Azrieli Studio 2013

The Museum as Discursive Space (MArch Studio, Winter Term)

Jonathan Hale (Azrieli Visiting Professor, Carleton University, Ottawa, Jan-Feb 2013)

The problem of how cultural institutions can reconnect with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary life has been at the forefront of discussions between scholars, designers and professionals working in the area of museum studies. In recent years museums have attempted to reinvent and reinvigorate themselves in order to attract visitors and survive economic turmoil. Alongside an emphasis on the creation of large-scale spectacles, there has also been a need to reconnect with the visitor on a more intimate level and to design more personally meaningful exhibitions. This refocusing – partly achieved by the production of exhibitions addressing key social, cultural and historical themes — allows for the elaboration of the museum as a social instrument, as a participant in a dialogue with the visitor and hence as a discursive space.

While current visitors to cultural institutions seem to demand a more sense-rich, emotionally engaging and personally relevant experience, the rise of social media has also altered people’s expectations of what makes experiences meaningful and memorable. People expect to be allowed the privilege of actively identifying and redistributing cultural content for themselves, not just passively consuming it within the framework set out by the institution. Through self-direction and in response to the increasingly interactive media that they are familiar with, museum visitors seek opportunities for creative expression and engagement. They want their own unique identities and interests to be acknowledged, while they recognize and connect to likeminded communities around the world. These shifts are changing the way that cultural institutions of all types, public or private, from museums to libraries to experiential environments, express themselves to – and communicate with – their ever more demanding audiences.

The challenge for the studio is to identify a museum or gallery space in the Ottawa area that offers the potential to become a ‘discursive museum space’, and to redesign it to address some of the key issues highlighted above. The research and design phases of the project should be carried out in groups of two. The design proposal could potentially consist of either or both an interior and exterior space; a combination of spatial, graphic or multimedia elements; or an entirely virtual reconfiguration of an existing space using mobile digital or analogue technologies. The goal is to create a space of cultural discourse where multiple dialogues can begin to take place – between the institution, the spaces and the people within.


A selection of the work produced in the studio will be presented at the conference Discursive Space: Breaking Barriers to Effective Communication in the Museum, to take place at Ryerson University, Toronto, June 21st-23rd 2013. The call for papers (from which much of the wording above is taken) can be found here. This event is the result of a collaboration with conference organiser Dr Jana Macalik and follows on from two previous conferences in related areas, Creative Space (2005) and Narrative Space (2010), both co-hosted by the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, and the Department of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Nottingham.

Click here for a PDF of the studio brief and timetable.

Key readings for Weeks 1 and 2:

Hale, J. and Schnädelbach, H., Moving City: Curating Architecture on Site,” in S. Chaplin and A. Stara, eds, Curating Architecture and the City, (Vol. 4, AHRA Critiques), Abingdon: Routledge, 2009, pp51-61.

Hale, J., “Narrative Environments and the Paradigm of Embodiment“, in S. Macleod, L. Hanks and J. Hale, eds, Museum Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.

Background reading lists on Google Books:

Museum Architecture and Museum Studies

Architecture and Embodiment

Schedule and Tasks:

Week 1: Museum visits: In groups of two, you should visit at least one museum in the Ottawa area – choose one that deals with a theme that you know will interest you. Select two specific galleries or themed exhibitions within the museum and make notes, sketches and diagrams to explain how they ‘tell their stories’. You should be looking particularly for interesting examples of problems with their narratives, such as inconsistency, contradiction, uncertainty, neglect, bias, etc. Also, look for clues ‘between the lines’ suggesting stories that have been left untold or even suppressed. Compare and contrast the approaches taken in the design, layout and curator’s interpretation of the material presented in the two spaces, and select one of these exhibitions as the theme for your design project to be developed in the remaining weeks.

Week 2: Theme Research: Continuing in groups of two (either the same groups, or switch partners if you prefer), and having decided on the theme of your exhibition, conduct a process of research into the stories, narratives, and voices you wish to include in your exhibition – this may be a combination of historic narratives to be presented and contemporary (i.e. visitors’) narratives to be engaged. You are aiming to create a new kind of exhibition experience –a space of discourse, dialogue, debate and difference. Record and present these narratives in notes, sketches, diagrams, sound/video clips etc., ready to begin design work on your exhibition space.

Click on the highlighted names below to see individual project pages:

J. Warren Borg + Yvonne Osei: CURRENCY MUSEUM
Amanda Thomas + Stephen Wolba: MUSEUM OF NATURE
Chris Cormier + Vanessa Haddock: NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA
Kasey Camire + Sepi Sohrabi: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM
Megan Beange + Maryam Bashardoust: CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION

Other useful weblinks:

Botanic Gardens Conservation International (Canada)

The Dana Centre, science related events at the Science Museum, London

The Eden Project, Cornwall UK

Eden Project  ‘Sustainable Attainable‘ education programme

The Human Library Project

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

The Mass Observation Archive – record of everyday life in the UK

The New Economics Foundation – projects on health and well-being

The Sanctuary Project – Contemporary Arts and Human Rights, Glasgow Museums’ collaboration with Amnesty International

Take One Picture – Education project by National Gallery, London

Te Papa Tongarewa – Museum of New Zealand

Their Past – Your Future, IWM education project on the history of conflict

RIBA and Hackney Building Exploratory, London (part of TPYF project)


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Latest Book:

Housing and the City book cover
Borsi, Ekici, Hale & Haynes, eds. Housing and the City (AHRA2020) Abingdon: Routledge, 2022

Latest Article:

CAA Campus, Phase II, Hangzhou, 2003–2007, designed by Amateur Architecture Studio.
Jin, X., Hale, J., Unbinding Architectural Imagination: Wang Shu’s Textual Bricolage in Theoretical Writing and Design: Journal of Architecture, 2023
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