Museum (as) Space

At work, we have just completed an architectural design competition. What makes a good design for a museum building has consequently been on my mind for quite some time.

 

Of course, to a large degree, the answer depends on the case in question. There are certain requirements that are unique to each project, stemming for example from spatial or financial circumstances. In our case, we are dealing with a seriously constrained building plot set right beside a busy road. The plot is further compromised by an underground car park which poses considerable challenges for the structural engineer. In addition, there are existing buildings that any new built needs to connect with in a seemless way, supporting also their respective function. In our case, therefore, there are certain pre-conditions that the building must meet before it can be considered good in any more abstract sense.

 

This isn’t very flashy. It is a question of deliverability and dry functionality that extends further to matters of toilets, storage rooms, delivery access and the ability to regulate light and temperature conditions in exhibition galleries. And yet, as anyone will tell you who has ever worked in a museum building whose architecture was not driven by functionality but architectural vanity instead: this matters. A lot. Before we can even begin thinking about anything else, we must absolutely ensure that the museum can function properly within its architectural frame [1].

 

I have, however, been thinking as well about what, in my opinion and not based on any scientific study, makes a good museum building once its functionality has been secured. Personally, I do enjoy buildings that in their own right turn a visit into an experience. For me, that means grand, elaborate structures. For example, I love the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien with its extended façade and the fantastically impressive grand staircase. The café is simply spectacular in a high-ceilinged, ornately decorated circular space. The building itself is a piece of architectural art that has an impact on my senses: much like a good exhibition itself.

 

On the other hand, I am well aware that to many people such grandeur feels intimidating. Rather than promise an exciting experience, they feel threatened and put-off. And it is true: most of these museums, built mostly in the 19th century, offer nothing in the way of transparency. They are fairly closed-off temples that more often than not require you to climb steep stairs to arrive at a narrow set of doors that reveals nothing about what is inside. You have to pluck up the courage and often quite literally enter into the dark unknown. This is decidedly not ideal when we are seeking to diversify audiences – at least not without additional effort.

 

So, despite my personal preference, I have become an advocate for museum buildings that open out into their environments: glass foyers on the ground floor, clear lines of sight from the outside in, an open view (or announcement) of what can be seen and done inside. This takes down the first barrier.

 

Inside, I still like spectacular spaces, based on my belief that people of all walks of life, once they feel that this is their space as well, do enjoy what is grand and stunning – much like people enjoy the Grand Canyon. It is all about the atmosphere that is being created: grand and stunning does not necessitate an exclusive, elitist feel.

 

Recently, I have come to think of another architectural element that to me makes a good museum building: spaces, even rooms, where people can meet. We talk a lot about museums being meeting places for diverse people, where they can exchange views and create their futures together. And yet, what is often missing are inviting spaces where people can do just that. We tend to think only of the exhibition infrastructure to which all other spaces are subordinate, and so at best, we offer opportunities for people to sit. Increasingly, however, museum buildings go beyond that. One version of this are spaces for reflection, like the Hall of Remembrance at the Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Contemplative Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, both Washington D.C.. These spaces invite you to spend time and reflect on what you have seen and experienced, which I think is fantastic. What is missing for me, however, is an invitation to actually talk to other visitors: these spaces are made for whispers, and whispers do not lend themselves to conversations. Furthermore, I don’t like that these rooms are generally separate from the exhibition galleries, although given their aim of reflection this does of course make sense. A space integrated into the exhibition itself is what I have in mind. At Culloden Visitor Centre in Scotland there is a central performance area that offers benches on either side, which comes closer to what I would like to see. In an exhibition that I did last year, a group I was working with integrated a living room into their space which did invite people to just sit and chat. Many did take up that opportunity, although I have no data on how many conversations went across groups, as it were. Nevertheless, something similar should, in my view, be a permanent feature of any exhibition.

 

There are many factors in making a building a good museum building. Let’s see how this works out as our project progresses. So far, I have a really food feeling. I shall report back.

 

 

Notes

[1] It is a well-known truth among museum professionals that the architecture should always come secondary to the requirements of the museum itself, with all its purposes and aims concerning audiences. What is less often talked about openly is how much this can become a fight with the architects’ desire to fulfil their own ambition outside functionality. (Too) Often, this fight is lost on the museum side. So forgive me for ‘stating the obvious’ here.

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One thought on “Museum (as) Space

  1. I too believe this is really important. Usually the cafe serves this function sort of. There is a wonderful gallery with cushioned seating along the windows looking out over the grounds and the harbour at Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway, Outer Hebrides – the long gallery is inviting, there is no clutter other than the seating and the views are wonderful. All the exhibition spaces open out into it so it encourages people to linger, relax, interact and contemplate.

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