And that’s what good architecture can add to interpretation

In March last year I blogged about my thoughts on architecture and interpretation.  When I visited the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California last week, I was reminded of that post –as an example of where it works brilliantly.

Now, I’m sure an Egyptologist would find plenty of faults with the pseudo-Egyptian museum buildings, or the various structures in the garden.  But for me and my friend (and probably many other visitors just like us), the pillars and low profile of the architecture got us excited before we even set one foot in the door. In fact, we were so enticed by the architectural presentation, that we immediately followed the little paths away from the sidewalk and into the green spaces between the museum buildings.  Exploring the gardens became a delight in its own right, and we spent quite some time there, taking pictures by the fountain, or sitting in the shade and looking out onto the temple-like Rosicrucian meditation space.

The atmosphere outside created anticipation and an eagerness to explore the inside of the museum. We obviously were always going to go inside – that’s why we went there – but having the Egyptian feel of the buildings, and the opportunity to engage with this by exploring the spaces they created, added something more.  It got me thinking about the place from where the objects we were about to see had come.  Just like the physical landscape of the country itself (Egypt), which was naturally out of reach, the architecture and garden gave us a framework to image the life to which the objects had once belonged.

In some ways, this also addressed an issue with museums that visitors at the study sites for my doctorate research have raised.  Visitors emphasise the importance of being in the place where the event happened, or where the objects were found.  Some visitors have gone as far as saying that museums away from the place itself are ‘boring’, even ‘pointless’, because they are too far removed from the (historical) context.  Nothing can replace that authentic context, and yet, at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum I felt that the architecture and landscaping went a long way to approximate a ‘sense of place’.

It really worked for me.  In this case of course the architects had it easy: a museum dedicated to one culture with easily identifiable symbols.  It’s more challenging in other places.  What do you do at a battlefield, for example?  Do you build something that imitates the building style of the period? Should the building interact with the site so that visitors can understand it better? Or should it be practically invisible so that it won’t disturb the site at all?  It’s a tough decision.  But what the visit to the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has reiterated for me is that where architecture and landscaping  are in tune with the heritage presented, it can be an active part of interpretation, and truly enhance the visitor experience.

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