by Kym Ramadge, June 2023
This is Part One of a subjective list of European museums and galleries I have sought and enjoyed for their art, architecture, curation, interpretative signage and ambience. Some focus on design history, some on the cutting edge. Some combine historical collections in contemporary buildings where the viewer has the best of both worlds. Design is a broad theme and covers, graphic, industrial, photography, textile, applied arts and technology.
As an Australian, the joy I’ve had experiencing European culture first-hand has been both awe-inspiring and humbling. I fully appreciate the opportunities I’ve had and would encourage all design students and graduates to maximise this aspect of travel at their first opportunity. Viewing artwork, objects and all forms of design, in person is unbeatable.
A well-travelled, European client of ours once defined it as this: ‘Australia and New Zealand are unsurpassed for landscapes but if you want to see the finest cities, go to Europe. Each localities have their strengths, and we should embrace the positive of where we currently are.’
Many of these choices to visit were influenced by material studied in the history/theory component of my graphic design degree at the former Phillip Institute of Technology (incorporated into RMIT University, 1992 during our final year).
An over-arching theme is the recognition of the continuity designers are part of. We are formed and guided professionally by previous generations, even if we are not aware of it. The museums and galleries discussed here all curate and display the talents of skilled artists, designers, craftspeople, architects both historical and contemporary.
The Type Archive
I was fortunate to meet Susan Shaw and tour The Type Archive in January 2019. The pivotal trove of typographic and print knowledge collected here is difficult to distil into a summary.
From the TA website:
The Type Archive is home to the art of printed words. We hold an amazing collection of letterpress fonts in metal and wood which celebrates the joy of printing: the craft that has served as the fundamental basis of modern civilisation and graphic design. While modern type foundries are entirely digital (Monotype.com) the Type Archive’s collection spans the nearly 600-year period when the foundry cut letters in steel, drove them into brass blanks, and cast lead type from them in molten lead.
Unfortunately, the TA is unable to stay at its present location. According to the website, the collection is to be moved to the SMG site at its National Collections Centre near Swindon.
The SMG plan to conduct oral history interviews to ensure the Monotype skills are recorded for the future. Once this is resolved, I highly recommend a visit. Appreciating the history of typography is imperative for all designers.
Type Archive photographed by KR, January 2019 in Lambeth, including hot metal type and Monotype machinery.
Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria and Albert Museum is a must see, both for the temporary exhibitions and the permanent collection. One tip for any European museum is to get to the top floor first and work your way back down. This can be a way to skip the overly crowded sections near the front doors.
From the Victoria and Albert Museum website:
Henry Cole, the V&A’s first Director, declared that the museum should be a “schoolroom for everyone”. Its mission was to improve the standards of British industry by educating designers, manufacturers and consumers in art and science. Acquiring and displaying the best examples of art and design contributed to this mission, but the ‘schoolroom’ itself was also intended to demonstrate exemplary design and decoration. The story of the design and construction of the V&A’s buildings, and of the personalities who guided this process, is one of persistent vision and ingenuity, amid the changing artistic, political and economic circumstances of the last 150 years.
The curation and interpretative design at the Victoria and Albert Museum is inspirational. Everything from the colours chosen on the walls, to the exhibition layout, to the signage, the building, to the objects themselves is compelling. I cannot single out one particular favourite area here.
The main part of the Victoria and Albert Museum is free for all to visit. So, you can visit as many times as you like without museum fatigue. Temporary exhibitions can involve an entrance fee. Check the website for current information.
The V&A building interior is as much a part of the collection as the objects themselves!
Located in Somerset House, the Courtauld is awe-inspiring. The scale is intimate, and the collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Fauve paintings is one of the world’s greatest. The Courtauld also features temporary exhibitions.
Bookings are required, check the website for current information.
Museum of Brands
Quirky, nostalgic museum located in Notting Hill. Showcasing 150 years of consumer culture. Not all the brands will be familiar to Australians, however, the sheer volume and the division into eras makes this unmissable for designers or pop culture aficionados. The fonts, colours, period styling, printing methods and embellishments, all add up to a 3D design extravaganza.
The museum runs temporary exhibitions as well as archives and other resources for our industry.
From the Museum of Brands website:
More than fifty years ago consumer historian Robert Opie began to unravel the fascinating story of how consumer products and promotion had evolved since Victorian times. By 1975 Robert had enough material to hold his own exhibition, The Pack Age, at the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1984 he opened the first museum devoted to the history of packaging and advertising in Gloucester.
