The architect, AOC:
"We worked closely with Wellcome Collection to create the Reading Room, a new type of permanent public gallery that encourages physical, intellectual and social participation with the collection. The project creates a 390sqm, double-height gallery on the second floor of Septimus Warwick’s neo-classical Wellcome Building at 183 Euston Road, London.
Our designs aim to combine the spatial intensity of the building’s most dramatic space with the user-led indeterminacy of social media. Our first move was to remove past divisions to redefine a double height, triple aspect space. This historic space has been enriched by sampling the character of two of Wellcome Collection’s past spaces - the richly layered Historical Medical Museum of 54a Wigmore Hall (1913) and the building’s original Hall of Statuary (1932). By literally juxtaposing these two contrasting environments the room actively encourages different levels of engagement with the artefacts – ‘look, don’t touch’ in the white cube, make yourself at home in the hall.
A family of bespoke furniture has been loosely arranged to create a series of open niches. A variety of table lengths, heights and supporting chairs and stools evoke the study desk, the dining table and the lab bench, encouraging visitors to interact with the artefacts and each other accordingly. Defining the perimeter of each niche are cabinets providing open access displays of artefacts, books and tools, a rare chance to rummage in the collection. The blank cabinet backs are memory surfaces, felt-lined memo boards and magnetic pegboards, for visitors to contribute to the room’s evolving conversation.
Creating a contemporary gallery in a historic building we were keen to ensure that the designs were imbued with the stories of Wellcome’s past. Digital tools allowed for samples of artefacts to be realised in traditional materials. The distinct profile of Henry Wellcome has been extruded as a timber skirting, turned as a table leg and rotated as a coat hook. An insulin screen-printed wallpaper first used in the Festival of Britain has been customised to create an appropriate bespoke upholstery.
The aim to create a socially participative gallery required an extensive brief development and testing process. Our early investigations included in-depth consultation with a diverse team within Wellcome Collection, exploring the interface of artefacts, digital content and events. As the designs evolved we led a series of public testing events at Wellcome Collection which allowed designers and curators to explore 1:1 furniture prototypes. These validated Wellcome’s intentions and usefully influenced subsequent designs."