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.

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