February 9, 2011

A Museum for the Un-museumed?

What would a museum be like that was designed from the ground up as a place for people who are not used to going to museums?
     It might look a lot like the church near Kansas City whose mission is to be "a church for the unchurched."
     The Heartland Community Church goes out of its way to eliminate the barriers that prevent people from going to church. Thinking about their site and building are central components of their approach. How is Heartland different from other churches?
  • Located in a former furniture superstore in the middle of one of Kansas City's "busiest retail centers" (their words), just off the highway and visible from 100,000 cars passing each day on I-35.
  • Surrounded by 1,100 parking spaces.
  • No mention of "church" in any of the signage.  What signs there are, simply say "Heartland."
  • A facade that is warm and welcoming–wood, trees, and lots of glass, ensuring transparency.
  • No religious iconography on the facade. No Christ on the cross, and, in fact, no crosses anywhere, inside or out.
  • A "welcome" booth near the entry staffed by volunteers.
  • A natural-light filled lobby that is designed to be 1.5 times as big as the room where the services take place so that people have a chance to socialize after the service. The building is 1110,000 square feet. The lobby is at least 20% of that and has multiple groupings of leather couches to further encourage people to linger.
  • A bookstore/gift shop and a small cafe with coffee service that also encourage lingering.
  • Large, clear signs identifying spaces, including the "auditorium," which is where services take place.
  • Inviting areas for kids that feel more like a play ground than Sunday School.
Much of this will sound familiar to museum-goers.  If they had areas called "Exhibits" or "Collections,"  I might have thought I was in a museum.
     The no-barriers approach continues with their customer service.  No one is ever asked for a donation during services.  You can wear what you want, come and go as you please, and are greeted with a smile wherever you are.  Despite the lack of  church-y visual messages, the service itself was what you might expect from a "good news" Christian denomination.
     Even for an unrepentant Yankee atheist, this felt like a very comfortable place to be.
     What can museums learn from this? Perhaps what it means to have an unrelenting focus on making the visitor feel welcome and a part of the community. To me, the most surprising thing is the huge lobby–doesn't church take place in the pews? It must cost a fortune to heat and cool that space. But the social part of church is clearly as important to Heartland as the spiritual part.  The church is meant to be a community center and the lobby gives them a kind of town square that is missing in many newer communities.
     Heartland worked with the Kansas City firm 360 Architecture who did a wonderful job on what must have been a tight budget (their portfolio has some lovely pictures).  The church clearly brought a very strong program to the design process.  The have some notes about the process on their web site.

The lobby with cafe tables to the right and auditorium behind the light well.

The bookstore
Sunday School entrance
Youth room

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