House master: the new director of the Sir John Soane’s museum has big plans

House master: the new director of the Sir John Soane’s museum has big plans

For a Regency time capsule, nowhere in London beats Sir John Soane’s Museum – three Georgian townhouses stitched together, full of books, art and objects that reflect the life and passions of this eminent architect. Soane designed what was his home and studio between 1792 and 1823, and as it grew, so did his collections. So vast are they that one visit to the museum is never enough. Sarcophagi lie in semi-darkness; frescoes nestle in alcoves and shafts of light fall onto portraits whose eyes seem to follow you round the room.

‘You can’t take it all in when you’re in here,’ says new director Abraham Thomas. ‘It’s almost as if Soane was placing subliminal messages. Much of what you see may emerge weeks later. That’s the power of the place.’

There’s more sensory overload to come this May, when Soane’s private apartment and Model Room open to the public for the first time. It’s part of a £7m project called Opening Up the Soane, which began in 2012. For phase one, London architects Caruso St John transformed four rooms into new gallery spaces and a shop. Phase two involves returning the living quarters to exactly the state they were in when Soane died in 1837. London architect Julian Harrap was assigned the task and given a very strict brief, from Soane himself.

Dismayed that neither of his sons was interested in his legacy (one was sickly, the other rebelled), the well-connected Soane obtained an Act of Parliament that turned the house into a museum, leaving detailed instructions as to how it should be preserved. To this end, everything, from Soane’s bed to the two mummified cats that sit in the Book Passage, has been restored. 

When his wife Eliza died, Soane converted her bedroom into his Model Room, filled with designs from all over the world. As professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, he invited students and employees for an ‘alternative grand tour’ of classical architecture using the models. Mini replicas of Greek temples, Roman ruins and ancient pyramids were must-have souvenirs of every grand tourist. The room’s centrepiece is a model of Pompeii circa 1820. Alongside the opening of the new space, the museum will hold talks and seminars with model makers.

As former curator of design and lead architecture curator at the V&A, Thomas is well-versed in bridging old and new. ‘When we talk about Soanean thinking,’ Thomas says, ‘we think about combining objects, periods and cultures in one space. This place was a centre of learning and inspiration. It was a laboratory of ideas, and can be again.’

Thomas is forging partnerships with the RIBA, the V&A and King’s College London among others. He also plans to take more of the collection on tour and will hold up to four exhibitions a year. For the Festival of Architecture in June, the museum is holding a series of talks on model making, and eight designs created by students from London’s Cass College will go on show on the street outside the entrance.

In 2016, the final phase of the museum’s restoration will see the unveiling of the Foyle Project Space – a place for ‘micro-residencies’ where creative minds will be invited in to curate shows inspired by the collection.

Thomas’ ultimate dream is to reinstate Soane’s studio. Full of broken models and dishevelled papers, the room is too small and fragile to accommodate visitors and is the only surviving architectural office from the late 19th century in the UK. ‘We’re so much more than a historic house museum,’ Thomas insists. ‘The last thing Soane would have wanted was for us to be a hermetically sealed bubble.’

As featured in the June 2015 (W*195) issue of Wallpaper*

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