Will COVID-19 change the architecture of museums? – American Alliance of Museums


As they design the buildings for the museum of the future, architects and engineers wonder what lasting impacts the pandemic will have. Photo credit: Buro Happold

Here’s a happy thought: COVID-19 will – at some point – recede, and like pandemics of the past, that will be history, another story to be told. But once the disease is gone, will any of the effects persist, maybe even forever? People speculated so much, forecasting positive forecasts and negative effects on our economy, our public policies and our professional and social life.

In the museum realm, many questioned whether some of the programming and exhibition adaptations would be maintained, with more availability online and an increased emphasis on serving the local community. But what about the physical presences of the museums themselves: their buildings? Will they be redesigned and reoriented to follow suit?

To find out, we spoke with architects and engineers from two leading firms: Cooper Robertson, known for projects like the Whitney Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, and Buro Happold, a contributor to projects like the Academy. Museum of Motion Pictures and the Louvre. Abu Dhabi. Here’s what they had to say about pandemic planning.

Beyond measures to create a safe environment for visitors and staff after the reopening, institutions all assess the status quo and look for opportunities in times of crisis.

Financial challenges are prompting reconsideration of planned expansions. In some cases, we are asked to look at incremental expansions that may better align with reduced funding projections. In other cases, there is a desire to wait and see the long-term impact of the virus before moving forward with future plans that may need to reflect new or changed strategic goals.

It is questioned whether attendance will continue to be an important indicator of museum growth, which has implications for space. Financial pressures are forcing museums to think about how to use their existing spaces more effectively and whether growth is necessarily the best way forward. Many of our recent museum planning projects have focused on existing spaces, finding ways to correct mistakes made in previous expansions. At the same time, the emphasis on online content has enabled museums to reach increasingly larger audiences than is generally possible in their physical space. Online engagement is expected to encourage, among other benefits, more and more diverse in-person visits over the long term.

Working from home has clear benefits for the environment and working life. More flexible working arrangements are likely to stay here and should reduce the need for offices and workspaces for on-site staff. Some of these existing spaces could be reallocated, while the need for space for expanded staff could decrease.

There is greater interest in strengthening ties to the outdoors with spaces for art exhibitions, programs and meals. This is linked to a wider trend to focus on spaces that promote a sense of health and well-being.

A building whose facade extends into an exterior pavilion
Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut. Photo credit: Buro Happold

There are concerns about how gathering spaces – classrooms, theaters and event spaces – may continue to provide important sources of revenue for museums as social distancing remains necessary. Museums have sought new sponsorship that can support the use of gathering spaces for temporary artist programs or for performances without an audience or with a socially distant audience that are broadcast online, although the potential to generate income. for these activities seem limited. Spaces with the inherent flexibility to move from a conference or event room to art spaces or other uses may respond better in the future, including unexpected changes such as those imposed by COVID- 19.

In addition to their responses to COVID-19, social justice movements have forced museums to prioritize how they can better reflect and engage with their communities. These actions could modify the balance of space needs. Although already a feature of many recent museum expansions, physical spaces will emphasize a greater sense of welcome and community, which can be expressed by emphasizing flexible public spaces, transparency between interior and exterior and the principles of universal design.

A lobby with a round design and floor-to-ceiling glass walls
The Gateway Arch Museum in Saint-Louis. Photo credit: Nic Lehoux

We have seen many and varied ideas for reopening museums, including some from cultural and entertainment venues like the Barbican Center in London. These ideas offer potential avenues for museums that go beyond the current baseline, which typically involves following state ordinances and guidelines and can lead to very generic solutions: reduced occupancy, for example. example, with a timed ticket office, timed outings and contactless tours throughout. These offer some level of short-term risk reduction, but they are figuratively and literally sanitized, creating a much more sterile cultural experience. Additionally, most museums do not offer food and in many cases no toilets or trash cans, and no group tours, which also highlights the existential challenges resulting from a purely out-of-the-way approach. short term: cafes and gift shops are vital sources of income for a large number of institutions, for example. How many can survive without these spaces?

At Buro Happold, our perspective is to work with museums to explore beyond that. We ask, “How can we provide additional and different means to help institutions reopen, and not just follow prescriptive guidelines?” Indeed, for many museums (some of them are our clients), operating at lower normative occupancy rates, such as 25%, means an operational loss.

We don’t have all the answers, but we do have some analytics tools that can help address some of these challenges and increase visitor engagement. Instead of facing the prospect of reduced operational revenues, for example, we first help our clients by performing computer simulations of people movement analysis, which allows museum operators to see their specific spaces being used. . In some cases, these data-driven simulations show how spaces can allow entry to more people than the mandatory occupancy rates suggest, due to the spatial situations presented by the campus or building program. The results of the analysis could also provide additional scenarios, testing the benefits of changing the spatial organization of a facility. For example, the scenario study may consider adding more entrances or exits and may consider how staff will travel or assist visitors. At the same time, we have shown how museums can improve air quality through better HVAC and filtering systems and more outdoor air supply.

A floor plan of the building with points and trend lines showing the flow of visitors and where they are most concentrated
Screenshot of an analysis of the movement of people carried out on a museum building. Credit: Buro Happold

Armed with this data, we then study the bottlenecks, bottlenecks, and pinch points that museums share, such as entrances, queue areas, and exhibition access area. We are developing unique strategies for toilets, for example, to enable their use. For catering and cafes, we’re looking at ways all food can be eaten outdoors, which works for museums with the right environmental conditions. Likewise, these cultural places may have opportunities for temporary outdoor exhibitions, if their works of art and exhibitions can be properly protected. These temporary changes have other advantages, for example by offering patrons a change of pace from the usual museum experience.

We have found that museum directors and staff are interested in pushing the boundaries in this way, although of course they also face significant financial hurdles and staff issues during the COVID-recovery period. 19. Yet the cultural leaders who think most strategically about how to reopen have found unique ways to increase their income.

Dealing with the current situation is very difficult, so a well-thought-out strategic approach is vital now, especially as institutions are facing layoffs – in some cases 30-40% of their employees. The loss of tourism is a factor that reduces the number of visitors; the loss of business travel, which was hit the hardest, also plays a role, as business tourism also drives many museum visits. We are beginning to see a consolidation and, in some extreme cases, the closure of smaller museums that play a vital role in serving communities, cities and urban neighborhoods that need it most.

But the challenges could also inspire other solutions resulting from collaboration between large and small institutions to make art more accessible and fair. One example is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) collaboration with Charles White Elementary School, a gallery that brings art to a wider range of underserved communities in LA County. Could this decentralized approach support more communities interested in high quality shared cultural experiences? In today’s lifestyle of staying at home, people survive with the sufficiency of digital cultural experiences, but in public they can share the luxury of the same.

In any case, until 2020 and until 2021, we will continue to be involved in this learning process alongside cultural leaders. We will see variations from where we are today, but with space changes and careful planning, institutions can begin to reopen, which is the most essential first step.

The museum experience will be different from the pre-COVID era, and we will have to adapt. Finding ways to allow the public to interact with these spaces and their exhibits is crucial for survival, and using all the tools at our disposal will be essential. Cultural leaders are creative people, so we believe that by working together we will find innovative ways forward.

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