New museum reviewed

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The new museum building

This article by Rona Cole was first published in the 1992 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Societe logo.jpg

In these days of recession and depression, the opening of a new museum should be greeted by the sound of trumpets and a roll of drums. The new Jersey Museum, which was officially opened on 19 March 1992 is worth a prolonged fanfare.

The museum has been a long time in the making and the careful planning by the present Director of Museums, Michael Day, and his predecessor, Martyn Brown, has paid dividends. It succeeds the long-established Jersey Museum, founded and run by the Societe Jersiaise, which occupied the five floors of the fine granite Merchant's House at 9 Pier Road, Saint Helier.

New building

It was a courageous and entirely right decision that, instead of redisplaying the house as a museum, a new building should be constructed linking the house with the 18th century granite warehouse, La Longue Caserne, which had been purchased by the States of Jersey for a museum. This decision meant that the new museum entrance would be moved from the old entrance in Pier Road to the back of the house, which is also the front of the warehouse. The entrance is now from the Weighbridge area of the harbour, close to the busy bus terminus and the tourist information building; a much better location for attracting visitors than the rather dull Pier Road. If, in the fullness of time, the projected plans come to pass to move the bus terminus and landscape the area, the Museum will have an almost ideal site.

The new building has been constructed at a cost of £3.8 million, of which £3.2 million came in the form of a States of Jersey grant to the Jersey Heritage Trust (the body which, along with the Societe Jersiaise, is now responsible for running the Museum) and £350,000 from the 1947 Le Maistre bequest for a Jersey art gallery. Work started on site in April 1989. The foundation stone was laid by Brigadier Raoul Lempriere-Robin, then Chairman of the Trust, in February 1990.

The opening ceremony was performed, almost exactly two years later, by Air Marshal Sir John Sutton, Lieut-Governor of Jersey, who was introduced by the present Chairman, Mr Donald Filleul.

The building, designed by the Jersey architect, J Douglas Smith, is in three storeys and links La Longue Caserne with the Merchant's House at 9 Pier Road. Very unfortunately, it was decided that the internal integrity of the 18th-century warehouse could not be retained and this now forms part of the new building. The external gable ends and one outer wall, however, remain intact.

The granite gable end of the new building, facing the Weighbridge, carries a three-arched balcony opening out from the top floor with a large ornamental clock above. The balcony arches have been adopted, with great success, as the new museum logo. The entrance to the Museum, through the handsome Societe Jersiaise arch, is now off a terrace between the new building and the back of the house. This has been designed as an Italian peristyle with wooden columns and formal ponds, which will form an attractive shady garden area when the planting matures.

My only regret is that the horizontal elements in the central area somewhat spoil the view of the fine, dressed granite, five-storey elevation of the Merchant's House. The ponds are already attracting coinage and thus form a novel sort of collecting box.

Cafe

Part of this area serves as an outside extension of the licensed cafe which is run by the Museum's own trading company. 'Cafe' is how it is described in the guidebook, but it is far grander than that. This is a beautifully designed small restaurant, serving an excellent choice of meals, which is already bidding to become one of Jersey's most popular lunchtime venues. Both it, and the small up-market shop, can be reached from the immediate entrance without passing through the pay point. The shop, fitted with custom-built display furniture, sells a high quality selection of goods, including a specially commissioned silk tie and scarf featuring designs by Jersey's great artist, Edmund Blampied. For a museum shop, however, there was a disappointing shortage of books, which would enable visitors to pursue an interest aroused in the Museum, and very few postcards.

Once through the pay point, a generous counter unit which also serves the shop and which can accommodate several staff at busy times, the ground floor of the new Museum is a delight. The spacious concourse is paved in Jersey granite, which not only creates a special atmosphere but, wisely, gives the Museum ample circulation space for visitors to gather.

This area is dominated by a stunning space shuttle photograph of Jersey in the form of a back-lit transparency. This is an unfamiliar view, looking south over East Anglia to the Cotentin Peninsula of northern France and, cheekily, the other Channel Islands are neatly obliterated by cloud. This space shuttle view is balanced by a smaller NASA image (this time the right way up and showing all the islands), and contrasted with early maps of Jersey. There is also a touch-screen interactive video which enables the visitors to test their knowledge of Jersey through multiple-choice questions.

