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Architecture and the future of museums

Societal and professional changes are occurring so rapidly these days, it’s a challenge to keep up with the plethora of blogs, magazines and other media regularly bombarding architects with perspectives on our future. Looking forward, my attention focuses on museums because of their distinct ability to engage the public in new and unique ways. Most are not limited to specific user groups, so the museum space encourages participation without exclusion.

In less than 40 years, the demographic landscape within the United States will undergo notable shifts in age, education, ethnicity, immigration status, health and so on. As architects, our design principles must incorporate an awareness of this new data and how it affects the built environment. As an example, statisticians inform that by 2050, increasing numbers of U.S. residents may be more obese and have disabilities or special learning issues. To create buildings that will accommodate such diverse needs, our discipline must integrate universal as well as general principles in design.

Change frequently is accompanied by opportunity, and all designers, whether graphic, industrial, exhibit or architectural, should take note of new paths being created via museum programming. As facilities around the country develop innovative methods of community outreach, so too must architects recognize the inherent power of design to provide new bridges of communication.

Although some museums currently offer English literacy through art, architects should facilitate positive interaction through the conscious design of classrooms, community spaces and other museum facilities.

In her article “A Troubled Legacy: Making and Unmaking Race in the Museum” , Tracy Teslow examines ways in which some museums have alienated visitors and explores steps that are being taken to overcome elitist or intimidating perceptions. Here, too, architects may play a major role in reshaping a museum's image by listening to programmatic needs and suggesting design features that foster greater opportunities for inclusion.

Social media and nonstop interactive interfaces significantly affect our lives and influence the museum experience as well. At Art Basel 2010 in Miami, a panelist in a seminar aptly named “Museums in the Digital Age” stated “It used to be that the IT [department] and the technology of an exhibit was an afterthought; now it needs to be right next to the director’s office as far as approach … Old paradigms for exhibitions have changed. We must figure out what presence we want to have online first and how we want to do it.”

So how can museum designs influence public preferences for interactive online activities? A clear vision in the museum planning process on the part of the client and design team will incorporate advanced mechanical, electrical and plumbing and interactive technologies considerations to address such expectations.

Because of planning cycles and funding constraints, the pace of museum expansion or renovation generally is slow. Today’s infant probably will be an adult before witnessing a new addition at his or her local museum. Although the patron’s experience may be fairly similar to that of 20 years ago, service differs vastly with respect to execution and outreach. Authenticity and reality are relative terms. For example, many may prefer the “authenticity” of objects, art and books. Forty years from now, children may not hold “real” books, yet the reading experience will be no less authentic.

Traditionally, interactivity has been more at home in institutions devoted to science than in those promoting art and history. Currently, museums that engage the public with iPod apps, tweets and foursquare check-ins also rely on social media to involve the community when planning content for future exhibitions. What results is a higher expectation from the public when venturing inside museum walls—an area that, in no small part, is our domain as design professionals.

As museums endeavor to remain true to their missions, they also are changing the way they view themselves. Statistics indicate that museum observers look at art and corresponding text less than a minute before moving on . If attention spans are so limited, how do we engage potential patrons to frequently visit and remain? One solution encourages museums to become “third places,” or venues for informal gathering and social engagement. Stopping by a museum after work to socialize or grab a drink may seem strange to some, yet many organizations, such as the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, Connecticut, are inviting patrons to do exactly that. Elizabeth E. Merritt states in her call to action in the report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums by Betty Farrell, PhD, and Maria Medvedeva: “We need museums to be places people want to hang out in, not just places they feel they ought to visit—places to check off on their life list, or destinations for the ritual pilgrimage with guests.” As needs arise for new and diverse public programming, steps must be taken to ensure that museums remain viable within patrons’ use network. Architects who desire a central role in shaping these developments will be expected to determine whether best usage will entail new spaces or better use of existing facilities.

Some may question the very need for such buildings at all if people are able to access collections and become part of an online community such as the Adobe Museum of Digital Media or, to the chagrin of architects, even consider a proposal for a virtual museum of architecture.

One thing is clear: we, as architects, must become proactive agents of social change, take the helm and join with clients as strong partners working to guide our communities. Anything less will relegate us to the sidelines.

Aisha Densmore-Bey Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C is the founder and chair of the Museum and Exhibit Design Committee for the Boston Society of Architects. She has led various panel discussions, including "Museums in the Digital Age" at Build Boston 2010. She also will lead a panel discussion regarding architects and museums at the 2011 AIA Convention in New Orleans.

Photograph by Kees van Mansom. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

1. Museum and Social Issues, Volume 2, Number 1 / Spring 2007, Left Coast Press, Inc.
3. "Imagining iMuseums",
5. featured in the January 2011 issue of Architect magazine