Museums and galleries have to be more high-tech, sustainable and visitor-friendly than ever before. Neal Kalita of Davis Langdon runs through the funding, design and environmental issues as well as breaking down the costs of a new-build extension for a museum

01 — Introduction

The central function of a museum or gallery is the management, conservation, access and interpretation of a collection of objects. There are about 2000 to 2500 such cultural institutes and on average 80 million visits to UK museums and galleries a year, according to the Museums Libraries and Archives Council. Building a cultural institute is a complex endeavour due to a number of issues that govern the design of the building, its operation as an institute and the fact that a lot of the issues are interrelated.

The collection to be housed, its physical properties and content contributes to determining the function of the institute.

Another issue is identifying sources of funding whether public or private, corporate or individuals. Funding conditions also influence the degree of involvement with the local community.

Finally, the proposed location has a bearing on what type of funding is available, as does the proposed status – for instance, whether the museum is national or specialist and whether the type of building required is existing or new build.

The Lowry Centre in Salford combines art galleries and theatres. It was designed by Michael Wilford & Partners
The Lowry Centre in Salford combines art galleries and theatres. It was designed by Michael Wilford & Partners

02 — Business case

Capital grants for a cultural institute come mainly from the Heritage Lottery Fund which has £260m available annually for distribution across all heritage sectors. There are three levels of funding depending on the amount required. The maximum amount is £5m for any one project from a pot of £65m. Applications are assessed twice yearly. The HLF will be updating its funding strategy as of 2007.

Applications can also be made to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport whose Renaissance Initiative has £45m for 2007/8. This aims to increase access to collections by improving the standard of regional museums. Other sources include:

  • Trusts and charitable foundations
  • Regional development agencies and local authorities
  • The Museums Libraries and Archives Council
  • Arts Council
  • Corporate sponsorship
  • Individual donors.

Incorporating the proposed cultural institute into an urban regeneration scheme can strengthen the case of the application. Around the UK, new-build museums and galleries are increasingly becoming part of regeneration schemes. By providing the “cultural anchor” the institute raises the profile and attracts tourism to the area. It also provides employment and educational opportunities for the local community. A condition of Heritage Lottery Fund and Renaissance Initiative funding is that cultural institutes are expected to engage the local community through outreach programmes. These are designed to make art and culture more accessible to a larger, more diverse audience.

Finally, developing the budget for capital expenditure is important when requesting funding. This figure needs to be compared

with the projected level of revenue (including that generated from additional functions such as cafes and shops) or grant aid required to run the museum. If there is no alignment between the two, the application will be weakened and the scope of the project may need to be adjusted.

The Lowry Centre incorporates colourful perimeter spaces and playful circulation elements
The Lowry Centre incorporates colourful perimeter spaces and playful circulation elements

03 — Design issues

In designing a cultural institute, architects have more opportunity than usual to showcase ideas in terms of form, one example being the Lowry Centre in Salford. The architecture needs to be landmark, inspire civic pride and engender a sense of community. However there’s a balance between expenditure on the external design and internal functional requirements.

Museums and galleries’ layout are typically a series of rooms where the collection is organised either in chronological order or by theme. Flexibility is the display space’s adaptability to support a number of differing uses and is increasingly a key requirement. The following all have an impact:

  • The size of the collection and artefacts
  • The predominant method of display
  • The projected rate of growth of the collection
  • The needs of visitors
  • The requirements of curatorial staff
  • The business plan of the institute.

Engaging the community requires wider access and out-of-hours use, which creates demands for additional space, affects building services, security strategies and making the space DDA compliant.

Many cultural institutes in the UK occupy buildings converted from other uses or are in historic buildings. Accommodating M&E equipment into such buildings is particularly difficult due to space constraints, grille location and sizing, noise issues, airflow and allowing ease of access to terminals and distribution equipment. It is the difficulty of access and the cost implications involved that contribute to a patchy maintenance schedule. This results in decreasing efficiency and performance of the M&E system over time, which if left for prolonged periods, may lead to the preservation environment being compromised.

Other constraints include planning the layout of the space in order to provide sufficient room to accommodate the largest artefacts and for visitors to navigate around the exhibition. Upgrading the fabric of the building (provided the facade is not listed) to meet Part L standards and assessing how air tight the building is also affect whether the environmental conditions are stable enough to meet display standards at an operational cost that is viable.

Adapting an existing building has its benefits. Often, older buildings are massive structures that provide good thermal inertia. This is useful in moderating temperature fluctuations and can contribute to reducing cooling and heating loads. In addition, they often depend greatly on natural light and ventilation, so the apertures are already there and operating and can be incorporated into the new design.

04 — Environmental control

The main aim of environmental control is to create a stable preservation atmosphere that must maintain certain properties of the space evenly throughout, with minimum risk of damage to the collections and at a cost the institution can support.

