Admission: Possible

Tourism is one of the industries still suffering from the economic downturn resulting from the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Museums, particularly, are feeling that trickle-down effect. In fact, a front-page article in the Art Newspaper this past January declared an end to the art museum building boom, citing a series of projects in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York and San Francisco t...

By Kathryn M. Rospond, Contributing Writer June 1, 2003

Tourism is one of the industries still suffering from the economic downturn resulting from the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Museums, particularly, are feeling that trickle-down effect. In fact, a front-page article in the Art Newspaper this past January declared an end to the art museum building boom, citing a series of projects in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York and San Francisco that have been canceled or postponed. More recently, one of New York’s cultural icons—the Metropolitan Museum of Art—reported that it might change its “pay-what-you-can” entry donation to a mandatory $12 entrance fee.

However, museums have seen their share of rough times before. And, while the present may require some belt-tightening, many museum directors and design personnel not only see the current situation as temporary, but also as an opportunity for change and growth that will make museums stronger and better situated for the future.

“This is absolutely temporary,” declares Mike Devine, director of exhibit design and development at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. “We’re in no dire straits. We had a very good year last year. It’s more about being smarter about what you do with the resources in your museum.”

“Prior to 9/11, there was a lot of money out there—and there still is,” adds Lea H. Cloud, a principal in the Manhattan-based firm CR Studio Architects PC, which designed the recently constructed Discovery Center at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. The firm is currently awaiting funds for a second expansion project: the People Center. “Donorship is still there, but the process is longer and harder,” Cloud says. “A lot of funds also are being redirected.”

Shawn McCoy, director of marketing, museum services, for Jack Rouse Assocs., Cincinnati, is charged by the challenge.

“It’s a great time to be in the industry because financial considerations are forcing everyone to be better at what they do,” he says. McCoy’s firm provides exhibit-design, master-planning and project-management services for a variety of venues. Prior to the downturn in the economy, he says, museums relied heavily on government and corporate endowments, but a lot of those have dried up. “Now, museums have to better appeal to visitors and make facilities more user friendly.”

A new outlook

One way museums are better positioning themselves for the current crisis, as well as the future, is by changing the way they see their facilities and how they’re used. In other words, today’s successful museums offer much more than just exhibit space.

For example, at the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (pictured below), designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, facilities include a 5,600-sq.-ft. education center with three classrooms for hands-on art activities and lectures; a 250-seat auditorium; and a 250-seat cafe with a full-service kitchen and outdoor dining terrace. All totaled, the museum encompasses 153,000 sq. ft. on 11 acres that were dedicated in June 2002 for the museum’s 110th anniversary. Since opening, the new facility has been a draw for corporate events as well as school children. “We were fortunate,” says Marla Price, director, “that only at the end of the project did the economic climate decline.”

For the much-anticipated People Center, flexibility of the main space to accommodate various culture-based programs is the critical component of design for American Museum of Natural History officials. Through a series of movable walls with layered acoustical paneling, the space can be changed to house four programs at the same time. CR Studio’s design team even introduced the museum to a new product—auditorium chairs on wheels. These chairs can be moved as a whole, making furniture a part of the solution.

“Flexibility was the paramount word for getting the museum people to think outside the box,” Cloud says.

A greater number of museums are also creating spaces to handle shorter-term and traveling exhibits that can be changed quickly for greater variety. These exhibits also cost less to maintain. The Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) at Union Terminal—a former train station now hosting a conglomeration of three local museums and an OMNIMAX theater—is one such organization having success building smaller versions of its larger-scale exhibits to complement its stable of traveling exhibits.

The latter exhibits come in a variety of sizes—generally from 2,000 sq. ft. to as large as 8,000 sq. ft.—to meet a broader range of museum customers. The way it works, according to Elisabeth Jones, CMC’s director of traveling exhibits, is that interested organizations enter into a contract, whereby the exhibit is usually rented for a period of three months. The cost includes insurance and pro-rated shipping. Each host facility also receives a complete turnkey operation including all marketing and educational materials to enhance their visitors’ experiences.

“Right from the beginning, we give them a standardized form that asks all the important questions: What are the heights and widths of doorways? What electrical capacity do they have?” says Jones.

Of course, one challenge with this format is that the exhibits going into spaces are not always meant to be museums. “We take that into account when we design them, such as fitting pieces through standard doorways,” Jones explains. “Usually, electrical capacity is nothing that has to be stepped up. And generally, we use standard light fixtures and lamps that can be purchased at local hardware stores if necessary. We’re only now getting into artifact-based exhibits where we have issues of light levels and climate control.”

Don’t be afraid of technology

Variety, of course, helps museums stay competitive with other entertainment options.

“Museums that continue to follow the traditional model—static exhibits that appeal more to curators and academics—will lose visitors,” says McCoy, whose firm designed the “Sue” tyrannosaurus rex exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum.

