In 1970, Brunel’s great steamship ss Great Britain returned to Bristol, UK, the city from where she had been launched in 1843. In the fifty years since her return from the Falkland Islands, the ship has become the city’s No. 1 tourist attraction and an award-winning museum attracting more than 200,000 visitors every year. The Being Brunel museum project is the most recent in a series of innovative initiatives by the ss Great Britain Trust that have seen the ship transformed from a rusty hulk to an immersive visitor experience that tells the story not only of the ship and her designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but also the lives of the passengers and crew who sailed on her.
Being Brunel was conceived as a unique opportunity to celebrate the cultural and material heritage of I.K. Brunel, Britain’s most famous Victorian engineer whose work and legacy remain relevant more than 160 years after his death. While telling the Brunel story has always been an integral part of Trust interpretation, learning and research, the new project was seen as a chance to create a new all-encompassing ‘National’ Brunel museum that captured the character of the man himself. The primary focus of the project was therefore the establishment of a new visitor experience revealing Brunel’s life and work, housed in a new purpose-built building that incorporated a surviving 1840 Drawing Office in the historic dockyard.
At the heart of the £7 million, five-year project were two key strands: audiences and collections. The Trust team began the process by building an understanding of what people might want to know about Brunel, and what they might want to see in the new museum, using existing visitor insights and specially commissioned research. People were asked what they might want to know: ‘all the things I could not Google’ was one response! To satisfy this kind of curiosity, new and innovative interpretation, was created through detailed research: the Trust already owned a substantial collection of Brunel artefacts and the project was further boosted by an amazing offer from the owner of the largest private collection of Brunel material who pledged to donate his collection along with a substantial financial contribution. This, coupled with items from the University of Bristol Brunel collection and key artefacts from other museums and institutions taken together represented the most significant assembly of Brunel material in the world, and provided a truly unique opportunity to make them publicly accessible for the first time.
The new museum consists of three separate experiences: firstly a modern day ‘Wundercammern’ - an object-rich journey through the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel crammed with archive material, paintings, photographs models and other artefacts, then the chance to look inside the mind of the great engineer, and finally the opportunity to step back into his world through recreations of his offices in London and Bristol. Beginning with a recreation of the famous photograph of Brunel taken at the launch of the ss Great Eastern in 1858 visitors can pose in front of chains and don a Brunel-style top hat, putting them firmly in front of the camera. The journey continues in the Shakespeare Room, a recreation of the Shakespeare themed dining room in Brunel’s London home complete with talking video portraits of his father, sister and brother-on-law, and many rare and wonderful personal objects.
In the main display space visitors cannot fail to know what the exhibition is all about. It is dominated by a 7-metre (!) realistic sculpture of Brunel’s head, built by Pinewood Studios that also houses an immersive experience ‘The Mind’ giving visitors the chance to get inside Brunel’s brain and replay key moments from his life. The gallery itself emulates the décor of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, taking design cues from structure, architectural ironwork and colours used in that building. Working with architects Alec French Partnership, and designers Easy Tiger, a major decision was to consciously move away from a contemporary look and feel, opting instead for a very immersive and thematic approach with modern showcases flexible enough to display 3D objects and light sensitive archive material, designed to look like 19th century Victorian museum spaces and complementing rather than clashing with the collection and stories.
This does not mean that interpretative content is old fashioned however! There is much engaging and lively thematic content and there are interactives throughout; these are bespoke and engage with the storyline, whether it is a moving railway carriage where visitors attempt to draw a perfect circle travelling on a bumpy track just as Brunel did when planning the Great Western Railway, or a zany Egyptian-themed one-armed bandit that illustrates his approach to risk!
Two floors of original material mean there is much to see, but visitors then pass through ‘The Mind ’experience, and from there, into Brunel’s world. There they can see a painstaking authentic recreation of his London office is followed by reconstructed rooms set within the original 1840 Dock Office close to where the ss Great Britain was built between 1839 and 1843.
The whole Being Brunel experience is a chance for visitors to discover what Brunel made, and importantly what made him but before stepping back into the dockyard visitors are prompted to contemplate what relevance his life and work have now, prompted by contributions from key figures from the world of engineering and design such as Roma Agrawal and Sir Norman Foster.
The end of the visitor journey through this ground-breaking new exhibition is not the end of the story and Being Brunel encompasses more than bricks and mortar and museum interpretation. Running parallel with creation of a new visitor experience was the establishment of new learning and community engagement initiatives – a community engagement officer was recruited to build links with local people, especially those in disadvantaged and under-represented Bristol communities, and the work done during the development stage of the project continues to support the ongoing work of the trust. New learning programmes were also developed to support new interpretation, and Being Brunel also has great synergy with the Trust’s Future Brunel’s programme, a project that encourages young people into STEM-related careers. Project funding also supports enhanced research capacity for the Trust through the creation of a ‘Brunel Fellow’ whose remit includes not only building links with the academic world, but also carrying out research and coordinating a National Brunel Network that brings together museums and other heritage organisations with Brunel collections and connections.
Being Brunel opened to visitors in March 2018 and it is not an exaggeration to say that it has represented a ‘coming of age’ for the Trust enabling it to deliver important national outcomes. It has supported the longer-term sustainability of the Trust providing it with a new and enlarged visitor experience, increasing dwell time and secondary spend, and has enhanced the profile of the ss Great Britain nationally and internationally, building and enhancing partnership working with other Brunel-related organisations. Most importantly, the high-quality exhibition and interpretation created has ensured that major Brunel collections previously hidden are now on permanent display, boosting the Trust’s reputation as the centre for Brunel-related study and research. And while like all large projects, Being Brunel had patches of ‘rough weather’ to navigate, the successful delivery of such a complex and innovative product has put the Trust in a strong position to deliver its next challenge. In 2019 Being Brunel was named as the Best new Permanent Exhibition in the UK at the Museum and Heritage Awards.
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