In the early 2000s, the collection needed a new home. With the help of global brand agency pi Global and founding sponsors Cadbury, Twinings, Vodafone, Diageo, Kellogg’s and McVities, the Museum became a charity in 2002 and opened in Notting Hill, London.
After ten successful years, the Museum had outgrown its building and in 2015 relocated to a larger site nearby, just around the corner from the world-famous Portobello Road Market.
The relocation project added new galleries, event spaces and garden. Support for the project has come from founders including Diageo, DS Smith, the Garfield Weston Foundation and the John Lyon’s Charity.
Paris is of course, teeming with museums and galleries. The well-known ones are of course, covered elsewhere and well worth the crowds.
For a much-less crowded space, I recommend:
Musée des Arts et Métiers
This is a museum with the following categories: Scientific instruments, Materials, Energy, Mechanics, Construction, Communication and Transport. This is under the industrial design history category.
Various parts of the collection, a testament to research, ingenuity, precision, detail and creativity, all photos by KR.
Musée Marmottan Monet
The Marmottan Monet is highly recommended. Not only are Monet’s paintings exquisite to see in this carefully curated and lit space, the interpretive signage is outstanding and includes footage of Monet painting late in his life. Further, the Marmottan has an incredible collection of Middle Ages art, including illuminated manuscripts. As part of our graphic design degree, in our history/theory component, we studied the fine detailed art of the illuminated manuscript. To see them firsthand is to appreciate the beauty and its contribution to typography.
Musée de l’Imprimerie et de la Communication Graphique
(Museum of Printing and Graphic Communication)
This is possibly one of the geekiest design and printing museums to visit. Anywhere. It contains the history of printing and ends up with the Apple Mac including original DTP software packaging for Quark Express. Tucked away in a back street of the oldest part of Lyon, this is unmissable for anyone interested in the history of graphic arts. A fraction of what is on show: a replica Gutenberg press, amazing poster collection, original hand-bound leather cover books and hot metal type.
Museum exterior courtyard, leather-bound book and original Apple Mac Classic with laser printer, all photos by KR.
Musée des Confluences
Breathtaking architecture situated at the confluence of the River Rhône and the Saône, this is a science and anthropology museum. Every aspect of this is worth visiting, the exhibits are artfully curated, knowledgeable and all components of design is carefully considered. The views from the building of the rivers and Lyon are a travel highlight for any visitor.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (Museum of Fine Arts)
Housed in a former Benedictine convent, this museum focuses on Fine Arts. The building is beautifully restored and the Ancient Egyptian collection is impeccable. If interested in numismatics, the coin collection here is France’s second largest. There is also a large collection of Modern Art, plus an Art Nouveau room. All exhibits are displayed in world-class layouts with thoughtful design.
From the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, all photos by KR.
Johann Gutenberg sculpture in Vienna, photo by KR.
For graphic designers, Vienna is potentially destination number one in terms of the modernist design instigated by the Vienna Succession. As a bonus, on the walk between the Wien Römermuseum (Roman museum) and St Stephens Cathedral, a sculpture of Gutenberg is tucked just off Rotenturmstraße.
Essay worthy, this is a brief overview: the Vienna Secession was an influential art movement founded in 1897 in Vienna, Austria. Led by artists such as Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffmann, and Koloman Moser, it aimed to break free from traditional academic art, embracing modernism and promoting the integration of art into everyday life.
MAK Vienna (Museum of Applied Arts)
From the MAK website:
The MAK is home to an unparalleled collection of applied arts, design, architecture, and contemporary art which has developed in the course of 150 years.
Established in 1863, the MAK Vienna, or the Museum of Applied Arts, been a pioneer in showcasing applied arts from around the world. The museum’s collection spans over five centuries, encompassing an array of disciplines such as textiles, ceramics, furniture, and graphic design. Its extensive collection not only celebrates the achievements of renowned artists but also serves as a source of inspiration for contemporary graphic designers. The MAK Vienna is not just a repository of artifacts but a living testament to the ever-evolving nature of design.
The MAK houses huge collection of graphic design works we studied at university. There is also the quirkiest collection of chairs. Another superb architectural building and setting.
MAK Vienna, all photos by KR.
The Vienna Succession
The Succession building was restored after World War II. There are a number of Gustav Klimt works on display here. For me, the building itself was the key. The combination of modernist lines and the intricate entrance combine beauty and functionality. The colours are harmonious. There is no doubt in my mind that this building and the Bauhaus represent significant markers in my design journey. I made a point of photographing it early in the morning.