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Brunel Museum: 11m Countdown

Isambard Kingdom Brunel by the Great Eastern Launching Chains, 1857

Eleven months to go: Brunel in his own words

How do you describe the life of a man?

It’s an intimidating task, especially when that man is already so immediately recognisable to so many people. Early on in the project to create a new museum, we talked to focus groups that represented our audiences about whether they ‘knew’ Brunel. Most of them felt confident talking about him and could name at least one or two of his projects. Everyone had a sense of how his personality is expressed in the famous photograph which shows him posing in front of massed chains.

People can even discuss what Brunel would be if he were a drink; and it’s always something dark, complex and potent – stout, port, whisky. It’s the kind of thing you do in a focus group – but it misses a lot about Brunel. He wasn’t just the 52 year-old man who you see, in that photograph, at a time when he was on site 24 hours a day, struggling to launch the Great Eastern – his third, mythically huge and powerful ship. The photograph says, at the same time, so much and so little about Brunel – so how can we know him better?

This month we’re really facing up to the challenge of creating a biographical portrait, as we start to write the text we’ll present for visitors to the new ‘Being Brunel’ museum. Other biographers have already written hundreds of thousands of words about Brunel, and we rely on their research and insight every day. But here in the new museum we want visitors to meet Brunel’s own words and voice.

Our ethos, in creating museum experiences, has always been to begin with the ‘best available evidence’, which is like a kind of curators’ pure gold. It comes in many forms – objects, structures, memories, images, words – and means for us the authentic, unaltered stuff of the past.  We want to place this evidence as directly as possible before our visitors. The whole function of the museum is to enable them to see, touch, encounter and react to it for themselves.

Isambard Brunel's Diary

The energy of Brunel’s personality comes spilling out of every page he ever wrote. It’s there in the restless ambition of the secret diary he kept in his twenties, and in the constraint and frustration of the letters he wrote during the difficult years of work on the Great Eastern. Sometimes this energy tumbles over itself in great long sentences scrawled almost without punctuation over sheets of letter paper – sometimes it’s concentrated in terse, focused phrases.

We’re mining Brunel’s writing for the words which best express this energy, and show where it drove him during his short, intensely lived life. We’ll be using them everywhere - as quotations on walls, floors, staircases; in soundscapes and film; in object labels; on the cups in the café and the mirrors in the toilets. It’s a way of making his personality and his experience present – of letting him loose on visitors. We know that they’re going to respond.

Just being with Brunel in this way makes you feel some of his supercharge buzzing into your brain.


Next month: Rail, steam and speed


Author: Kate Rambridge, Head of Interpretation.