How the Tate Modern and Design Museum are reinventing their spaces

Words by
Emma O’Kelly

8th March 2016

Museums and galleries are competing to revitalise themselves in fresh ways and inspiring artists to think big. So how will new spaces for Tate Modern and the Design Museum measure up?

It’s all change on London’s Southbank this summer. As the Design Museum at Shad Thames closes its doors in advance of its move to Kensington, Tate Modern opens a new £260m extension on 17 June. The former hopes to do for design what the latter has done for art (and become the most visited museum in the world along the way) and both have tried to define what it means to be a museum in the 21st century.

The stakes are high. Tate Modern reigns as the world’s most popular art gallery, its Turbine Hall installations fêted for breaking the mould, but it will now have to maintain its supremacy. The Design Museum, opening on 24 November in its new £83m home in the former Commonwealth Institute building, must provide content that matches its iconic surroundings and put a fresh spin on design.

So what do both museums look like and what will they offer?



Tate Modern
Around five million people visit Tate Modern every year — more than double the number for which it was designed in 2000. In this time its collection has grown by 50 per cent to encompass more than 12,000 works of art. Artists, too, have changed the way they work. Their focus on making large-scale pieces, performance art, film and installation demands larger spaces. “Looking at a canvas from behind a barrier is not what art is about today,” says Catherine Wood, senior curator for contemporary art and performance. “We have always been experimental and with the new spaces we hope to get the best things first.”

The Design Museum's new Kensington home

Design Museum

Since Terence Conran opened the first Design Museum in 1989, we’ve seen the birth of the Smart car, the Dyson and the iPhone. Design has clicked, beeped and tweeted its way into our consciousness like never before. Symbolic, then, that the UK’s first museum dedicated to the subject should relocate from its niche backwater in a former banana warehouse near Tower Bridge to central Kensington. And it’s bursting with ambition. “Before Tate Modern was built, there was a sense that contemporary art was at the periphery, on the edge and even seen as irrelevant to British life,” says Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum. “It has changed so much. We can do that with design.”


Tate Modern
In the basement, the power station’s three former oil tanks, which measure 30 metres across and seven metres high, have become The Tanks, dedicated to live art, performance and film. The new 10-storey Switch House, which twists and turns its way up the south side of the building, increases the size of the museum by 60 per cent. It includes three floors of gallery space and two floors for projects run by artists, young people, community groups and partners. At the top of the building, visitors will be able to enjoy panoramic 360° views of the city on the new rooftop sky terrace.

Design Museum
Three times its original size, the museum will dedicate its top floor to a free exhibition featuring pieces drawn from its permanent collection of some 3,000 works. The museum’s entrance will feature 200-300 consumer objects chosen by the public via the museum’s website. There will be six temporary paying exhibitions a year in the ground- and lower ground-floor galleries. An archive and library, studios for designers in residence, seminar and common rooms and an auditorium complete the educational space that is five times bigger than it was at Shad Thames.

The top floor of the Design Museum


Tate Modern
First commissioned in the 1990s to redesign Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1950s Bankside Power Station into the iconic art gallery space we know today, acclaimed Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron have taken Tate Modern to each stage of its 21st-century evolution. The firm started with the power station’s old underground oil tanks in 2012 and are now taking on the new Switch House building. With its oil-splattered walls and raw concrete pillars, the new Tanks performance space is the opposite of a slick white cube and its industrial patina is proving popular with artists making site-specific works. Switch House has a façade clad in a cutting-edge brick lattice. Both new spaces combine a raw industrial feel with contemporary architectural aesthetics, although how that works with the art remains to be seen.

Design Museum
The former Grade II-listed building is being remodelled by British architect John Pawson, who famously takes things out rather than putting them in. A giant atrium with a sweeping staircase will reveal the underside of the former Commonwealth Building’s famous hyperbolic paraboloid roof and connect three open floors covering nearly 9,500 square metres. All the furniture is by Swiss manufacturer Vitra. Generous landscaping makes it a museum in a park and outdoor events are planned.


Tate Modern

“The new space will be so much more than a container for art. It will be a platform for human encounters,” says Chris Dercon, Tate Modern’s director. The design will recognise that a visit to Tate Modern is often not only about the art. Tate Catering will serve modern British food in a new café and restaurant, as well as a fine dining space. There will also be new private rooms for Tate’s 110,000 members and a public viewing gallery on the top floor.

Design Museum
The Design Museum shop opens in Kensington High Street this July. Phaidon has produced a guide to the museum and will publish books to accompany the exhibitions. There will also be a new restaurant and café.

Cildo Meireles' tower of radios, Babel (2001)


Tate Modern
The permanent collection is being entirely re-hung in the Boiler House and Switch House galleries. Future acquisitions will be more diverse and international. Focus will shift from Northern Hemisphere heavyweights such as Picasso, Joseph Beuys and Mark Rothko to newcomers such as Indian artist Sheela Gowda, who creates installations made of human hair and car bumpers, and Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz with her giant burlap sacks. In November, Switch House will host The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection. The revamped Tate Modern will also accommodate a more diverse mix of spaces, from smaller rooms to larger-scale, top-lit areas.

Design Museum
“Design covers many disciplines, from fashion to architecture to graphics, product design to advertising and 3D printing,” explains chief curator Justin McGuirk. He hopes to give equal attention to them all. His opening show, Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, consists of newly commissioned installations that “aim to show how design has moved beyond the object to take on social and environmental issues”. Highlights from the permanent collection include the Vespa Clubman by Piaggio, the Valentine typewriter for Olivetti, Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert’s British road signs and Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell’s paper dress.


Tate Modern
Many a thesis has been written about Tate Modern’s impact on the urban regeneration of the South Bank. Since 2000, the population of Southwark has increased by 20 per cent and the once deserted, grimy Bankside now has around 60,000 workers in its midst. The landscape around Tate Modern has always buzzed with performances, screenings, pop-up bars and barbecues. Two areas to the west and the south of the main building, and a piazza on the lids of The Tanks, give these happenings more space.

Design Museum
The furniture showrooms of the Brompton and Fulham Roads, Chelsea Harbour, the Royal College of Art and the indomitable Victoria and Albert Museum have transformed this patch of West London into a design Mecca.
The Design Museum will not struggle to find aficionados on its doorstep and its central location will draw in newcomers.

The Tate Modern


Tate Modern
With two million Twitter followers and five million visitors a year, Tate Modern is fit to burst. The extra 20,700 square metres will accommodate everyone, but it expects those numbers to double again.

Design Museum
The Design Museum has 2.64 million Twitter followers, more than any other museum in the world. It predicts visitor numbers will increase from 200,000 a year to 650,000.


Tate Modern
Southwark is one of London’s poorest boroughs. A wander beyond the shadow of the power station, its surrounding artisanal eateries and luxury apartments, reveals social deprivation writ large. Seventy per cent of Tate Modern’s operating costs are self-funded, relying on private donations. Its beefed-up new self symbolises the increasing divide between the haves and have-nots and the continuing love affair between the super rich and the art world.

Design Museum

The new museum opens in November, almost two years later than planned due to the complex structure of the original 1960s building. So far costs have reached £83m with contributions from Terence Conran, The Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and private donors. The design world tends not to attract the super wealthy in the way the art world has and a further £7m is being raised for the museum “to safeguard its future once it is open”. /