To Design an Enduring Museum
For volunteer board members and even for trained museum professionals, creating a new or renewed museum is nearly always a once-in-a-lifetime venture. Like the homeowner who tackles a do-it-yourself remodel, the client team is on a steep learning curve, with slim chances of ever using their hard-won knowledge again.
A significant danger is that staff members may come to see the project primarily as an added burden on their already too-busy, underpaid working lives. It's equally dangerous for board members to either micro-manage the planning process or abdicate their oversight responsibilities and turn everything over to staff.
Sustained enthusiasm and commitment are vital to project fulfillment. Fundraisers may tout the new museum as an anchor tenant for a downtown revival, or a major regional tourist attraction.
But the museum won't succeed over the long term unless the staff, the board, and the community love and support it. What can the project architect do to increase the chances that this new or renewed institution will survive and thrive?
Admit What You Don't Know
Just as architects call on specialists to assist with structural and mechanical engineering and a host of other building issues, they also need help from specialists who understand museums.
Museums have surprisingly little in common with schools, libraries, and hospitals. Parts of them may resemble department stores, performing arts centers, and churches. But the museum's blend of work environments and public spaces is unique.
Museums have a long tradition and history, a rich sociology and psychology. To avoid reinventing the wheel, and to avoid mistakes, the architect should assemble an experienced, knowledgeable team.
This was done, for example, at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California. The architect had originally intended to devote a considerable portion of the square footage to a traditional, sloped-floor theater. Exhibit planners helped the architect and the client (a startup museum) to consider alternatives that could enhance both audience development and earned income.
The planning team — made up of architecture firms Thompson Vaivoda and Associates Architects, Inc. and Jerome Kasavan Associates, with exhibit designers Formations Inc. — concluded that multipurpose spaces would be a better solution. The result was a flexible meeting room/ banquet room /auditorium space, with soundproof partitions and adjacent loading dock and kitchen.
In combination with an energized, thematic lobby, the Steinbeck Center has become a vibrant meeting place for groups as large as 700. Lively interpretive exhibits, a changing gallery, and an attractive bookstore remain open during these events, enticing even non-museum-goers to take a look.
Careful space planning and exhibit design ensure that collections and building operations remain secure even when the museum opens its doors to a broad community.
Put the Visitor First
A museum is a plum job for an architect, a chance to make a memorable and widely recognized formal statement. But after the initial splash in the magazines, the effectiveness of the design will be measured, for years to come, by countless visitors who experience the building and its contents.
Will they return from their visit filled with excitement, telling friends and family not to miss this amazing attraction? Or will frustration, disappointment, and negative word-of-mouth prevail?
To maximize the visitor's comfort level, sense of autonomy and purpose, and capacity for enjoyment and learning, the perspective of an exhibit designer is invaluable. How will museum visitors respond to spaces, textures, colors, furniture styles and arrangements, lighting, window views, and other architectural elements?
Together an architect and an exhibit designer can orchestrate these components, creating a personal experience for visitors that suits the aesthetic intent of the building's form.
At Fort Wayne, Indiana's Lincoln Museum, the architect's opportunity was to transform a 1970s corporate office building, walled off from busy downtown streets.
With an eye to heavy auto traffic just outside the building, the exhibit designers and architects developed a plan to open up and glaze a large view into the lobby. Through a variety of thematic graphics and beautiful lighting, the museum advertises itself to thousands of people each day.
A similar solution is planned for the Columbia River Maritime Museum redesigned by Fletcher Farr Ayotte in Astoria, Oregon. A showcase window on the museum's street side will give passing motorists and pedestrians a tantalizing glimpse of an immersive environment, featuring a Coast Guard motor lifeboat on a rescue mission.
Integrate Exhibits With Architecture
In a worst-case scenario that unfortunately happens too often, museum galleries are designed as black boxes to be filled by exhibit designers.
When little or no consideration is given to main messages, thematic content, and the types of objects and media that might be displayed, it's very likely that the black box will prove to be too small, inadequately equipped, or poorly configured for the exhibit program.
Visitors are disappointed to find an elegantly appointed museum building whose exhibits seem like an afterthought. This can be avoided by bringing in an exhibit designer at the earliest planning stages.
At the Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History, the architects first sketched out a traditional lobby. The exhibit designers suggested incorporating a bold thematic element: a cave-like lava tube with sounds, smells, and other special effects. This unusual entryway reaches out like a hand into the lobby, pulling people into the exhibit.
A dynamic museum plan is mission-driven, specifying key take-home messages that are subtly conveyed through building architecture and exhibit design.
The visitor's overall experience from arrival to departure, "must-display" objects and images, appropriate media and audiovisual experiences, interpretive opportunities on the museum's exterior and grounds, and theming of lobby, retail, food service, and other public spaces — these are just a few examples of potential collaboration between architects and exhibit designers.
Alice Parman is senior exhibit planner and writer with Formations Inc., in Lake Oswego, Oregon. To explore these ideas further, contact Craig Kerger, principal of Formations Inc.