Museums Evolve To Remain Relevant

Despite social and cultural changes, exhibits continue to attract crowds.

At the recently completed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, great effort was made to soften the barrier between the museum and its surrounding public streetscape and allow the public arena to extend as deeply into the ground floor as possible. Photo: Ed Lederman, courtesy Cooper Robertson

By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor

Are old-fashioned brick-and-mortar museums still relevant in the digital age? Has their role changed? Are museums taking steps to adapt to social and cultural changes? For many museums, the answers are an emphatic “yes.”

“We believe that museums in a physical capacity will always be relevant, although we’ve witnessed their roles significantly transform over the past few decades,” said Andrew Barwick, RA, Senior Associate, Cooper Robertson, New York (cooperrobertson.com).

“It is becoming increasingly critical that museums begin to open up and establish integral relationships with their surrounding communities, rather than operating as cloistered vessels of culture. We often see this manifested as a spatial and programmatic blending between the museum and its surrounding public streetscape. At the recently completed Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, great effort was made to soften this barrier and allow the public arena to penetrate as deeply into the ground floor as possible. Combined with other flexible plan endeavors, this allows the museum to support a myriad of potential public programming and activities, anchoring it within its surrounding neighborhood of the Meatpacking District,” he said.

Creating flexible spaces to better engage museum visitors is one of the changes being seen at museums around the country. “With recent museum clients, we are more frequently pursuing flexible spaces and features which support a range of changing educational and social programs and activities. There is also an increasing need for museums to more directly engage with their audiences, which must be supported from both a technological and programming standpoint. This can take the form of interactive electronic media and experiences, as well as spaces which can directly support curricula,” Barwick said.

“In our recent work on the Gateway Arch Museum project in St. Louis, these features are embedded into the design by way of a large map of the United States cast into the terrazzo floor of one of the exhibit spaces,” he explained. “This map serves as a teaching tool by interpretive park rangers as they explain the history of westward expansion to museum visitors and school groups. After experiencing the map, museum visitors proceed through a space populated by large digital-projection screens which portray realistic scenes of westward expansion at life-size scale. In this way, visitors literally inhabit and experience first-hand the history which they learned about via the map, earlier.”

Historically avoided, daylighting is increasingly being introduced to some museums and galleries, as was the case in Cooper Robertson’s work at the new Whitney Museum. Photo: Courtesy Cooper Robertson

Such continuous transformation and re-invention is essential to the continued viability of museums, according to Barwick, “Regardless of size, contemporary museums have demonstrated a need to continuously transform themselves in order to remain relevant in addressing current issues in whichever cultural arena they are invested in. In smaller museums, there is often greater pressure for flexibility, as spaces must pull double- or triple-duty in terms of programmatic flexibility. This in turn requires that museums be designed with an infrastructure which anticipates future change with regards to layout, lighting, auditory and visual schemes,” he said.

“The Gateway Arch Museum,” he continued, “features a continuous custom-illuminated ceiling system within a large atrium space. The LED lighting within this ceiling is tunable at each bay to allow a nearly infinite array of lighting conditions, which in turn support different types of activities. The floor map actually exists below this ceiling system and is planned to support activities such as catered events, lectures, etc., in addition to educational programming.”

Another change in museums and galleries is a re-evaluation of daylighting, as was the case in Cooper Robertson’s work at the new Whitney Museum.

Historical gallery design minimized daylight, maximized wall surface, and subsequently turned museums and visitor experience inward. When architects did introduce daylight into galleries, it came heavily filtered through skylights or clerestories, according to a white paper by the architectural firm.

Daylighting reduces the need for artificial illumination, allows works to be shown in the full light spectrum for which they were conceived, and accentuates the three-dimensionality of sculpture. Technology and careful analysis enables this new perspective while still preserving safe light levels and environmental conditions for the art. Use of glazing on all of the façades, and not just those facing north, demonstrates the design possibilities catalyzed by technological invention, the paper explains.

The Whitney features glazed surfaces on each side of the façade. To enable the incorporation of this level of glazing, the team employed insulated glass units with warm-edge spacers and clear, low-iron glass with neutral coatings with minimal reflectivity and extortion. A color-neutral PVB UV filtration inter-layer is sandwiched between the glass layers, filtering out in excess of 99% of harmful UV radiation. These measures protect the artwork from damage, provide enough protection on their own except from direct sun, and increase the building’s energy efficiency.

Interior shades throughout the building allow further modulation of daylight during bright times of day. These shades are deployed from the ceiling, covering the windows and doors. Roof-mounted sensors track the sun directly overhead as well as in four compass directions as it moves around the building. In bright sunlight, the shades are released, and on cloudy days or in the evenings, the shades are programmed to let in as much daylight as possible, according to Cooper Robertson.

