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Brunel Museum: 12m Countdown

New structure of the Being Brunel museum

Twelve months to go

How often did this happen to Brunel? You look up, and there in the space where you’ve imagined a new structure, it’s starting to take shape against the light.

The new Being Brunel Museum, which we’ve been looking at on plan, and in artists’ impressions and CAD drawings, for almost four years, is now a real, physical structure. Since last summer the contractors have been creating foundations and preparing the ground in a spit of reclaimed land between the SS Great Britain and Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

There are 49 piles in position to support the weight of the museum building, each one buried at least 16 metres through the soft riverbank to rest on the bedrock beneath. Within the past fortnight a skeleton building has appeared, resting on top of these piles. The prefabricated steel columns and arched roof trusses are all painted in a dark red primer which stands out strongly against the pale sky of early spring. I’m reminded every day of the sketchbooks lying quietly in the archive vault of the Brunel Institute, and of the way that Brunel filled their pages with imagined ships, bridges, tunnels, towers, pavilions, arcades…  He could make a few pencilled lines and details communicate a compelling, almost palpable vision of the possible world.

The inspiration for the new museum comes directly from these fragments of Brunel’s imagination. You look at these sketchbook pages, some of them dense with minute calculations, some drafted only with a few austere curves, and you fall in love with the idea of seeing the world through his eyes. There are over 50 sketchbooks in SS Great Britain Trust’s Collection, but that’s only the start – there are more than 13,000 other objects associated with Isambard, his father Sir Marc Brunel, and other members of their immediate family.

Image courtesy of the Brunel Institute – a collaboration of the SS Great Britain Trust and the University of Bristol.

These collection objects are to be at the heart of the new museum. Many of these have never been on public display, although the Brunel family preserved them assiduously. Some items have an extraordinary charisma, such as the early daguerreotype portrait of Sir Marc Brunel, taken in 1843, which simply crackles with the force of his personality. You look at it and the past 174 years become suddenly transparent, as if you’re about to speak to this man, who forged his own passport to flee the French Revolution.  Other objects are simply touching: the tiny notes and drawings which the Brunel family, like any other, kept as mementos of their children’s development, or the bundled pages of letter paper on which Sophia Brunel, Isambard’s elder sister, recorded their aging father’s memories, and the last hours of his life. The backbone of the collection, however, is the material which shows Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s mind at work, challenging, creating, refining, proving - and transforming the world around him in his own day, and for ever.     

When the new museum opens in a year’s time, and the chosen collection objects are on display, we want visitors to be able to see the world as Brunel saw it. We want them to come closer to his ambition, and to feel the energetic sense of drama which carried him through his life. What would he say if he could see the new building that’s taking on his name? Twelve months to go until opening, and he could almost be looking over our shoulders - we keep quoting Brunel’s motto to one another: ‘En Avant!’ - just keep going!


Next month: Brunel in his own words


Author: Kate Rambridge, Head of Interpretation.