Museum Architecture

Marabou wonders, how does architecture affect the way we learn, act, and feel in a museum?

For the next few posts, Marabou will share their way of thinking when visiting a museum. Marabou likes to consider the many elements that compose a museum experience, both inside and outside the institution. With this approach, the forces that influence the way we act in a museum, the way we learn, the way we relate to museum collections and content, all become clearer. Often walking into a museum, visitors are curious about what can be learned from the objects, but we must remember that someone is interpreting the spaces and objects we interact with, and someone controls the content being shared with us.

One of the first ways we physically experience a museum is through its architecture. If you were told to think of a museum building, what would you picture in your mind’s eye? A Greek temple-like structure or historical house or modernist glass box? Is it big and sprawling or small and intimate? Obviously we’ll each have our own mental image of what a “museum” looks like, and we’ll all have different feelings associated with the idea of a museum. Architecture is one factor that will influence your personal relationship with museum institutions – if you feel welcome or excluded, comfortable or anxious.

Marabou Met Museum Staircase
On the grand staircase of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Many traditional museums are intentionally built to emulate ancient Greek temples, places of power imparting knowledge and culture. By 1902, the Met completed its Beaux-Arts temple-like exterior designed by Richard Morris Hunt. A broad stairway leads up to large doors flanked by tall paired columns. Moving through these doors reveals a high-ceilinged, cavernous atrium. This architectural scale and grandeur can make any visitor feel tiny, perhaps even insignificant, in comparison to the great institution they just entered.

Marabou climbs The Met’s steps often and thinks of the effort, desire, and intent needed to enter the museum.  Museum visitors follow the same practice of ancient believers paying homage to a Greek or Roman goddess: making the effort and having the intent to make the pilgrimage to the temple (no matter how long or short) and humbling oneself before a greater, more knowledgeable power. Marabou doubts that museum visitors consciously consider themselves humbly making a pilgrimage. However, architecture is psychological, influencing us unconsciously, as much as it is physical. The actions required for navigating the space as well as scale and material will dictate how we regard the institution and objects housed in a museum structure.

Met Museum Greek Roman Arched Ceiling
Looking up in The Met’s Greek and Roman Wing.

When walking through larger museums like the Met, Marabou notices the heights of ceilings, amount and sources of light, flooring, and display approaches among different galleries. Marabou has taken in the soaring arched and coffered ceilings of the Met’s Greek and Roman Wing and walked through the more intimate galleries in the Hall of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Amount of natural light in a space may depend upon the conservation concerns about the objects. But what about the environment built around the objects? As you walk through gallery spaces, how do the most basic architectural elements, ceiling (height), walls (colors, material), floors (material, texture) make you feel about the objects in the space? Do you rush through some galleries and stay longer in others simply because of how the physical space feels? Marabou wonders if visitors also rush though less spacious and airy galleries because they may not think of the objects in the space as valuable as those in bright, welcoming areas. Whether in retail store design or graphic design, space and light translate in our minds as luxury and value (ex. Chanel stores and adverts for luxury jewelry). In contrast, clutter and lack of breathing room translate in our minds as cheap and not as valuable (ex. Forever 21 stores and supermarket sale circulars). If we are conditioned to think in this manner when it comes to consumption in our daily lives, why wouldn’t we apply this when we are visually consuming objects and information in museums? Marabou likes to see which objects are displayed in galleries that are darker and confined versus galleries that provide the objects and visitors with air and space. Often times the type of space objects are displayed in reveal how the museum values those specific objects.

African Art Power Figures Met Museum
Power Figures on display in one of the Africa Galleries in The Met’s Hall of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.

The next time you’re in a museum or gallery, join Marabou in experiencing how the architecture and space make you feel. Overwhelmed? Welcome? Big? Small? Brilliant? Stupid? Powerful? Insignificant? Present? Left Out? Seen? Invisible? Whatever you feel, it is important to acknowledge it. Don’t ignore it, don’t try to feel differently. Being in touch with your reactions in a museum space are necessary to better understand how we see museums and how we see ourselves.