeting point and leisure destination for the growing middle classes of Bath and wealthy visitors from mainland Europe.

Historical setting

Parry’s extension and internal remodelling of Holburne Museum draws on the history of the site as a hotel to create a threshold between inside and outside where people meet, eat, wait, observe and socialise.

The ground floor of the Sydney Hotel was originally used for breakfasts, coffee drinking, reading and playing cards, with the rear elevation providing a focus for firework displays, musical and theatrical performances and illuminations at night.

Events hosted by the museum include concerts of baroque music, piano recitals and a “cinema under the stars”, indicating that the traditions of the hotel and pleasure garden are being continued.

Hotels, like museums, have an important relationship with the city and serve a variety of purposes in addition to their more obvious function as sites of hospitality.

Throughout their history the role of the hotel has included that of urban landmark, symbol of civic pride and as flagship in regeneration strategies designed to attract tourists.

Today, many chic hotels are transforming themselves into public spaces by displaying art and hosting temporary exhibitions, thereby taking on some of the functions of the museum.

Parry reverses this process by playing with the idea of museum as hotel in order to reinvigorate the Holburne as a social space and underline its Georgian lineage.

In 1916 the Sydney Hotel was reconfigured by Reginald Blomfield as a museum to house William Holburne’s collection of paintings, bronzes, silver, porcelain, miniatures, ivories, fans, cameos, embroideries, medals, enamels and furniture.

Today, items from the collector’s study occupy the double-height void in the intermediate floors of the new extension.

Intensity

In a reworking of the idea of a cabinet of curiosities, a sense of wonder is evoked by a dense and idiosyncratic display that is reminiscent of Sir John Soane’s London house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Exhibition designer Metaphor has reinterpreted artefacts throughout the building, bringing drama and intensity to the exhibits.

The renovation includes new facilities such as the cafe, shop, library, archive and education rooms. There is also an increase in display space and the provision of a top-lit gallery for temporary exhibitions.

Peter Blake’s A Museum of My Own was the first temporary exhibition after the revamp, and was probably the most disappointing element of the project.

At the Museum of Everything in Primrose Hill, London, Blake used his collection to create a wonderfully strange and quirky display, so I expected something playful, personal and eccentric at the Holburne.

But a minimalist style of presentation in a room of icy temperatures and grey lighting drained Blake’s collection and artworks of any exuberance.

The extension to Holburne Museum is a bold architectural gesture in a Unesco-protected site where the convention has been to adopt a form of classical pastiche that blends into the existing urban fabric.

The new building has expanded the museum; increased its potential as a tourist attraction; and, by referencing its heritage as former hotel and gateway to the adjacent landscape, provided a catalyst for the regeneration of the wider area and the unique pleasure gardens.

Nicky Ryan is programme director at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, London

Project data

  • Cost £11.2m
  • Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund; Linbury Trust
  • Architect Eric Parry Architects
  • Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
  • Exhibition design Metaphor
  • Interactive design All of Us
  • Display cases Meyvaert
  • Lighting Kevan Shaw Lighting Design
  • Project management Cragg Management Services
  • Structural engineers Momentum
  • Mechanical and electrical engineers Atelier Ten
  • Collection storage and transport Oxford Exhibition Services


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