There are approximately 850-million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined, according to an estimate by the American Alliance of Museums. Clearly, museums will change and adapt with the times, but they won’t be going away any time soon.

MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, resembles a sandcastle with a playful tower at the corner and a wavy roofline. Photo: Patrick Price, courtesy AB Design Studio

Whimsical Museum Focuses On The Interactive

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, Santa Barbara, CA (moxi.org), promotes the spirit of discovery and creativity within a whimsical, yet rigorously designed building near Santa Barbara’s train station and waterfront.

From the exterior, the museum resembles a sandcastle with a playful tower at the corner and a wavy roofline. The initial sandcastle design was by the late architect Barry Berkus, AIA, and served as the basis of the architecture developed by AB Design Studio, Santa Barbara (abdesignstudioinc.com). Deep archways and window openings give the appearance of thick adobe walls. The architecture pays homage to its setting in the city’s El Pueblo Viejo historic district, where the buildings are largely influenced by the white-washed cities of Andalusia in southern Spain. Beyond the arched entranceway, light-filled, open galleries serve as neutral backdrops to kinetic, interactive exhibitions for learning about science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM education) on two adaptable floors and a rooftop sky garden. The outdoor terrace, with access to a lookout at the top of the tower, offers panoramic views of the ocean, city, and mountains.

The sandcastle look of the building had been set years ago for this project, which was conceived in 1990 as a children’s museum. AB Design Studio was challenged to develop a robust structural system for supporting the curved, plastered walls and bringing the playful architecture to life, as well as adapting it to meet sustainability standards. The museum’s shifted focus to science, innovation, and exploration led the architects to a fresh approach on the inside, with clean-lined, gallery-style spaces for the exhibitions, classrooms, theaters for museum programs, and offices for staff.

Beams were left exposed in some areas of MOXI to evidence the museum’s emphasis on technology, but countering this rational structure is the sweeping, curvaceous staircase within the tower, designed to evoke sand swirling into the building from the nearby beach. Photo: Gani Pinero, courtesy AB Design Studio

MOXI is located alongside railroad tracks near the city’s Historic Train Station, at State Street. The museum’s footprint is configured to accommodate an historic signalman’s building next to the tracks that was built as part of the original train-terminal complex. Next door, to the south, is a 1920s whistle-stop hotel renovated by AB Design Studio into the boutique Hotel Indigo, which opened in 2012. The architects designed a passageway between the hotel and the museum to connect the two buildings and allow school groups to queue before entering MOXI.

Massive steelwork was required to frame the building, and ceiling trusses and beams were left exposed in some areas to evidence the museum’s emphasis on technology. LED lighting in coves between the walls and ceilings accents the strong lines of the interior architecture.

Countering this rational structure is the sweeping, curvaceous staircase within the tower. This dramatic element connects the first and second floors, and is designed to evoke sand swirling into the building from the nearby beach. To create the sculptural stairway, the architects used 3D computer modeling to plot the bending shapes; steel-supported sections were fabricated in a warehouse and assembled on site. The stair railing and balustrades are crafted from hand-forged ironwork.

Each floor is designed to be free of structural columns in order to provide a lofty, open area for the interactive exhibitions, which are grouped according to different subjects, ranging from sound and light to speed and media arts. The ground level includes a theater, classroom, gift shop, and outdoor courtyard, located at the periphery of the displays.

MOXI’s light-filled, open galleries serve as neutral backdrops to kinetic, interactive exhibitions for learning about science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM education) on two adaptable floors and a rooftop sky garden. Photo: Jason Rick, courtesy AB Design Studio

MOXI is the first LEED Gold-certified museum in Santa Barbara County. The concept of reduce, recycle, and reuse is applied to every part of the building. Green practices are visibly manifested through landscaped concrete planters extending outside the second floor and rooftop terrace, a cistern for collecting rainwater next to the tower, and energy-efficient, structural glass in window and door openings.

Transportation alternatives to the car are promoted by the museum’s proximity to the city’s train station and other destinations within walking distance, along with bike parking stations. State-of-the-art building systems ensure indoor air is the highest quality. Strategically placed, generous windows and a glass floor on the rooftop provide access to daylight and views. A recessed walk-off mat inside the main entrance collects dust and dirt from visitors’ shoes before they enter the museum spaces.

Already documented are some of the museum’s environmental benefits: a 24% improvement of energy savings compared to conventional standards, and a 42% water reduction through highly efficient indoor plumbing fixtures. Nearly 30% of materials are composed of recycled content, including carpet tiles made of fishing nets.

A primary goal of the Gateway Arch Museum renovation was to create closer and more robust connections between the landscape of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the city of St. Louis as a whole. Illustration: James Carpenter Design Associates.