The environmental properties that need to be managed are: relative humidity, temperature, air movement and quality. Control of these focuses on keeping them within an acceptable range (narrow band or wide band) and the tolerance allowed within that band (tight tolerance = close control).

The current trend in the specification of the environment is moving away from requiring ideal absolute levels (narrow band) of environmental properties for individual materials towards a wider range (wide band) that suits mixed collections. As a result the fluctuations in the environmental conditions are lower over a longer period and across a wider temperature range. This has come about partly because cultural institutes are coming to terms with the levels of control that are practical, and there is a better understanding of how objects deteriorate.

A wider band specification facilitates achieving a better balance between the needs of the building, its contents and its occupants and increases the probability of the environments’ stability being maintained. An alternative to large volume environmental control, particularly where the collection has a small selection of sensitive artefacts, is to utilise display cases. These create stable microclimates with much closer control.

Relative humidity (RH) poses the greatest potential risk to the collection. It is also difficult to design for since the equipment used to monitor RH changes is not sensitive enough to detect the fluctuations within the tolerances specified. The majority of capital cost in controlling humidity is thus dedicated to providing sufficient plant capacity to respond to rapid change in RH. The recommended humidity range is 45-60 (±5)% provided the “buffering effect” of the building’s thermal mass and porous finishes can be utilised to dull short term fluctuations.

Close control with a narrower band of RH of 50-55% (±3)% is a prerequisite for international artefact loan. This applies to all areas where the loaned item or its packing may be located, such as display, shipping, storage, conservation and circulation areas. Museums identify improvement in the level of environmental control with the control of RH. The role of air-conditioning in controlling museum humidity has long been recognised, however, air-conditioned buildings have high energy and maintenance cost implications related to this degree of control, and there is a question over whether it is achieved in practice over sustained periods of operation.

The degree of humidification and dehumidification required to achieve a particular RH within a building is influenced by the temperature within the building. CIBSE recommends 20°C for galleries and museums. Lower temperatures results in lower level of moisture in the air and reduces dehumidification loads, operational cost and potential damage to artefacts and the building fabric. Relaxing the temperature level required may reduce the need for complex servicing, thus reducing the energy required for heating and humidification. In the UK lowering the heating temperature from 22 to 18°C will cut fuel costs 25% and considerably reduce seasonal variations in internal RH.

Fresh air intakes should not be located close to sources of pollution or heat. Where air is taken into areas containing fragile objects, the air should pass through an activated carbon or alumina filter to reduce levels of pollutants such as Sulphur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxides. The filter system specification can be as high as 95% efficient. The maximum permissible level for sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and ozone pollution is 0-2 mg/m³.

The National Gallery in London is undergoing a phased refurbishment, including new entrances, designed by architect Dixon Jones
The National Gallery in London is undergoing a phased refurbishment, including new entrances, designed by architect Dixon Jones

05 — Sustainability

The sustainability of cultural institutes has only recently come to the fore. The focus is on reducing energy consumption, resulting in lower operational costs. Due to previous lack of investment, maintenance regimes of the environmental control system in some museums had led to inefficiency and ultimately comprising the stability of the preservation environment. This is borne out by the fact that the European Community’s research “JOULE” programme in the late 90s investigating energy efficient systems for museums, estimated that a total energy conservation of between 30-50% could be achieved through modernisation of M&E networks and equipment.

Below are techniques to improve the design and operation of systems:

  • Minimise the number of spaces where preservation conditions are required and use a separate HVAC system for areas where conservation isn’t needed.
  • Limit the use of natural light by minimising apertures and avoid in and over areas where the collection is stored.
  • Create smaller spaces separated by doors to reduce the volume of air that needs to be heated/controlled.
  • Use condenser heat to provide reheat for dehumidification, which can substantially reduce dehumidification energy cost.
  • Set wider environmental control parameters to reduce the level of control required.
  • Install correctly sized and higher efficiency plant.
  • Reduce air-conditioning use and therefore energy consumption.
  • Use maintenance regimes that ensure the system is properly adjusted and maintained.
  • Replace existing plant and machinery, such as boilers.
  • Use low-energy features such as high frequency lighting and condensing boilers.

Passive techniques of heating and cooling utilise the properties of the building fabric and the surrounding landscape to maintain a stable environment. There is advice on the effectiveness of such techniques including heavy building construction, hygroscopic materials, high ceilings, thermal buffering and window sealing to stabilise relative humidity, but there is little evidence of these principles being widely adopted.

