Sharon Lacey | School of Architecture and Planning
October 26, 2015
The collaboration will consist of seminars, workshops, and studio classes for MIT students and potential exhibitions at MIT and the Soane Museum. This fall, the Department of Architecture is offering the program's first class, a reconsideration of architectural fragments through archival, project-based, and experimental research.
"I think there is something really meaty and amazing and rich about this program," says Meejin Yoon, head of the Department of Architecture. "For nearly two centuries, the museum has preserved John Soane's vision, as expressed through what he collected and the theatrical way he arranged his home. As such, it offers our students a unique opportunity to consider the role of museums through a deep history and an astonishing array of artworks, objects, and artifacts."
Students involved in the project will explore the dissemination of culture through collecting, then design something on campus that explores future strategies in conservation and museology, Yoon says. She anticipates the course will yield a wide range of results, from "traveling sets of cabinets of curiosities," to "combinations of digital and physical objects in nontraditional architectural contexts."
Sir John Soane, who died in 1837, negotiated an Act of Parliament to maintain his house at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fieldsn — exactly as it was at the time of his death — as a public institution for education and inspiration. The home is filled with carefully placed historic fragments, plaster casts, antiquities, architectural models, books, paintings and drawings. Objects span continents and millennia: an Egyptian sarcophagus, a ruined Gothic monastery, paintings by Turner and Piranesi, caryatids from The Erechtheion, a 14th-century Moroccan capital, a collection of marble lions' paws.
Soane set up rooms as spatial experiments, with varying ceiling heights and inventive lighting effects. Skylights with two shades of yellow glass simulate the warm Mediterranean rays that would originally have fallen on his Classical artifacts. Known in his lifetime for adopting innovative technology, he used plate-glass windows, indoor plumbing, and underfloor heating at a time when only the royal household enjoyed such conveniences.
A professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, Soane intended for his museum to have a teaching purpose: His students, who were prevented from going on a grand tour to the storied sites of Europe due to the Napoleonic Wars, were granted access to his books, casts, and models before and after each of his lectures. Today, the museum not only houses Soane's collection, but also exists as a space for research, teaching, and engagement by contemporary practitioners.
Abraham Thomas, former director of the Soane Museum, sees the collaboration with MIT as reviving that "cheek-by-jowl" existence of the museum as both public collection and academic resource:
"I was really interested to see what we can do to boldly interpret that original history of the museum by embarking on major partnerships with architectural schools, both here in London and internationally," Thomas says. "One of the reasons I thought about MIT is because I've always been struck by the permeability between different disciplines at MIT and the fact that it is without a doubt one of the world's leading research institutions, which has contemporary practice at its heart — whether that is through the architectural school, the cultural history programs, or through the curatorial practice of the MIT Museum."
The MIT Museum will play a key role in the collaboration, acting as a surrogate for Soane's collection and facilitating student research and exhibitions. Curator Gary Van Zante, who initiated the project, says the materials in the MIT Museum's collection offer a meaningful parallel for the students. "When looking at an architectural drawing, for instance, whether it dates to Soane's time or to the 1860s and 1870s when the MIT collection was formed, many of the same questions arise. There are few time barriers from the museological side," he says.
William Ware, founder of the MIT program in architecture, also created a museum of architecture encompassing fragments, casts, photographs, and drawings — and, like Soane, believed in their importance for teaching, according to Van Zante. This museum, which Ware gave the curious name "Museum of Architectural Appliances," formed the basis of the MIT Museum architecture collections.
As the collaboration unfolds, Van Zante hopes that studying the evolution of the two museums, and their common curatorial concerns and conservation issues, will provide useful case studies for students interested in museology.
Students enrolled in the inaugural course, "The Fragment," taught by David Gissen, a visiting professor in the History, Theory and Criticism program, will explore architectural monuments rendered into a fragmented, disassembled, or ruined state. Gissen, a historian, theorist, curator, and critic whose recent work focuses on developing experimental forms of architectural historical practice, says: "The fragment links a huge constellation of ideas, related to the history of architectural conservation and restoration, such as imperial collecting, architectural vandalism and monument salvage."
Thomas says he hopes the partnership with MIT could lead to various exciting outcomes. "It's almost overwhelming thinking about the directions you could take this. Of course that's part of the great appeal of the Soane — there's no one fixed interpretation of this collection in terms of how it exists and what it means to people," he says. "In general I would love to see the Soane being used as a kind of sandbox for experimentation and investigative play, through these students working collaboratively on the seminar course with us."