Magazine article The Spectator

Time for a Rethink

Magazine article The Spectator

Time for a Rethink

Article excerpt

The Theatre Museum has hidden for 16 years in one of the most visible locations in London, a high-traffic corner of Coven t Garden between the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera House. Thousands pass it, all too literally, unaware that behind its Victorian exterior is one of the world's great collections of documents and art relating to the history of performance. No wonder Paul Webb complained in The Spectator in September 2001 that on a summer afternoon, while people thronged outside, only a handful were inside looking at the exhibitions.

In the early 1970s, Roy Strong, then director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, secured the basement of the former Flower Market building for the proposed Theatre Museum, a branch of the V&A. A location in 'Theatreland' must have seemed a good idea. But funding crises delayed the museum's approval until 1983. The current premises opened in 1987. By then London's theatre had centres of gravity away from the West End, and the most conspicuous theatre museum was becoming Shakespeare's Globe.

Even new, the Theatre Museum was dark and cramped. You are channelled down a narrow ramp into low-ceilinged black corridors with glass nooks, like cabinets of curiosities, showing relics that narrate the entire history of British theatre. Why does a museum about live performance feel like a catacomb?

The original installation has never been changed, despite new ideas and new technologies in muscology. While there have been engaging temporary exhibitions, the uncongenial space imposes a similar design on them all. One temporary exhibition, on the National's The Wind in the Willows, is still in place after ten years. Whether through lack of funding, initiative, or imagination, the Theatre Museum has not flourished as a cultural attraction.

All that now may change. A new director, Geoffrey Marsh, arrived in April after working with Daniel Libeskind on the new Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and has announced a £12 million redevelopment to double the current exhibition space.

The architects Haworth Tompkins, responsible for the Royal Court redevelopment, will unblock windows to admit natural light and allow passers-by to see that something is indeed happening inside. …

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