The design moral of this story: simple and beautiful design works well to clearly frame a good story and then to give it plenty of depth for further exploration.
Like many families, we love palaeontology. And the Jurassic Coast, concentrated in the southern English county of Dorset, is one of the world’s best places to go for it. However, until recently, the world heritage site has lacked a modern, purpose-built, museum dedicated to the subject. So that’s a good reason in itself to celebrate the recently opened Etches Collection in Kimmeridge – a village many are already familiar with for its fossil-rich shoreline. You can, and on this visit we did, pick up large ammonites and a fossilised fish from the shore, amongst many other treasures.
But this museum is no ordinary collection of fossils telling the story of life on earth. It is beautifully designed (more on that below). But most importantly, it is as much a living museum of paleontological craft as a showcase of scientific knowledge. From the moment we got there, we could tell this was different. We visit at least one museum a month. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a favourite. That is still very much in the Victorian tradition. But even those equipped with the latest in interactive digital displays are often conceived with a focus on the exhibits as opposed to the craft of the collector and the scientist – the stories of whom are left untold. That, I think, is a mistake. Science is a human pursuit, inseparable from the lives and passions of the people who pursue it. If we don’t present it as such then we risk showing it as a cold, inhuman, mechanistic thing to which those outside the secretive scientific sect, including children, cannot relate. Public engagement begins with doing science in the open, and showing that scientists, including palaeontologists, are humans like us, and we (especially children) may become scientists too.
As soon as we moved passed the entrance desk and shop, I was reminded of another great museum – the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site, South Africa. A few years ago we visited there, and did a tour of the caves with a PhD student from Wits. On the way down we passed Lee Berger and a group of working palaeontologists. As with the Etches, the experience was as much about the craft of palaeontology as it was about scientific discoveries. And that makes a huge difference. The main gallery of the Etches Collection, is built around the workshop of Steve Etches himself. So at one end you can see fossils being prepared. We watched as Steve worked slowly and carefully, using a small grinding tool to remove bones from a matrix. There are video screens around the museum, including at the entrance, showing short films in which Steve explains the process of finding and preparing fossils, as well as information about the area and the museum. The museum is very much a personal account, and a celebration of the life work of a palaeontologist. The tone is just right. And the effect is to draw the audience into the world of the palaeontologist, to get them to join in on the journey.
Moving back along the gallery away from the workshop, we find a carefully curated selection of fossils, drawn from Steve’s much bigger collection. They are displayed in two banks of glass cases, which lean slightly away from the viewer. Graphics and text are attractive, colourful and clear. It isn’t overwhelming in quantity, but does achieve great narrative depth. The fossils are interspersed with touch screen activities. Our children (aged 12 and 6) were well engaged, together (meaning that the activities work across the age gap) on both of our visits. There are display cases in the middle of the room, one of which contains a large ichthyosaur skull, giving a sense of the size of the animal. During our visit, guides were present and actively helping people to get the most out of the exhibit – a woman and a local school student, both very knowledgable and engaging.
Our children quickly understood the layout and how to use the museum. They are probably museum experts more than most children, as we spend a lot of our time visiting museums all over the world. However, it was obvious that this is so well designed it works intuitively. And even more importantly, while they were actively engaged in learning, I could sit on a chair at one end of the gallery and relax. Two banks of continuous display screens run along the top of each side of the gallery, displaying CGI reconstructions of the Jurassic seas – blue, watery, with sea creatures swimming past – beautiful! It’s just like the kind of tunnel popular with modern aquariums, where you get to walk underneath a tank full of sharks and turtles – except this one has ancient sea creatures. It certainly is a little bit of biophilic design genius1. Palaeontology museums can, from the nature of their subject (bones), seem lifeless. The screens reconnect us with the living seas, the creatures of the great blue biologically rich world of Jurassic Dorset.
Beyond the gallery, there is the Wolfson Education room, set up nicely for school groups and families, with a big-screen microscope and fossils to examine. It has a library and a children’s ‘excavation’ sand pit. The shop is well stocked with fossils, books and toys. The cafe facilities are minimal, but the drinks machine makes nice drinks, and there are places to sit. Upstairs, next to the gallery, is a large hall with more films playing. It is dual purpose, used as a classroom and as a village hall for Kimmeridge. It is also designed following the Clore Learning Spaces framework.
The building itself fits nicely into the setting, with the correct type of stone walls for the area, along with wood and glass used sensitively. It’s also a bit of a ‘Tardis’ – looks smaller from the outside than it really is on the inside. That helps in avoiding the building and its site feeling out of balance with the village surroundings.
1 See Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace by Sue Thomas for a good account of the importance of this design approach.
Published in the March 2018 edition.