An interview with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

The Your Tour project is based around the development of a novel test system to explore new ways in which information can be delivered to museum visitors. However this project is not being developed as a hypothetical study. Rather one of the team members, The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, has a possibly unique and very intriguing challenge when it comes to curation and visitor information.

To explain the situation and help contextualise the Your Tour research project below is an interview with two people from the centre, Veronica Sekules and Nell Croose Myhill.


How would you describe the restrictions on signage/labelling of artefacts in the Living Area gallery at the centre? 

Nell: The Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection has very little labelling, the only information available is the name of the artists (if known), the place of origin, date-or period, acquisition date and object number.

There is no interpretative material in the gallery. Even the introduction to the Collection is very small and placed outside the gallery itself.

Veronica: It is a bit double-edged. On the one hand having very little text is good because as I said before, there is little baggage. But a lot of people find this cryptic and some are unsettled, as it a) isn’t clear what categories of information we are giving – cultural group, archaeological stratum/period; place, etc and b) people therefore get the impression they are expected to know and they can find that off-putting. It works best for those people who are used to galleries and don’t mind taking a risk. Usually it doesn’t take much to get people with the idea and feeling confident that they are not expected to know….

How did this restriction come to exist? 

Veronica: This was a decision that came with the ethos of the Sainsbury gift. They didn’t want tons of labelling. It was a design thing, but also reflected the fact that their collecting was not based on learning but on aesthetics and gut feelings. So very much decided between the benefactors and the architect and put into effect by George Sexton Associates, the original installation designers sub-contracted by Fosters. So it is entirely in line with the benefaction and there is therefore a commitment to maintain it (and recently confirmed as an obligation via the Sainsbury family & the board).

Nell: Robert and Lisa Sainsbury claimed to have no formal art training and collected things because of their emotional response to objects. The Sainsbury Centre was built to house the collection when it became too large for the Sainsbury’s home in Smith Square. When Norman Foster designed the building, he wanted to maintain the feeling of looking at objects in a homely environment, hence, the gallery the collection is shown in is called the Living Area, there is carpet (unusual for an art gallery) comfortable seating areas, tungsten lighting and very little text.

The focus is on looking. Objects are shown in cases which allow people to see them from 360 degrees, and visitors are encouraged to make visual or aesthetic associations across the gallery, and therefore also across time and place.

What affect do you think the restriction on information to complement artefacts has had on the curators at the SCVA? It seems to me that you have both respect and frustrations!

Veronica: We have got completely used to it and on the whole regard it as an asset. But we are under an obligation therefore to provide a range of resources in other ways.

Nell: This has had a profound effect on the curatorial decisions at SCVA, a real focus on the object speaking for itself.

Interestingly many galleries are moving towards this model, most recently Tate Britain who have rehung their permanent collection with only the basic information on the label. They have hung their collection chronologically, which I suppose is a narrative – or interpretative device of sorts.

This display has probably had most impact on the way we approach educational activity in the collection and overall. Both in the School of World Art that is housed in the building and in the Sainsbury Centre’s education programme. Our ethos is ‘art is a window on the world’ that from each object you can go anywhere – and we do, without restrictions of interpretative materials we are more free to do this. We can also encourage research approaches and questions at all levels, from very young children to leading academics.

We also use people in the gallery in interpretative roles, rather than relying on text in the gallery, which encourages dialogue.

We’ve also been able to widen the context of our collection, working across disciplines to pull out different meanings and interpretations and work beyond traditional art historical interpretations.

So it may be frustrating as we cannot reach all our audiences with interpretation but it is also liberating!

What  are the Centre’s hopes for the Your Tour project?

Nell: We want to create a device that will enable us to deliver interpretative material in the galleries to those who want it, as unobtrusively as possible. Taking the approaches used by our guides, and producing and maintaining the ethos of the display- letting the objects speak for themselves, allowing the visitor to make their own connections and associations across the gallery and therefore time and space – to create their own tour.

The design of the Living Area  facilitates visitors to explore and in doing so develop their own narratives or associations between the artefacts. An aspiration of the Your Tour project is to support this. Traditional museum information systems, such as audio guides, are essentially a “one size fits all” solution. I understand you have previously employed an audio guide in the Centre. What were your experiences from this? 

Veronica: Well, the audio guide was written by Dame Elisabeth Esteve Coll and narrated by David Attenborough so visitors loved it! But it became quickly out of date. So it was a story relevant for a while. We could have updated it as displays changed, but we would have had to commission a new narrator each time.

Nell: I have no experience of the previous collection audio guide, but I worked on the last audio guide we produced for an exhibition. It was relatively successful as we had different types of tours available, a children’s tour made by and for children, a back-of-house tour with insights from SCVA staff members about their contribution to the exhibition, for example the conservators, the technicians, the curators and insights from the academics about their research and  specific objects or themes in the exhibition. We did run into difficulty trying to maintain the devices and not having enough for large groups or during busy periods.

For me as a visitor, the Living Area is a very intimate space, even though it is within an industrial scale structure. I feel this is in part due to the carpet but perhaps even more so due to the lack of technology in the gallery and the range of textures and materials of the of the artefacts on display. Everything is real. Do you have concerns about introducing modern technology into the experience of the Living Area?

Nell: I think we still want to encourage  personal discovery in the gallery, and just as the Sainsbury’s chose objects because of a ‘gut reaction’ or emotional (rather than academic) appreciation of the objects, we hope Your Tour will maintain that way of looking,  navigating and experiencing the collection. Your Tour therefore will allow people to find out more information about the objects they are interested in, I think it is important that there is no predetermined route- it is still the visitor navigating the space on their own terms, with the support of technology to deliver more information when they want it, about things they are interested in.

Veronica:  It is a place of visual communication and has a very distinctive (and much imitated) design, with a kind of hushed quality. Even after many years I still find that there is something quite magical about its atmosphere, especially the juxtapositions of objects from different times and cultures. My feeling is that modern technology might enable us to enhance the learning experience without further visual clutter or interference. I have always disliked the maps and regarded them as a bit of an intrusion in that they suggest a fixed point of reference. The great advantage of the rest of the display is that there is no obvious ‘baggage’, which has led to a lot of astonishing questioning and stimulus to the imagination. I would like to think that technology will enable us to offer a whole range of further & follow-up thinking about the objects in a way which does not compromise either the aesthetic or the free-range feeling, that one’s mind can wander in quite an organic way.

So I suppose it would be good if the technology can somehow follow a few trains of thought from the objects rather than suggesting fixed narratives. I think I have said this, I feel it could help us be more true to the live experience and show some of the hidden depths & potential.