Diverse Manière: Exploring the Learning Potential of Artistic Interventions at Sir John Soane’s Museum

At London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum, very little has changed since its founder, a successful architect, died in 1837. The site, consisting of his house, library and private museum, was donated to the nation in 1883 for the benefit of “’amateurs and students’ in painting, sculpture and architecture.” This gift came with three “descriptions” that stipulated the manner in which the works in the collection were arranged. According to Soane’s will, the site was intended to stay the way it was so that future generations could use it in the same way its founder did.

This long-term agreement came to situate Soane’s Museum in a difficult place. Not interfering with the original arrangement could easily resemble the reproduction or even promotion of ideas that had underlain the construction of this collection during the Victorian period. These values, which in many ways served to justify an expanding process of colonization and dominant ideas about civilization and progress during the nineteenth century, carry very different implications in a contemporary context.

Coffee pot from 'Diverse Maniere D’Adornare I Cammini…' cast in silver from digitally modeled elements © Factum Arte. Coffee pot from 'Diverse Maniere D’Adornare I Cammini…' cast in silver from digitally modeled elements © Factum Arte.

Faced with this challenge, in recent years the team at Sir John Soane´s Museum has been exploring the potential of artist interventions to spark alternative interpretative paths without modifying the stipulated arrangement or detracting from the immersive experience. This article will explore a recent temporary exhibition called “Diverse Manière: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess,” which incorporated the use of technology to enhance understanding and bring about new insights into the collection. In spring 2014, a series of 3D prints, translated from designs in Piranesi’s 1769 publication, “Diverse Manière,” were allocated in the rooms next to the original casts, models and works from antiquity that Soane collected. The dialogue between these “copies” and the rest of the collection allowed explorations of the relationship between Soane and Piranesi, a famous artist whose etchings of architectural fantasies fascinated and inspired Soane’s work. The surprising encounters prompted by the presence of these objects opened new possibilities for visitors to engage with the museum’s collection in alternative ways.

The nature of a collection

Sir John Soane had a very particular way of arranging the objects of his collection. The creation of this museum space was intentionally planned to project a multiplicity of perspectives, potentially evoking different emotions and associations of antiquity. According to P. Thornton and H. Dorey, this way of understanding the space as an “expressive art form” prevents the museum from being considered simply as a “repository,”[1] as those described by Theodor W. Adorno in his “Valery Proust Museum.”[2] Thornton and Dorey argue that no matter who comes into the museum today and what they pay attention to, visitors are able to establish a vital relationship with objects because the space is capable of inspiring alternative and multiple voices. However, there are powerful ideas underlying the gallery space that are not necessarily evident for contemporary audiences. For example, the fact that Soane did not arrange his collection chronologically or by culture, as did other famous collectors of his time, does not mean his museum is exempt from the influence of the values and ideas of the Enlightenment period. In fact, his arrangement of the collection was partially designed to promote his own drawings and other works from friends and colleagues, as he placed them next to celebrated buildings of antiquity, and to construct a story that would link British artists with a particular history of civilization. Soane’s museum was a space that could offer him a perceived sense of neutrality, already designed by his culture, in which objects were detached from their original social and political meaning and put in the service of a hegemonic discourse.

Cultural heritage and museum researcher Andrea Witcomb has applied the idea of “stasis” originally explained by Adorno to museums’ traditional avoidance of questioning their own authority. She argues that museums need to embrace change by recognizing the desire of communities to get involved and be represented in museum practice. Moreover, she maintains that if museums want to assert their relevance in society, they have to acknowledge the subjective politics of meaning making and question their capacity to communicate effectively with diverse audiences. Embracing broader audiences and welcoming their participation in museum processes involves giving these audiences access to information and the means to support their learning. It is necessary to ask, then, how modern visitors to Sir John Soane’s Museum can access interpretative tools that allow them to challenge the ideas behind this exhibition space and to engage with the collection in alternative ways.

Other ways of learning

Soane collected artworks and artifacts in many ways. Objects frequently came from auction houses, flea markets, acts of charity and building sites around London. While some objects were collected for their distinguished provenance, others were chosen for their capacity to fascinate or to provide theatrical effects. Despite its use of technology that Soane would not have recognized, “Diverse Manière: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess proved to be consistent with Soane’s will, maintaining the integrity of the collection while enhancing poetic associations by using juxtaposition to generate resonances, much as Soane often aimed to do.

Coffee pot from 'Diverse Maniere D’Adornare I Cammini…' cast in silver from digitally modeled elements © Factum Arte. Coffee pot from 'Diverse Maniere D’Adornare I Cammini…' cast in silver from digitally modeled elements © Factum Arte.

But Soane’s modus operandi was not only replicated, but also updated in the exhibition. 3D prints merged in the intricate spaces of the museum in a simultaneously natural and disturbing way. While these objects affirmed their materiality in a way, they also evidenced some kind of absence. For example, when entering the museum, the first thing the visitor encountered was a coffee pot, printed in sterling silver, standing in a glass case on a pedestal. The inscription below indicated its provenance and the 3D technique used to produce it. The act of underlining that this object was never produced, but only reproduced by 3D printing, opened up questions about the nature of art and its production.

With little written interpretation in the rooms, there was a need for engagement and understanding to be promoted through visual and other senses. The allocation of the prints expanded possibilities to create meaning by disrupting the “stasis” of the collection, as well as the composure of the visitor. It revived issues that were present in the collection but remained fundamentally silent for contemporary audiences. The exhibition sparked deep questions: How to distinguish an artwork from an artifact? Are copies as valuable as originals? What happens when it is an “original” copy, and the product is created by a machine?

The key of this exhibition thus lies in preserving the original immersive experience and focusing on the encounter between the visitor and the object, rather than the object itself. By incorporating the possibilities raised by contemporary technology, this temporary intervention helped to prompt engagement with existing themes and to subvert old discourses. Its focus in creating resonant, memorable experiences opened an opportunity to communicate with audiences in a non-didactic manner, activating visitors’ emotional and cognitive faculties in new ways. Drawing again from Witcomb’s point of view, it is what happens in these kinds of engagements between objects and visitors that museums must continue to consider if they hope to maintain their relevance going forward.



[1] Thornton, P., and Dorey, H., A miscellany of objects from Sir John Soane's Museum: consisting of paintings, architectural drawings and other curiosities from the collection of Sir John Soane. Laurence King, 1992, p. viii.

[2] Adorno, T., ‘Valéry Proust Museum’, Prisms: Cultural Criticism in Society, Neville Spearman,London, 1967, p. 177.