A St. Louis Icon Re-Imagined

Cooper Robertson, New York (cooperrobertson.com) and James Carpenter Design Associates (JCDA), New York (jcdainc.com) have designed an expanded Gateway Arch Museum, St. Louis, with a dramatic entrance and plaza in the historic landscape by the renowned landscape architect Dan Kiley. With new public spaces, the great entry hall leads to re-imagined exhibitions and the fully renovated original Eero Saarinen building beneath the famed Arch. The exhibitions are designed by Haley Sharpe Design of London and Toronto (haleysharpe.com), and the St. Louis-based associate architect, Trivers Associates (trivers.com) rounds out the design team.

Cooper Robertson and James Carpenter Design Associates were part of a team led by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA), Brooklyn, NY (mvvainc.com), that won the closely watched international competition, “Framing a Modern Masterpiece: The City + The Arch + The River 2015” organized by the nonprofit Gateway Arch Park Foundation (archpark.org).

According to the Gateway Arch Park Foundation, the nonprofit group behind the effort, a primary goal of the long-term, multi-million-dollar project was to create closer and more robust connections between the Gateway Arch Museum and the landscape of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the city of St. Louis as a whole. Nearly 45,000 sq. ft. of new museum area was added and more than 100,000 sq. ft. of existing space was reconfigured into new exhibition galleries, public education facilities, and visitor amenities.

According to the architecture and design team, the new Gateway Arch Museum is extended west towards downtown with a new entrance and plaza connecting to the redesigned and expanded Luther Ely Smith Square, now spanning over a depressed interstate highway. The design for the expansion and renovation of the museum strengthens the physical connections between the city and the arch by means of a dynamic linear plan with amenities at the entry level, followed by a narrative exhibition by Haley Sharpe that leads to the arch itself.

The museum Gateway Arch Museum design is fully integrated into the National Register-listed landscape. The new entrance is precisely inserted into the topography, allowing visitors to enter the building through the landscape rather than descending underground. Illustration: James Carpenter Design Associates

With the new entry plaza and landscape designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the museum’s public spaces and surroundings are fully integrated into the overall plan for the Dan Kiley-designed 91-acre park conceived and executed between 1948 and 1965. The new museum’s memorable spaces by Cooper Robertson and JCDA at the landmark Saarinen arch, elevate the cultural complex to become a more cohesive and engaging international destination. The museum and park now connect directly to the 1862 Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, while also engaging with and reinforcing the presence of the arch.

“The museum design is fully integrated into the National Register-listed landscape,” said Cooper Robertson’s Scott Newman, FAIA. “The new entrance is precisely inserted into the topography, allowing visitors to enter the building through the landscape rather than descending underground. As one enters, a luminous great hall is revealed with views deep into the museum’s monumentally scaled exhibits below, elevating and enlivening the visitor experience, while respecting Dan Kiley’s original park design.”

JCDA’s founder and principal James Carpenter described the new museum experience: “The new entry is announced by an arc of glass laid flat on the ground, reflecting the image of the sky above, while the arch itself scribes an arc against the sky beyond. This welcoming gesture leads visitors down into the spaciousness of the new museum expansion, embedded within the landscape.”

The design creates a coherent and memorable visit by integrating the museum content with the arch, said the architect Newman. “A linear exhibition offers various ways to navigate multiple stories on single and successive visits, merges seamlessly with the trip up the arch, and then delivers the visitor to its base to experience the great work itself,” he explained.

“As a work of great monumental public art, Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch is imbued with meaning, technological achievement, and beauty that must be compared with the most important American icons, like the Statue of Liberty. However, the setting of the arch had diminished its potential to inspire ideas and emotions. The design of the new museum and surrounding landscape has more fully realized that potential through an ambitious but respectful intervention that interprets the spirit of the arch and amplifies its relevance to our time,” said Scott Newman.

“Since the inception of the Gateway Park, originally proposed in the early 1930s but not executed until the 1960s, the critical interconnectivity of the city to the Gateway Park and to the Mississippi River embankment has been missing,” said JCDA’s James Carpenter. “This has primarily been due to the divisive presence of a six-lane-wide highway trench cut into the landscape. A significant piece of MVVA’s new work has created a landscaped park over the highway that now links a sequence of parks into a unified thread of green space connecting from west to east — from Washington Square Park, Poelker Park, Serra Sculpture Park, Citygarden, Kiener Plaza, the now restored Old Courthouse, Luther Ely Smith Park, and to the now accessible Gateway Park and the banks of the Mississippi. Following this sequence of parks, when arriving at the Gateway Park, one now has the direct connection and visibility between the Old Courthouse, the new west entry, and the Arch as a seamless pedestrian experience.

“The semicircular, glass-enclosed entry volume mediates ones passage into the museum lobby, modulating the brightness from outside to inside. As visitors transition into the below-ground entry foyer, the curved profile of the ceiling becomes immediately apparent, mirroring the presence of the landscape above while leading the eye down to the point of transition into the original building. The ceiling’s distinctive undulating field of light heightens the awareness of this luminous volume as a powerful reflection of the arch grounds and sky above,” he said.

