The Museum of the Home in Hoxton, East London will reopen to the public 12 June, following an £18.1 million capital redevelopment by architects Wright & Wright. The project revitalises an assemblage of 300-year old almshouses and gardens, consolidating the historic building with contemporary elements to create a sustainable and engaging public space. Wright & Wright’s remodelling creates 80% more exhibition space, 50% more public space and remedies the building’s deterioration, preserving a valuable local and national heritage asset for decades to come. It also introduces a new entrance directly opposite Hoxton Station, adds two new garden pavilions together with a street-facing cafe, and improves public access, with no increase in the building’s overall energy requirements.
Within the main almshouse, Wright & Wright excavated and re-established the lower ground floor to form the new Home Galleries and reinstated the first floors to create a spacious new Collections Library and Study Room. The Museum is structured around a redesigned reception space, while a reconfigured circulation route, with flexible entry and exit points, enables visitors to navigate and shape their own Museum experience. Flanking the gardens are two new pavilions providing valuable community space for the Museum’s programme of education and other activities. The green roof planted on one of the pavilions enhances biodiversity and acknowledges the Museum’s gardens as being one of the few public green spaces in the surrounding area.
In making the Museum’s interiors more accessible, Wright & Wright has also made its street presence more visible and welcoming, eroding the barrier between museum and public realm. A new entrance opposite Hoxton Station entices visitors through a series of sculptural ramps and steps framed by plants, creating an enclave for people to meet and sit. Similarly, the adjacent and previously redundant Victorian-era public house has been transformed into a cafe, providing an additional entry point to the Museum. Wright & Wright’s architectural synthesis of new and old reflects a reframed curatorial approach intended to make the Museum more appealing to a wider audience by addressing contemporary domestic issues such as homelessness and fluctuating family structures. It actualises the Museum’s refreshed identity which aims to present a more nuanced understanding of the idea of home and its resonance in society.
Clare Wright, partner at Wright & Wright, says: ‘As the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “Home is where one starts from”. The revitalised Museum of the Home will appeal to those used to exploring museums and to new and younger visitors alike. Working with the magical, domestically scaled 18th-century buildings, we have dug down into cellars and opened up roof spaces to reveal hidden spaces, while stitching in modest extensions, linking it all into the Museum’s beautifully cared for gardens, for everyone to enjoy.’
Sonia Solicari, Director at Museum of the Home, says: “Our doors have been closed for over three years - we can’t wait to throw them open and welcome everyone back to the Museum of the Home. We hope visitors will be intrigued and inspired by the personal stories of home life which run through our new and reimagined galleries and programmes - from diverse contemporary and historical stories in the Home Galleries, to Stay Home, our rapid-response collecting project documenting home life during lockdown, and Behind the Door, our pioneering partnership with the London Homeless Collective. In a year when many of our homes have morphed into places to work, learn and keep fit, debating, sharing and delving into ideas, feelings and personal experiences of home seems more important and relevant than ever.”
The Museum has been much loved precisely because its domestic scale and historic ambience chimed so perfectly with its purpose as a museum of the home. We have delighted in revealing and revitalising more of the buildings to be explored and enjoyed. We see our role as architects as part of a human continuum rather than an isolated act of creativity. We don’t sweep away the past to provide a blank canvas for our vision. Instead, we look at what was there and what is to come – the place, the buildings, its context within the city – and try to understand its meaning on all levels, the layers of history, the creative endeavours of those who have gone before and what they left behind. Simultaneously, we strive to understand the client’s hopes for the future through their building project, their spoken and unspoken aspirations. It can feel like an archaeological dig, where we gently brush away the sand to reveal a project that was there all along.
Our brief for the Museum was to design a new building to house a museum gallery, learning rooms, lecture hall, reading room and secure collection storage. But the existing buildings resonated so strongly with their purpose, and had such inherent potential, that they, rather than a clean slate, were our starting point.
We found that the 300‐year‐old building, itself a beautiful, fragile and rare object, was at grave risk of being lost. The almshouses, and a relationship with the gardens that has evolved over centuries, were potentially very beautiful and a rare treasure in Hackney, where there are few public gardens or significant historic buildings, but access to the back garden was convoluted and difficult to find. Inside, the museum display comprised a series of charming period rooms, installed in interconnecting almshouses. They have a magical domestic synergy, but had become tired and threadbare, and on close inspection we found the original 1914 alterations to form the Museum had destabilised it. Floors, internal walls and staircases that had braced the buildings had been casually removed and openings formed in the lower ground floors caused further structural instability. Only the middle of the three original floors was being used to any great extent. The upper floors had been replaced with a non‐structural deck, and low headroom on the lower floor limited its use. Staff had to creep through it bent double to reach collection stores, sometimes through flooding from backed‐up sewage due to failing drains. Like those who saved it from demolition in 1914, we saw there was great potential but much to do if this gem was to be reinvigorated.
Undoubtedly, museum design reflects contemporaneous cultural mores. In the modern era, while new‐build theatres generally evolved as neutral black boxes, museum galleries tended to be neutral white boxes, air‐conditioned and devoid of a relationship with the outside world. Now, theatre aficionados often look for ‘found’ rather than new spaces for performance. They believe adaptation and imperfection can engender a creative and resonant dynamic, which was exactly what we thought already existed in the ‘Museum of the Home’.
So, we fixed drains, stabilised structure, insulated, replaced heating and electrics and dug down to create gallery space below the period rooms. We reopened blocked‐up windows and doors, put back floors, added staircases and lifts and opened up the roof space. In this way, we accommodated the client’s brief within the existing almshouses, with new galleries on the lower floor and reading room and storage in the roof. We delighted in the odd kinks and curves of the original almshouse forms, the exposed marks of the illiterate 18th‐century carpenters, and we etched the memory of the original walls on the floors in bronze. We relished forming visual links and easy access to the gardens, and delighted in creating domestically scaled gallery spaces where visitors can relate intimately to small objects and personal stories
We built single‐storey pavilions to bookend the rear garden, one for education, the other for lectures and conferences. Each can be accessed independently, so small children or those with dementia can be installed safely and easily. One is timber, the other brick, both of a grey/black palette, intended to contrast and complement rather than compete or usurp.
Architects Branson Coates’ extension of 1998 was conceived as a town square housing the restaurant. Now, it serves as an entrance hall in the same idiom. Turning the building inside out and back to front allowed a new contemporary entrance to be built onto the street opposite Hoxton station. It engages with the streetscape, inviting people in, while also providing a public bench for sitting and contemplation. The Victorian pub is spruced up and extended to provide much‐needed housing that vitally cross‐subsidised the development financially. Amalgamated over time, this site was an intricate tapestry of buildings and interventions. We enjoyed picking out the various threads and weaving them together to create a museum that we hope people of all ages and backgrounds will enjoy. We are not restoration architects, but when we design, we look backwards as well as forwards to read the complicated patterns that make our cities such rich environments.