Von Chua:

I'm sure that will be a great inspiration to the school children, maybe some of them will want to become an architect when they grow up.

Helen Dorey:

That's exactly what we try to inspire some of them to do. It's funny you should mention that because we also run two monthly architecture clubs; one is called the Young Architects Club for 7 to 10 year olds and we have the New Architects Club for children aged 11 to 14. It is wonderful to have these groups every year doing the architecture programme, for just that reason that Soane would have wanted to encourage any young person to think about becoming an architect.

Von Chua:

Sir John Soane is widely known for his inventive use of light, space and experimentation with Classical architectural forms. To me, his experimental spirit stood out; I remember my first visit to the Museum as an architecture student, seeing every inch of the Museum utilised as a testing ground and feeling his passion for light. Sir John Soane was also known to be constantly arranging and rearranging the collection to enhance the objects’ poetic qualities through creative and inspiring juxtapositions. How much of that spirit is channelled in your team's work today?

Helen Dorey:

I hope a lot of it! Everyone who works at the Museum is extraordinarily inspired by being there and I would defy anyone to join our team and not become, within weeks, the most passionate advocate for Sir John Soane's Museum. I have worked there myself for more than 30 years, and when I arrived, as a very young post-graduate, I thought I'd be there for a year, so look how it sucked me in!

As curator and as the person who has led the restoration much of the time, I've been really conscious, as have our architects, of the need not to interfere with Soane's light effects. I learnt a lot from the first director I worked with, Peter Thornton, and he used to say 'it's absolutely essential that the light comes from where Soane intended it to come from'. 

Helen Dorey, MBE, Deputy Director and Inspectress at the Sir John Soane's Museum

Going back to the subject of light, illumination is a wonderful word. And in a way, what Soane wanted was for his museum to illuminate people: literally, as they visited it, and metaphorically through their learning more about architecture. So I think it's a good word to use. The natural light in the Museum is really important to us. As curator and as the person who has led the restoration much of the time, I've been really conscious, as have our architects, of the need not to interfere with Soane's light effects. I learnt a lot from the first director I worked with, Peter Thornton, and he used to say 'it's absolutely essential that the light comes from where Soane intended it to come from', that is through the windows or the skylights. We try to introduce as little additional light as we possibly can. If we do introduce artificial light then, wherever we possibly can, we try and have it coming from the right direction. We think of boosting Soane's light effects, rather than fighting against them. I mention this because the subject of how you light museums is such a significant one, and I think it's interesting to observe that it's a difficult challenge for many curators, particularly in historic houses. In Soane's case, because the lighting was so important, that makes it even more challenging.

Von Chua:

How does the Museum's natural lighting affect how your team approach the display of the Collection?

Helen Dorey:

Well, I suppose in a way, I have to start by saying that we don't have to decide how to display the collections because they're kept as Soane had them. The extraordinary thing is, in our interiors in No. 13, if you stick to that principle of displaying the works of art where Soane put them, they look fantastic. If they're in the wrong place, they very often just don't. But when you put them back in the right place, you suddenly think, oh my goodness, that's absolutely wonderful! That is just where that object is meant to be. It was all done with such deliberation that Soane is our guide, and we just try to make sure that we can get everything into the right position.

…we don't have to decide how to display the collections because they're kept as Soane had them… It was all done with such deliberation that Soane is our guide, and we just try to make sure that we can get everything into the right position.

Helen Dorey, MBE, Deputy Director and Inspectress at the Sir John Soane's Museum

But on the other hand, we also have our spaces in No. 12, our temporary galleries, our shop and so on, and we have to light those. And there, we have tried in our restorations to do the lighting very sensitively, particularly above all else, to restore the spaces as historic interiors. If you take the exhibition galleries in No. 12 as an example, we don't know what furniture was in there when Soane lived in that house for the short time that he did, so we can't put furniture back even if the Act of Parliament allowed us to. But what we do know is what colours those rooms were so we have restored the original colour scheme and then designed the exhibition gallery within that. And each of these showcases of course has its own integral lighting that can be dimmed for exhibition use and the room has some very beautifully designed additional lighting too.

What we try to do is to treat the historic fabric as the historic fabric and then introduce things like gallery showcases or conservation studio fittings as freestanding elements that could easily be taken away at any time without damaging the historic fabric, because we know that such things evolve and they always change every few decades, if not sooner.

Von Chua:

Some of my favourite freestanding pieces are those by Caruso St John.

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Modern displays by Caruso St John. Image by Von Chua.

Helen Dorey:

Yes, they're really beautiful. Caruso St John worked so well with us in the sense that they spent so much time actually studying Soane's furniture and trying to break it down into its essential forms. The results are very appealing to an architectural sensibility and that's probably why you love them so much, Von. They came in and saw, right, when designing bookcases Soane uses mahogany and mirrors. There's always a base, there's always a top. As a result theirs is a modern take on the essential elements of the early 19th century and I think it's quite brilliant because they've somehow managed to make a modern display space that can sit comfortably within our historic interiors. Their pieces not only had to fit into the rooms that they are in - they had to allow for visitors to be able to walk directly from Soane's wonderful yellow drawing rooms into the exhibition gallery, without getting a terrible shock. Obviously, in some places, you do have shocking transitions and they can have great impact, but we didn't want that in our historic building and they've achieved that transition most beautifully.

Von Chua:

The Museum is a Grade I listed building, which is a building of exceptional interest with only 2.5% of all listed buildings in this class. Does this affect how the team plans exhibition layouts and the display of the architectural drawings and objects?

Helen Dorey:

Yes. A Grade I listing doesn't mean that a building can't be altered, but it means that it's difficult to get permission to alter it. All our restoration work has to be approved through the planning process, we have to apply for what's called a Listed Building Consent every time we do anything. I think it affects us less than many places because we already have the requirement to keep the house as it was, so that’s the prime thing that dictates where all the objects are displayed anyway because they're where Soane had them.

Von Chua:

I see, I suppose Sir John Soane himself may have had the foresight of this.

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