“This clarity of circulation is always maintained through the new entrance and lobby. At the moment of entry, you see down to the intermediate level mezzanine, an educational interpretive space, enlivened by a large scale floor map of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, illustrating the routes taken both by Lewis and Clarke as well as the tens of thousands of pioneers moving by wagons further to the west. Looking further down into the new expansion, one sees the beginning of the new exhibitions leading into the restored Saarinen Museum and the lifts that will take you to the top of the arch. The main escalator circulation is ‘carved’ into both side walls of the new west entry and they are flanked by open stairs which connect to the mezzanine and lower level. Beneath the mezzanine is an open glass education space for school groups or special functions,” Carpenter continued.

“From the exterior, the main axis of the entry is emphasized with both cantilevered and clear-span open-roof structures, which allow views down into the museum while behind, the Old Courthouse, establishing an intimate visual link between the two landmarks. This notion of the open central axis is essentially what the Arch itself presents: that all circulation symmetrically moves one towards or away from the implied ‘center,’ whether one is moving through the landscape, the new entrance, the museum entrance hall, or exiting from the base of either leg of the Arch. One meanders upon sinuous paths through the site, capturing changing views of the landscape above as well as enriching ones sense of the interior spaces and exhibitions below,” he said.

“The new entry, museum entrance hall, and the transformed original museum are defined by a deep vocabulary of luminous materials and light. The museum’s new sense of spaciousness and generosity directly responds to and references the revitalized landscape of the arch grounds and its new engagement with the city, river, and region, establishing a new place that engages hope for a positive and sustainable future,” Carpenter concluded.

The new Florence County Museum presents art, science, and history in a blended narrative targeting a regional audience. A driving force in its conception and development was to better serve the area’s school children, who had no opportunities to experience art and material culture first-hand. Photo: Courtesy Cooper Robertson

Connecting To Other Cultures, Times, And Places

The new Florence County Museum, Florence, SC, presents art, science, and history in a blended narrative targeting a regional audience. A driving force in its conception and development was to better serve the area’s school children, who had no opportunities to experience art and material culture first-hand. A museum visit offers their first and perhaps only connection to other cultures, times, and places. Cooper Robertson’s (New York, cooperrobertson.com) design met the challenge to create an elevating and transporting experience for the school children while attracting a broader audience to an inviting center of culture, learning, and keeper of the region’s patrimony.

In addition to achieving its educational mission, the project has served as an important catalyst for the ongoing economic revitalization of downtown Florence, a historic center for this region of approximately 200,000 in north-central South Carolina. The city leaders have been involved in a decade-long effort to revive a downtown area that had lost its relevance as the majority of its retail stores and restaurants closed, while national chains in shopping centers proliferated closer to the interstate highways several miles away.

Located on the corner of Cheves and Dargan Streets, the museum completes a cultural district in downtown Florence that includes a new library, theater, and a performing arts center. The museum, on the southern edge of Florence’s historic commercial core, creates a physical link between these new cultural landmarks to the south and the downtown area’s historic commercial storefronts to the north.

The 28,900-sq.-ft., U-shaped building surrounds a landscaped courtyard with two linear wings accessed by a dramatic double-height lobby. The façade, composed of tan and rose colored brick, cream-colored precast concrete, and zinc-clad light monitors, projects the museum’s role as a center of culture and learning. The materials integrate both the character of the lighter colored stone buildings in the cultural district and the predominately red brick facades of the downtown commercial buildings.

In addition to an education wing that houses programs for both school groups and adults, there are spaces for collections processing and storage, and staff offices. The new building has more than three times the gallery space than the museum’s previous home. The large outdoor courtyard, landscaped with plants indigenous to the region, creates an additional gallery for learning, as well as a setting for special events.

Galleries at the Florence County Museum house a permanent exhibit that uses art, natural and historical artifacts to trace the region’s and city’s development from prehistory to the present. Controlled natural light illuminates the galleries. Photo: Courtesy Cooper Robertsonf

Galleries house a permanent exhibit that uses art, natural and historical artifacts to trace the region’s and city’s development from prehistory to the present. A special gallery with state-of-the-art climate control has changing exhibits from the museum’s collections and enables the display of loan shows from leading national museums. Controlled natural light illuminates the galleries. The inaugural show displayed the work of William H. Johnson, a Florence native, whose paintings were loaned from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The opening of the museum has increased the momentum of investment in the historic downtown—with a new hotel, restaurants, and retail stores contributing to the remarkable rebirth of a lively commercial, cultural, and entertainment center—proving that good design brings value and that culture and education can be effective economic drivers.


— American Alliance of Museums

— Association of Children’s Museums

— Center for the Future of Museums

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