Next to this is the Museum's 'state-of-the-art' (the guide book description) exhibition gallery to be used for touring and special exhibitions. This small rectangular gallery is designed to be flexible; a variety of screens or showcases can be rolled in on the ceiling fixtures to change its format at will. Having seen it in action with screens and showcases for the opening exhibition, and without for the Treasures of Jersey exhibition, there is no doubt that it can perform this function well. (The opening of the latter exhibition also demonstrated how well the concourse area works for absorbing a large number of people.) My only doubt about the gallery is whether it is really large enough to handle the sort of exhibitions the Museum will want to mount.

Moving round the concourse, the next room is the handsome and comfortable audio-visual theatre. Seating 55 people, it shows a twelve minute long, nine projector slide-tape programme entitled Jersey: A Place in History, which is an inspired title. This is a very well scripted and photographed show by Intergrated Circles which gives the Museum the opportunity to explain why the Island's heritage matters, and at the same time links the static museum displays to the outside world. At a cost of £50,000, it is important that this programme should have staying power and I believe that it will. A helpful digital count-down clock outside the theatre informs visitors of the length of time before the next showing.

La Cotte de St Brelade

Two exhibition elements are also in this area: the Treadmill from the Old Prison (the only survivor of a previous display in this area) revitalised with new figures, and the La Cotte de Saint Brelade display. This is a reconstruction of the cliff face at this important palaeolithic site, which extends upwards into the middle floor of the building. Climbing down the cliff, various stone age men head for the mammoths driven over the cliff to their death. Incongruously, however, at the base of the cliff we find, not the bleeding corpses of freshly-dead animals, but a mammoth jaw and teeth as uncovered by the archaeologists and, next to this, a vignette showing an archaeological laboratory. This is a brave attempt to make a difficult subject more comprehensible to the visitor; it does not work for me, but it may do for others.

At the back of the ground floor, a closed-off staircase, somewhat utilitarian in style, leads to the upper floors. It is a pity that this circulation could not have been more of an obvious and natural progression leading the visitor to the upper floors, though no doubt fire regulations have something to do with this. The staircase area does offer, however, further display opportunities and we find here Lillie Langtry's dressing set and an interesting selection of miscellaneous items from the Museum collections. The whole of the first floor is occupied by the main exhibition The Story of Jersey.

Here the museum designer has chosen to make a central feature of the interactive video screens; there are two, both with larger monitors above so that others can watch. The computers, like the one on the ground floor, are operated by touching the screen and the visitor, if he has the stamina, can work through an astonishing eight hours of video. There are nine main subjects: Island, Community, Political Life, Farmers, Workers, Sailors, Soldiers, Family and Tourists, and each of these leads to a further five to seven sub-divisions or back to the main directory. The programmes are visually attractive and present just the right amount of information, although I would have welcomed a change of voice-over from time to time.

Around the edge of this central area the main themes of the exhibition are introduced together with various images of the Island enhanced by pebbles and a ripple lighting effect. For the Story of Jersey exhibition a deliberately thematic approach has been chosen: seven different sections lead off the central area exploring different aspects of the Island's history and people. There is no set route and, as the Director explained to me, the object is to allow visitors to choose the themes they find most interesting and to create the possibility of surprise. This is a perfectly valid approach, although it can lead to a feeling of frustration for those who expect from the title to find a more coherent story-line. The display is crowded and the lay-out leads to disorientation, all part of the 'surprise' element perhaps.

The themes chosen are: The Making of an Island which includes the spectacular Jersey gold torque, wonderful displays of a bronze hoard and a Celtic coin hoard, and a do-it-yourself model demonstrating the effect of sea-level changes. Here also one looks across to the top of the La Cotte cliff, eyeball-to-eyeball with a caveman, although only half-a-dozen of the thousands of artefacts from this key site are on show. Centuries of Change takes us from the hermit Saint Helier, where the lack of actual material is overcome by an audio-visual programme using clever cut-out figures, through the Civil War, French wars, the Battle of Jersey, emigres and refugees, featuring a splendid spy peering through a window, and the two World Wars.

Working the Land gives us agricultural implements and a stuffed Jerey cow, over which I couldn't help shedding a small tear, and surely the poor beast had a name? All the caption told me was that it was 'A typical example of the Jersey breed'. Living by the Sea features a series of small exhibits on fishing, navigation, smuggling and shipbuilding, set in front of Volunteer, a restored Jersey fishing boat. To one side visitors can peer into a shipbuilder's workshop (I liked the authentically dirty glass), and behind the boat is a sail which carries back-lit projected images: at least, it did on my first visit.

