Quick five questions with Bruce Boucher – Director of Sir John Soane’s Museum

As Director of one of the design world’s best loved museums, how do you open it up more to the world but at the same time keep its unique intimate character? 

We have a responsibility to care for the fabric of the Soane, which means there is a limit to the number of people we can admit at any one time. Fortunately, the digital world offers us the opportunity to bring the Soane to people’s computers around the globe. The recent pandemic has accelerated the pace at which this is happening, but it was already our direction of travel. Our “Explore Soane” platform provides a fly through of the Museum, with a focus upon key areas including the Picture Room, with 118 objects available, the Model Room, and the Egyptian sarcophagus in the crypt. We are currently scanning the Drawing Office and its over two hundred casts as the next component of the Museum to be ready for our virtual public. You can access it directly or through our website: www.soane.org.uk

I have to ask – out of the thousands of objects at the Soane, do you have an absolute favourite…. one that you’d wished you had found yourself? 


That’s a difficult question, but I have a soft spot for our cork models of classical temples. There was a great vogue for them in the latter half of the eighteenth century as Grand Tour souvenirs. They originated in Naples as architectural backdrops for their nativity scenes or presepi. They were light, easy to transport, and cork was able to mimic the appearance of weathered stone and even brick. My favourite is the round Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, which Soane bought an estate sale in 1804. It’s distinctive architecture was quoted by Soane at the Bank of England, and you can still see his Tivoli Corner there today.


With your love of Palladian Architecture, what is the earliest book of Andrea Palladio’s writing do you have at home? 


I used to have a facsimile of the 1570 edition of Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, which is still the best introduction to Palladio. There is also an excellent translation published by MIT Press with the English text set in Palladio’s original pagination. That’s important because the eighteenth-century English translations by Leoni and Ware separate Palladio’s words from his images, with the result that it is difficult to follow. When I taught Palladio at University College London and the Architectural Association, I often observed that students would misidentify the palace or villa referred to in the text because the illustrations were bunched together at the end of the book. Palladio was sensitive to the integration of word and image, much as he chose simple language to put across his ideas. Oddly enough, I don’t think John Soane held Palladio in such high esteem although he paid lip service to his role as one of the founders of what Soane called “the cinque-cento style”.

Soane Drawing Office Pre-restoration

You spent many years in America, what do you think is the cultural difference in the way we both put collections together? 


That’s a big question! I don’t think any museum anywhere displays its collection like the Soane’s, for one thing, but there is no hard and fast rule here or there as the dynamic between collections and the buildings that contain them is often the determining factor. The traditional American collections, like the Morgan or the Huntington are closed, but the major civic museums in America are generally allowed to de-accession works, which they do frequently. That is a big difference, and the practice is considered taboo in this country since it can seem like selling the family silver. University or college museums in American have often been prey to this gambit to shore up finances, and there is a case right now of a university in Indiana that plans to sell three major paintings to pay for the refurbishment of dormitories.

If you could live anywhere in the world – where would it be?

 I’m happy where I am, but perhaps the Villa Cipriani at Asolo—they have room service!
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