What would happen if museums had no walls? 

Free from the confines of architecture, could these institutions extend out into the streets, parks, fields, and hills, engaging with the complex cultural histories of the landscapes they encounter? Could landscape be a much-needed release from the stuffy corridors of listed buildings and limiting frameworks of structure?  

Or, to turn full circle, does the cultural institution in fact need the formal framework of the built museum to provide a stable basis for exploring challenging and inspiring content? Does the open expanse of the land blur the edges of why cultural institutions are important in our society to the point of being indistinguishable from the politics of environment, land management and naturalism? 

Sutton Hoo external landscape installations

These questions are set against the continually accelerating changes that landscape is undergoing, both physically due to climate crisis, but also in our cultural eye. Landscape, it appears, is becoming understood not as an exterior space, often forgotten or resigned to be value engineered, but as integral to the experience and understanding of a site.

Such thoughts are particularly relevant to Sutton Hoo, where Nissen Richards Studio created a RIBA Award-winning Viewing Tower as part of a new interpretation of the site and where the visitor journey is largely outside, in open land, where you feel the weather and experience the terrain. The interpretation of the site is reliant on this totality of experience – made especially important given its main treasure is now in the British Museum and the original boat had eroded down to dust, leaving an imprint but no solid framework. 

Tower to view the burial mounds within the landscape at Sutton Hoo

There is already a large variety of landscape-based cultural institutions with varying levels of establishment; ranging from nationwide organisations such as the National Trust to smaller institutions such as Kiftsgate Court garden, or even towards informal notions of a landscape museum seen in the privately-owned yet informally-occupied disused quarry at Winspit (a site where environmentalism, research as well as rock climbing occurs on the Portland stone faces once quarried for London’s architecture). 

Despite differing levels of formality, each engages with the landscape through recurring themes of human heritage within the open land and conservation (of both ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ landscape conditions), and therefore also reflects the more conventional ambitions seen within the built museum. 

Places to re-orientate in the landscape, Sutton Hoo

One of the many challenges facing landscape-based cultural institutions is how to mediate between human tradition and environmentalism. Often, human intervention with the land has created negative impacts on its ecosystems. However, many of these activities also helped build communities and cultural traditions which underpinned societies for generations. For a cultural institution to occupy the land now, whether in a physical or conceptual sense, means it must explore these difficult human-environmental relations. 

The 'Ecomuseums' described in the Museums Journal: Climate Justice (Sept/Oct 2022) issue are attempting to deal with similar issues by looking at the preservation of indigenous traditions associated with landscape, as well as ecology and biodiversity. This approach aligns with the objectives of the UNESCO Intangible Heritage listings, and is notably de-colonial, pairing localism and heritage alongside environmentalism and sustainability. However, local, often process-based methods of engaging with the land (for instance farming or quarrying) which in turn have led to forms of community heritage and arguably therefore justify preservation, highlight instances when the de-colonial messages which institutions are rightly exploring are muddied by traditions environmentally-harmful to the landscape they are set within.

Seats and orientation, Sutton Hoo

What the landscape does offer is space. In both a practical sense, allowing content to be positioned with ample area for clear understanding or communal experience, but also conceptually, allowing visitors to process and reflect on the complexities of the site they are in. Perhaps this allows landscape to deal with the issues intrinsic to both its challenging human heritage and its physical matter; the components of the land are often elemental and require the visitor to position themselves within their (deep) timescale in order to understand the human stories being told. 

These sorts of environmental, ontological, and morally complex conditions require careful study and individual consideration. If, however, we zoom out, it seems clear that landscape is full of contention and is deeply political. Perhaps then, this makes it the ideal site for the expansion of cultural institutions? 

View from the tower, Sutton Hoo

As we continue to debate globally the best way to interact with our planet and its natural and human histories, landscape-based organisations dealing with notions of preservation, experience, heritage, and provocation could be a helpful, experientially-driven mediator to investigate the current proliferation of policy, rhetoric and certification which governs our unbuild land.

Detail of the tower, Sutton Hoo