A Peculiar of the Crown explains Jersey's constitutional positions, Jurats and Governors, the police and the Island flag. Everyday Lives, Everyday Things contains a fine collection of bicycles, games, mangles, radios, even an old toilet, and a splendid tobacco Indian. Finally Prosperity and Communications links travel to and from the Island with tourism, postage, currency and finance. Bang up to the minute are the airport television monitors giving flight information and the Reuters screens giving live stock exchange data.

Ph'lippe Le Crapaud

Into this last area is squeezed the very small area devoted to The Living Landscape, where I at last found Ph'lippe Le Crapaud, alias the Jersey toad. This small character, in cartoon form, pops up in various parts of the exhibition: dressed in prehistoric furs saying 'We're an island now', as a Royalist shouting 'God save the King', and even hunched over a computer wearing an eye-shade and enquiring 'What's the time in Tokyo?' My trusty guide book informed me that he was 'for the younger visitor', but this older visitor enjoyed him too.

The top floor is given over to the Barreau-Le Maistre Art Gallery, a large open space, cool and uncluttered by comparison with the busy exhibition floor below. Daylight enters the gallery through the balcony. This is one of the most thoughtfully displayed art galleries I have ever visited with the different subject areas indicated by discreet screen¬printed wooden panels. The introductory area is the most fascinating: Making a Picture takes us through the different techniques with examples of each, from pencil and ink sketches, to watercolours, lithographs, etchings and aquatints, reproductions and oils, and an accompanying showcase contains the materials and tools used.

The other subjects are Portraits, Landscapes, Seascapes and Townscapes, Subject Painting, Ship Portraits, Abstract Art and Jersey Silver. What a refreshing change to find an art gallery in which one can learn about art as well as looking at pictures. What I would criticize, however, is that the display is somewhat sparse with only a tiny percentage of the Museum's 4,000 works of art on show. And the gallery looks sparse: surely some more paintings could be accommodated.

Also on this floor is the Ouless Room, so called after the superb enlargement of Philip Oulesss' panoramic view of St Aubin's Bay 1842 which covers the whole of one wall. This well-appointed small room can be used in either lecture or conference format. The Museum hires this space to outside organisations and, sensibly, it has a separate entrance from Caledonia Steps so that it can be used independently of the main building.

Finally, a small area on the top floor offers two treats. First, a view of the Fort Regent signal mast with an excellent explanatory panel showing the various signals, past and present; and this is probably the only place in the Island from which you can see nothing of the less than successful modern additions to the Fort. Second, a tantalizing glimpse into one of the restored Victorian bedrooms in the adjoining Merchant's house. A taster for the Museum's next project, on which work has already started, the restoration of the house to its former glory as the 1861 residence and workplace of Charles Ginestet, a general practitioner and homeopathist.

Co-ordinated design

One of the things which impresses me most about the new Jersey Museum is the evidence throughout the building of a careful design co-ordination and quality finish. This is most evident in the use of the chosen colour scheme: a dark mulberry red which appears on the guide book cover, the sweatshirts worn by the staff, in the audio-visual theatre seats, as lettering on the directional signs and even in the touch-screen areas of the interactive video. This is balanced by a lighter tone of the same colour or a toning grey. Light polished wood is used throughout - most effectively on the pay-point counter and shop units.

The graphics are uniformly good and I particularly liked the directional signs: light polished wood with silk-screened lettering in mulberry for the floor you are on, and grey for the other floors. The shop has neatly printed price signs carrying the Museum logo; the cafe has information cards with its own acanthus-leaved column capital logo, which is repeated in the specially commissioned curtains. It is clear, too, that the Museum puts a high priority on customer care. The Museum is spotless, the staff are helpful and friendly, and the facilities - shop, cafe, toilets, lifts to all floors, and even a baby changing room - are excellent.

It is worth remembering that a museum is much more than just a building. It has rarely been better put than by Nicholas Thomas, one of the doyens of the museum profession, when he wrote: "The museum building must be seen as the vital part of a service - collecting, conserving, informing, educating, inspiring, entertaining, acting as a focus within the community it serves:' The sound base of the Jersey Museums Service was laid down by the Societe Jersiaise when it first opened the Pier Road Museum almost a century ago and through all their years of collecting and care. There is no doubt that the present highly-motivated staff, under their dynamic Director of Museums, are intent on providing Jersey with just this kind of service.

The new Jersey Museum is a brilliant asset to the Island. When the refurbishment of the adjoining Merchant's House is complete, Jersey will undoubtedly have the finest museum in the Channel Islands.

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