Art Nouveau wallpaper, Tudorbethan fireplaces, open-plan houses: the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) at Middlesex tells the story of how art and design movements found their way into the new suburbia. The tens of thousands of pattern books, catalogues, and fabric and wallpaper samples are a mine of design history and design inspiration. Delving into the collection is a fascinating but potentially daunting task. So when MoDA relocated in 2011, its Head of Collections, Zoe Hendon, took up the challenge of how to display the collections in the 21st century. Her solution was to lead the redevelopment of the museum as an entirely new form of accessible research collection for a wide range of users. Hendon asked Middlesex University's redLoop design and innovation centre to help display the collection to its best advantage. "The physical relocation gave Zoe the opportunity to rethink what a museum could be," says Dr Andy Bardill, the centre's Director. "We began working at the point when they moved from the previous space." The result is a 'museum on demand': its collections are available 'online, on tour and on request'.
"Users often don't know what they're looking for, but they know what they like when they see it," explains Hendon, "so part of the brief was to make the collections more visible." That was a particular challenge, because visual art does not necessarily lend itself to traditional search. "Fundamentally, we changed the way search happened, and therefore every other element of connection with the museum collection", Dr Bardill explains. redLoop's approach built upon research in interaction design in the interdisciplinary Human Systems Laboratory at Middlesex – work which has included an examination of the ways in which technology interfaces can engage non-experts and stimulate creative interaction.
The front page of the MoDA website showcases highlights from different eras and collections in a highly visual and browsable way. Users who want to see more can search the archives, or click through one of the curated exhibitions (such as "Japantastic", or "Sonic Wallpapers", Dr Felicity Ford's sound-pieces). They can also book an appointment at the Study Room to examine a work. "It's made it much easier to use the website – and people are using the collections in person more extensively than before too," says Hendon.
"Thanks to Zoe, people can now engage with this fantastic collection more readily," says Dr Bardill. He sees MoDA as a trailblazer for other museums wanting to display more exhibits – a sentiment echoed in press coverage, Many museums keep thousands of items in storage for lack of gallery space, bringing them out only for special exhibitions or for specialist research. Others house exhibits that are tricky to display effectively. Just as craftsmen used new techniques to bring art into ordinary people's homes in the 20th century, Middlesex is discovering ways to open up museums for the digital age.