March 31, 2011

Just more of the same?

Nicolai Ouroussoff has an interesting take on the de-personalization of three major museums in his NY Times article Eccentricity Gives Way to Uniformity in Museums.  He sees the Getty Villa, the Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the Barnes as all being renovated in ways that in theory preserve their spirit, but in practice turn them into places much like every other modern museum.

He has a point.

These older museums with their cramped entry foyers and expansive galleries no longer fit the mold of contemporary museum experiences, where stores, cafes, and other amenities stand guard over the exhibits. And the lobby has become the biggest and, seemingly, the most important space. Unlike the galleries, the lobby can be used for the special events that raise the profile of the museum in communities that provide financial support. The exhibits aren't neglected, but they are not the foreground anymore.

The annul gala in the Hall of Ocean Life
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Smithsonian's American Art Museum are but two recent examples. In museums that cannot create big new lobbies, the special event spaces find their way to other parts of the museum.  The American Museum of Natural History's recently renovated Hall of Ocean Life seems to have been more about creating a huge party venue than it was about refreshing the exhibits and visitor experience. (Photo from the New York Social Diary.)

Who is to blame?  Ouroussoff blames museum boards and the "spirit of our time." I think that architects and museum planners (self included) are equally to blame. Old line museums that depended on their endowments are increasingly being forced to find ways to increase both donations and earned revenue. If museums are beginning to look like very upscale shopping malls, it is because the architectural models we have for earned revenue are retail models.

There is also an awful lot of group think going on–"If they have it, then we must need it, too"–that leads to architectural programs that include every possible element.  Architects and museum planners should give more thought to the unique personality of the museum, the kind of visitor experience that captures that personality, and the ways the building might work to make the museum experience distinctive and memorable, as well as profitable.

March 17, 2011

Get your kings and queens at the table!

An excellent interview with Nancy Burd in the Philadelphia Enquirer on borrowing money for museum capital projects. She talks about the Please Touch Museum's $30 million debt due to their recent move into a much larger new building.
There were some obvious red flags. For example, a facility project at Memorial Hall that was massively larger than their former facility on 21st Street, requiring them to achieve transformational growth; taking on a debt level that was more than one-third of their projected annual operating budget; enormous fixed costs requiring far more working capital and operating reserves (in other words, cash).  
Burd notes that debt is never a good idea and that museums should either raise the money they need to build the building "or be confident that increased revenues will cover annual operating costs" including debt service.

To me, any museum that is confident that it will increase its revenues sufficiently to cover debt services is misguided. Too many museums have found themselves in just the situation the Please Touch Museum is in.  There are far too many variables in museum projects to make operating projections any more than educated guesses. The only sure-fire way  to ensure debt service is manageable is not to have any debt by raising all of the funds needed for the project from its supporters.
The point is that an organization that wants to build a palace had better have its kings and queens at the table from the start.
Update: Another museum in trouble because of optimistic projections: the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.  800,000 people projected in the first year. 200,000 showed up. The NY Times has the scoop.  New sports museums and halls of fame seem to often have misplaced projections. Millions of people are sports fans; a very small percentage of them seem to go to sports museums. 

NY Times Special Section on Museums

The NY Times' special museums section is online. As usual, the focus is primarily on art museums, but it also has a sub-section on Social Media, Internet, Technology and Museums. Worth a look.

March 1, 2011

Museums as "Public Rooms"

Witold Rybczynski has a short piece on Public Rooms which is worth quoting in its entirity:
Philip Johnson once called museums the modern age’s cathedrals, and museum’s are sometimes thought of as the architect’s commission of choice. But a museum is basically a series of display rooms whose architecture is—or should be—subservient to its contents. The reason that places of worship were traditionally the acme of the architect’s art, is that they are (very large) public rooms whose design is usually required to celebrate and elevate their religious function. Theaters, like concert halls and opera houses, are likewise more challenging than museums. Unlike museums, which are places for private contemplation, these are places for a shared experience. They are also buildings in which the architect can ply his art. Once the curtain goes up, the hall belongs to the performers, but before then the architect is free to pull out all the stops.
Too many museum have been the victims of architectural hubris.  I completely agree that large performance spaces are a perfect place for architects to ply their art.

However, the public areas of museums are also ripe for architectural exuberance. The lobbies of museums are growing ever larger as they begin to embrace their role as community centers as well as places for "quiet contemplation" (and as museums realize the economic potential of such spaces). The public space can be a "pull out all the stops" kind of space that Rybczynski describes, but the exhibit areas need to be contemplative and/or functional  depending on their content.

This is a distinction that I.M. Pei got right years ago at the East Wing of the National Gallery and that Daniel Libeskind didn't understand at the Denver Museum of Art. Mediating the interface between the public space and the museum space is an additional challenge, which Foster + Partners got right at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts' new wing. The lobby and gallery spaces are visually connected, which helps keep visitors oriented, but are separated by multiple walls of glass, which acoustically and visually isolates them from each other. The atrium at the MFA is not the East Wing, but it does serve as a very effective model for the functional program for other museums.