British Museum World Conservation & Exhibition Centre

The Project

Designing and building 25 Planorama® cabinets for the British Museum’s new World Class Conservation and Exhibition Centre.
The Challenge

Accommodating the restrictions of a tight budget without compromising on quality.
The Result

Canny, cost-saving plan that provides conservation space to expand into while saving immediate expenditure on drawers.
The launch of its World Conservation and Exhibition Centre (WCEC) in 2014 marked a moment almost as important for the British Museum as the unveiling of its breathtakingly reshaped Great Court had been when it was opened by the Queen 14 years earlier. In the year 2000, the creation of the largest covered public square in Europe had added ‘Modern Landmark’ appeal to the must-see attractions of the museum’s ancient and priceless artefacts. Now the design for the £135 million WCEC by Sir Richard Rogers’s practice Rogers Stirk Harbour promised to do for the ‘back end’ of Britain’s number one tourist attraction what Sir Norman Foster had done for the front, endowing the Museum with the World Class 21st century care and conservation facilities — from laboratories to heavy duty lifts — that its fame and its collections deserve.

The opening of the WCEC certainly looked set to transform the working lives of the team of paper conservators and mounting specialists led by Joint Heads of Pictorial Art Conservation, Joanna Kosek and Caroline Barry.  Once confined to cramped and ancient studios in a Georgian servants’ basement, the 13 full and part-time staff now found themselves anticipating the prospect of working in naturally lit, open and adaptable open plan studios free of the nooks and crannies that harbour dust and insects, seated at big tables of different sizes with all services in easy, plug-in reach.

It was hardly surprising then, that when Joanna Kosek set about specifying the storage cabinets her team needed she wanted something that did justice to the smart and efficient modernity of Rogers Stirk Harbour’s glass, steel and Portland stone building. ‘The old studio had contained old fashioned wooden plan chests that no longer met our requirements. Our aspiration was to replace them with objects that were both more functional and more beautiful which clearly belonged to the 21st century,’ says Joanna. ‘I was drawn to Planorama® because of its strong reputation industry and because I liked the design.’

Planorama’s® hi-tech appearance sets it apart from the competition. Elegantly crafted from lightweight aluminium the cabinet has a discreet elegance. But these are products whose modern look and form is driven first and foremost by CXD’s ambition to make conservation tools that are functional and versatile. Each Planorama® cabinet is custom-made to order so it can be built to fit the exact dimensions of the space where it’s needed. Aluminium was chosen both for its lightness and its inertness, for example, the elegance of the drawer design that creates Planorama’s® distinctive lines was made possible by the innovative construction of the structural base from 36 micron polyester which allows lightweight dust-and-pollution-free drawers as thin as 10 mm to be made.

But there was one important obstacle to overcome if Planorama® was to be brought within the British Museum’s reach. The budget available to buy the 25 units the team needed to fit out the WCEC appeared to restrict Joanna Kosek’s choice to cheaper steel alternatives. It was CXD founder Stuart Welch who came up with a cost-effective solution to the problem.  ‘My idea was that the initial installation could provide all the cabinets required in the longer term but that we would restrict the number of drawers in each unit to fit the initial product budget,’ Stuart explains. ‘That way the empty space in each cabinet would be blocked off until the money became available to fit more drawers as they were needed.’

A quick tour of the conservation spaces reveals how the plan was put into action. All 13 staff (nine conservators and four conservation mounters) have the cabinet capacity that they will need to expand into in the long term. Each mounter, has two custom-built cabinets designed to fit beneath his or her work table, one for personal work, another for storage.  But in each case, for the moment, the cabinets contain only the minimum number of drawers each staff member requires. Only three drawers have been fitted into each conservator’s cabinet while leaving space in the rest of the cabinet ready for the addition of further drawers when the budget allows.

There is one area of this huge conservation facility in which this approach does not apply. The paper conservation team shares the facilities in the adjacent ‘wet room’ with the British Museum’s team of organic conservators. In this area, Planorama® drying racks have been specially tailored and built to accommodate the washing, rinsing and drying of delicate papers and fabrics. Some feature open shelves with special netted racks on which delicate textiles and papers can dry, for example.

So is the British Museum happy with CXD’s thrifty solution to its conservation storage problem? Inevitably the cost saving strategy requires the WCEC’s paper conservators to be specially well organised, at least for the moment. But Joanna Kosek’s response suggests they view this as a sacrifice worth making. ‘As well as being very good from a functional point of view, I like the way the cabinets look within the space.’ she says. ‘They don’t look out of place. They fit into the interior and echo its architecture.

For more information and quotations please contact Robert Campbell on +44 (0) 1234 846352

Alternatively you can complete our online Planorama Questionnaire which will help frame your precise requirements. Once complete a member of our showcase team will be in touch.