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Take a new approach to meeting art in Norwich

The Sainsbury Centre in Norwich is encouraging visitors to engage with them in new ways. But binning the traditional ‘rules’ of a museum is not quite as cutting-edge as it sounds: it has been at the heart of the organisation since it was founded in 1973.

Director Jago Cooper arrived at the Sainsbury Centre in 2021 with a determination to shake things up. 18 months later, the museum made national news when it relaunched with a new approach -considering art to be a living thing. 

Through a digital tour, visitors can explore the extraordinary permanent collection in a less passive way. No more staring at the beautiful simplicity of Henry Moore’s ‘Mother and Child’, no more Do Not Touch. Get up close. Closer. Even closer. That’s right, you are invited to lean into an embrace with this emotive piece; close your eyes and drift back to your first memories of a comforting hug.

Elsewhere in the ground floor gallery are three Dancing Tomb Figures from China’s Tang Dynasty; these pieces are protected behind glass (they are small and delicate, and at least 1100 years old) but that does not stop them being brought to life. You are invited to differentiate between them – each has their hair arranged in a different way, their heads held at subtley different angles. As you gaze at them, consider how soft and supple are the folds in their gowns, see their feet peeping from beneath the hem. Lift your arms to mirror the pose of their ancient dance, and begin to sway. 

The full 30-minute tour on the Smartify app introduces you to 8 pieces in the gallery, each with its own story.

And it is not just the permanent work that has had a rethink. Cooper has appointed a curator of Climate Change (a first not just for the Sainsbury Centre, but for any UK Museum), and has charged his curatorial team with creating exhibitions that respond to big societal questions. The first of these was Planet for the Future: How do we adapt to a Transforming World? Two temporary exhibitions explored this question, through contemporary work from across the globe. And every aspect of staging the exhibitions took the challenge of sustainability seriously – pictures were not shipped for thousands of miles but sent as digital files to be printed in Norfolk; signage and plinths were made using wood from previous exhibitions; labels were printed on recyclable materials. In Spring, the museum will ask the question What is truth? and later in the year Should people take drugs?

The Sainsbury Centre has also scrapped high ticket prices for its exhibitions. Now you are simply asked to pay what you want, or what you can, creating greater accessibility. But not everything has changed; you will still find little satchels of resources to help younger visitors explore; the wonderful shop is still stocked with books, art supplies and jewellery from local makers; you can still take a coffee on the terrace on a sunny day. And, of course, the glorious sculpture park is still in place.

In fact, even the biggest changes are not that revolutionary. As Cooper explains “When Robert and Lisa Sainsbury founded this museum in the 1970s, they set out to create a radical museum; they set out to break the rules; they wanted to create an anti-museum.” Fifty years on, the Sainsbury Centre’s radical approach is less about flouting convention and more about creating an experience that is relevant, welcoming, engaging and accessible – without compromising on the breadth, quality or excellence of its offer.

Stuart Franklin and Martine Gutierrez images are both part of exhibitions in the ‘What is Truth’ series.

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