At the same time, McCoy notes that museums that go too far the other way—relying on too many bells and whistles—will also eventually lose visitors. “Mothers are the drivers of where to take the family today, and while they want their kids to have a good time, they also want them to walk away with some educational value,” says McCoy.

Computer-enhanced exhibits are one way to do both. For example, the Liberty Memorial Museum of World War I in Kansas City, Mo., features an interactive computer program that explains the facility’s various murals. In Baltimore, the Port Discovery children’s museum provides children with a paging device that leads them through interactive activities. The American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y., has gone one step further, implementing a prototype for an “e-Docent”—a handheld computer that allows visitors to “bookmark” areas of interest and obtain additional information at a later time through the museum’s web site or by e-mail.

The Internet in general is being used as a tool by a greater number of museums. In fact, two institutions—the Boston Museum of Science and the New York Hall of Science—have gone to the extent of creating an on-line virtual science center.

In Southern California, the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) is also taking video and Internet art to a higher level. As part of its 1999 renovation, the former Art Deco movie house created a state-of-the-art projection room and media lounge, which allows the museum to display video and computer art. The museum since has been wired with high-speed cable for Internet art. “Interactivity is becoming an art form in itself,” says Michael Rush, PBICA’s director. “Artists are creating work that is meant to be interactive. The same way that paint and marble are considered artistic materials, ‘interactivity’ is their material of choice today.”

Reaching out

Remote interaction is a great way of keeping people involved with an institution, but it still doesn’t beat human interaction. Unfortunately, with today’s economy, schools are feeling the crunch from government budget woes, meaning fewer field trips. This, however, is not stopping the staff of COSI, a science museum and center in Toledo, Ohio. “If schools aren’t going to come to the museum, then we’ll go to the school,” says Bill Booth, president and CEO of COSI’s Toledo facility. “My guess is that a lot of the expansion we’ll see over the next few years will not be in bricks and mortar but with programming and lifelong learning both inside the museum and outside.”

Reaching out to the local community is a major goal at COSI, which operates a sister facility in Columbus. It’s a strategy that appears to be working. While more well-known national museums have seen declines in attendance, Booth says local museums such as COSI are experiencing increases. He attributes part of this to the fact that people are staying closer to home, but also because the museum is providing programs that make visitors want to return—birthday party packages, overnight and week-long camp-ins and lots of special weekend events. The effort has contributed to more local funding.

The Sciencenter in Ithaca, N.Y., really believes in this approach. After renting space for its first 10 years, the museum decided to acquire some properties, including a former wastewater treatment plant. When it did so, however, the museum put an ad in the paper calling for people interested in creating a hands-on science museum to get together. Some 13 years and three construction phases later, the museum has involved thousands of local residents in creating its current space, which includes the workings of the facility’s HVAC, electrical and fire-safety systems as part of its exhibits. “We really took it to the extreme with 3,400 different individuals, hammer in hand, building this museum,” says Charlie Trautmann, the museum’s executive director and an adjunct professor of engineering at Cornell University. “They came from all walks of life—fraternity students, college professors—even people from California and Arizona who used to live here.”

For those on the design side who question the the future of the sector, Trautmann has this advice: “Museum projects take a long time to do properly. People who build museums are very passionate, and that passion doesn’t go away because the economy takes a downturn.”

Renovation and Construction Trends

The big dilemma facing museums undergoing renovation projects is whether to stay open. New York’s Museum of Modern Art solved this problem by moving. Temporarily relocating to a warehouse in Queens proved a terrific business move as the museum has drawn record numbers of viewers to new exhibits.

The M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, however, opted to close in 2000, largely to address seismic concerns; its new facility will open in 2005. Similarly, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., plans to close later this year until its new site is completed. To offset some of its losses, the de Young reduced and eliminated some of its operating costs. It is also keeping its name before the public by displaying some of its exhibits at other sites.

On the other side of the coin, some activity is facilitating the construction of new museums. For example, the Virginia State Legislature has approved the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002, which, among several benefits, allows the use of performance contracting and design-build for public projects rather than traditional sealed bids. Maryland is another state looking at the potential benefits to be gained from public-private partnerships.

Setting the Bar

Following is a list of the museums determined to be the most cutting-edge in terms of the manner in which they connect to the audience, relay information and display artifacts:

Experience Music Project (Seattle)

Exploratorium (San Francisco)

COSI (Toledo and Columbus, Ohio)

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

American Museum of Natural History (New York)

Guggenheim Bilbao (Spain)

The Field Museum (Chicago)

City Museum (St. Louis, Mo.)

Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.)

J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles)

The Tech Museum of Innovation (San Jose, Calif.)

Museum of Science (Boston)

Minnesota Children’s Museum (St. Paul, Minn.)

Chicago Children’s Museum

(Source: Interpretive and Structural Trends in the Museum Industry — study results of a survey conducted by Jack Rouse Associates in October 2002 of 95 museum industry professionals, including executive directors, exhibit directors, media producers, fabricators, feasibility consultants and educational consultants.)