Quirky cabinets frame a curious new collection at Sir John Soane’s museum

A new exhibition at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London explores the collectable nature of a selection of seemingly obscure contemporary objects within three unique and evocative cabinets designed by architect Mat Barnes

The Foyle Room project space at the John Soane’s Museum in London
The Foyle Room project space at the John Soane’s Museum in London
(Image credit: Tim Bowditch)

Inspired by British neo-classical architect Sir John Soane’s eccentric approach to collecting, London based architect Mat Barnes and contemporary artist Harry Lawson have collaborated on a quirky commission for the John Soane’s Museum. Exploring the ‘relationship between architecture, objects and time’ the pair have designed and curated three cabinets filled with obscure contemporary objects.

Architect Barnes, who founded his studio CAN in 2016, designed the cabinets for the exhibition as vessels of expression in themselves, just like Soane’s characterful house punctured by lightwells and bespoke adaptations across three terraced houses. The museum is a life-sized cabinet in itself packed with a veritable feast of sculptures, paintings and busts.

The first cabinet is a façade, the second a scaffold, the third a tomb representing the three concepts of the cabinets (All that was; All that is; and All that could have been). Each is a testbed for materials, aesthetics and techniques – from a cheap crackled paint surface, to beautifully buffed scaffolding pipes, or recycled car tyre chippings set in flexible resin and painted matte blue on the outside and black gloss glitter inside. Believe it or not, Barnes is using the latter technique in his house extension too.

Cabinet designed by Mat Barnes at John Soane's Museum

(Image credit: Tim Bowditch)

The three cabinets display redundant objects of the past, obscure representations of the present and totems of an unrealised future. Barnes and Lawson sourced some of the curious keepsakes from their own personal collections – top-drawer treasures found, pocketed, forgotten and preserved. While some objects are borrowed from the Soane collection.

You’ll find a set of false teeth, a World Trade Center group admission ticket stub, a fragment from the Soane Ante-Room skylight removed in 1991, a Casascius Bitcoin, a spray-painted softwood block and a model of three cork columns available to purchase at the Soane Museum shop.

In our eagerly streamlining digital world, data storage seems infinite whereas our homes are only getting smaller. There’s humour and a powerful nostalgia in this collection of contemporary objects, archiving into history at a quickening pace.

Installation detail

(Image credit: Tim Bowditch)

All that was

(Image credit: Tim Bowditch)

Detail of one of the mirco-collections

(Image credit: Tim Bowditch)

‘All that could have been: a project by CAN and Harry Lawson’, at Sir John Soane’s Museum; 16 January – 16 February 2020



Sir John Soane’s Museum
13 Lincoln's Inn Fields


Harriet Thorpe is a writer, journalist and editor covering architecture, design and culture, with particular interest in sustainability, 20th-century architecture and community. After studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Journalism at City University in London, she developed her interest in architecture working at Wallpaper* magazine and today contributes to Wallpaper*, The World of Interiors and Icon magazine, amongst other titles. She is author of The Sustainable City (2022, Hoxton Mini Press), a book about sustainable architecture in London, and the Modern Cambridge Map (2023, Blue Crow Media), a map of 20th-century architecture in Cambridge, the city where she grew up.