Whitworth Art Gallery redesign – a breath of fresh air

This clever but subtle redesign for Manchester’s Whitworth tears up the red tape and lets the light, and surrounding park, flood in

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The Whitworth’s ‘Jacobean-ish’ exterior, remodelled for the 21st century at a cost of £15m after a competition won by MUMA from 130 applicants
The Whitworth’s ‘Jacobean-ish’ exterior, remodelled for the 21st century at a cost of £15m after a competition won by MUMA from 130 applicants / © Alan Williams
The Whitworth’s ‘Jacobean-ish’ exterior, remodelled for the 21st century at a cost of £15m after a competition won by MUMA from 130 applicants
The Whitworth’s ‘Jacobean-ish’ exterior, remodelled for the 21st century at a cost of £15m after a competition won by MUMA from 130 applicants / © Alan Williams

We need to talk about BS5454. This may not be a subject to quicken your pulse on a Sunday morning, nor indeed one on which you have strong views one way or another. Some may not even know what it is. But it is a document of importance to the cultural life of the nation. It is one that the Whitworth in Manchester has dared to challenge.

For those few readers who are still with me, rather than defecting to the sports pages, it is the British Standard that concerns the “storage and exhibition of archival documents” and is part of the edifice of rules that, in the admirable desire to preserve beautiful and historic artefacts, requires art galleries to become sealed air-control machines at great cost in money and energy. Museums won’t lend to each other, nationally or internationally, unless such equipment is in place. According to Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth, it means museums in poorer countries can’t afford to take part in the global interchange of exhibits.

The Whitworth has said pshaw! to BS5454. It has torn it to shreds and thrown the pieces in the air. With the engineers Buro Happold it has worked out a way of controlling the temperature and humidity without such things as artificial refrigeration. It has done so in consultation with other institutions, including Tate, to make sure it will still be able to borrow. ….

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