06 — Exhibition design and lighting

When designing an exhibition, the key issues defining it are:

  • The concept behind the exhibition.
  • Organising installations, display cases and interactive units.
  • The preservation requirements of the artefacts and whether sensitive objects can be grouped in one space without harming the narrative of the exhibition.
  • Integrating learning opportunities into the exhibition.
  • Wayfinding, which is determined by the chronological or themed organisation of the exhibition.
  • Configuring the displays so they are easily viewed but secure.
  • The use of interactive displays and their location. These will create environmental hot spots which would be difficult to normalise in order to maintain stable conditions.

Flexibility in designing the layout of the services needs to be considered to cope with future needs, as the lifetime of the building will exceed that of the exhibition fit-out.

Lighting is a major contributor to the look and feel of the exhibition, in addition to illuminating artefacts. Most systems comprise a controlled indirect natural lighting (ambient) and supplemental artificial lighting (direct). Ambient lighting is normally achieved through the direction and diffusion of natural daylight and is most suited to galleries. Direct lighting is usually achieved through artificial sources such as track-mounted accent lights and is more common in museums.

Lighting levels and the effects of ultraviolet and infra-red radiation need to be controlled to minimise damage to artefacts. UV filter films or interlayers to laminated glass should be used on all external windows including roof lights. Artificial lighting should be fitted with filtering diffusers or secondary glazing. An alternative is to reflect the emitted light off a surface such as the ceiling before striking the display surface.

Exhibits such as drawings, watercolours and tapestries are particularly sensitive to light damage and the recommended light level is 30 Lux. Low sensitivity exhibits – ceramics, glass, metal, stone – can have a Lux level of 200 Lux. Areas where conservation activities are performed need to have much higher levels of lighting with up to 1000 Lux being acceptable for short periods.

In terms of control, and energy efficiency, lights should be switched off either manually or automatically when not required.

The refurbished National Gallery includes an area where visitors can access information about the gallery and its collections on computer systems
The refurbished National Gallery includes an area where visitors can access information about the gallery and its collections on computer systems

07 — Building fabric and protection

The aim of the interior of the cultural institute is to display the collection in a stable environment that balances the needs of the visitor and maintains the condition of the artefacts on display. Issues to consider include: the location of environmentally sensitive areas (such as the repository), their volume, insulation, thermal mass, orientation, glazing and displaying artefacts successfully.

Walls, floors and ceilings in non-display technical areas should be made of a material or combinations of materials that have a high thermal and hygroscope (water absorption) capacity, with insulation materials appropriate to the system of construction selected. Internal finishes should not impede the function of the thermal and hygroscopic capacity of the building to stabilise environmental conditions.

In display areas, walls should provide uninterrupted surfaces for displaying artefacts. Fabric-covered or plasterboard-clad hardboard materials should be used as they are easily repaired and artefacts can be fixed directly to the walls. MDF and plasterboard when combined with moisture absorbent interior plaster and moisture permeable paint can help to absorb and release moisture and therefore control relative humidity inside galleries.

The material properties for floor surfaces are that they should be non-slippery, light-coloured, hardwearing, light reflective and capable of taking heavy loads. Typically, wood, stone and carpet are selected.

Ceiling voids can be used to hide a multitude of services, including lighting control; lighting; heating and ventilation; fire and security systems; sound absorption; and partition restraints. However in galleries, careful design is required in order to facilitate maintenance, prevent the ceiling encroaching on the visitors’ view and allow access of the largest artefact in the collection.


The National Museums spend an average of 7.5% of their total operating expenditure on security with most of that going on staff costs. The security system should be controlled from a centralised location and provide a fully addressable alarm system incorporating CCTV, barriers, alarmed display cases, door mechanism control, motion detection sensors, guard tour stations and panic alarms. The system should also be supported by a communication infrastructure of pagers, two-way radios and a telephony network. In addition, the system should be served by emergency power and have a dedicated, uninterruptible power supply.

With regards theft and damage, which are major risks, a conflict arises in building layout between fire escape strategies and the need to maximise security by creating multiple barriers that inhibit quick exits.

Fire protection

For fire protection, the building should be fully sprinklered with a “pre-action” system to prevent accidental water release in the case of sprinkler head failure. Structural elements surrounding any archive stores, such as walls and doors, need to provide four hours of fire resistance to meet British Standards.

a — Museum new build extension cost breakdown: Shell and core

The cost model covers a new-build extension to a regional museum to shell and core where most of the area is gallery space. In addition costs in the fit-out of an exhibition are included. The exhibition fit-out area takes in the new-build and existing space.

The works described in the cost model excludes WCs, cafes and any other additional functions of a museum.

Rates are at third quarter 2006 price levels, based on a lump-sum contract in a south-east England location. The cost of external works and services are excluded. Also excluded are professional fees, VAT and specific site abnormals. The rates may need to be adjusted to account for specification, site conditions, procurement route and programme.

(See table "Regional factors" and PDF "a - Museum new build extension cost breakdown: Shell and core", both attached below)