Category Archives: architecture

The Met’s Luce Center for the Study of American Art

On Monday the MuseumLab visited the Henry R. Luce Study Center for American Art at the Met. Curator Amelia Peck and Technologist Leela Outcalt gave us a tour of the existing facility, talked about its history and showed us a prototype of the new user interfaces that they are implementing.

The Luce Center was the first of many Luce Foundation funded study centers including the New York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and most recently the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in DC. The Met’s Luce Center was created in the late 1980’s when American became an official department  after consolidating collections that were previously scattered across multiple departments. The Luce  Center was revolutionary for its high-density open storage approach and use of digital object records that could be accessed by visitors. There are now over 18,000 objects of decorative arts, art and design in the American Department and these are distributed in a variety of gallery types including art galleries, period rooms, the study center, a recently renovated courtyard and some back of house storage. Adding loaned objects they are currently holding over 21,000 objects. The basic idea behind the study center was to democratize access to the collection, not just for scholars, but for the visiting public. There is a great article in Museum News (July 1991) by Carrie Rebora chronicles the early years of the project and how it came about so I wont dwell on the history here (I will digress with one footnote–the entire collections database and user interface ran on two 330 MB drives with 4 MB of RAM!).

Amelia and Leela gave us their assessment of what works and what doesn’t and a peek at some new interfaces the are developing with Small Design Firm. Their plans include a much larger number of interactive study stations each with a large touch screen monitor at a table to support longer object browsing and study. The prototype of the new interface was quite sophisticated and allowed you to search using any field, and organize the collection chronologically, by accession date, and by material.

They are also adding small monitors to the ends of each case, allowing users to browse the contents of the case in closer physical proximity. These compact screens  are visually very simple and easy to navigate. Objects are represented as thumbnail photographs in a grid. Touching and object icon opens a page containing its metadata. The systems seems easy to navigate, is visually unobtrusive and is automatically updated with new data every week to keep pace with new acquisitions, loans and new curatorial information for each object.

The Luce Center’s collections interfaces and the period room interactive programs are a smart technological retrofit of an existing facility and provide a strong contemporary complement to older (but still effective) exhibition techniques. To me the most interesting aspect of this interface is that it enables the Met to graphically represent the entirety of the collection in a number of ways that reveal larger trends like the proportion of objects in the collection across decades, or the proportion of silver, to glass, to ceramic, etc. These visualizations reminded me of some of the great Victorian collections displays where the entirety of the museum’s collection were visible in a kind of panoptic spectacle that was meant to convey the collection’s taxonomic structure at a glance.

Tim Ventimiglia

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Small Town Identity

My hometown of Chico in California is a little agricultural town which is known for two things: the Sierra Nevada Brewery, and for being on Playboy’s top party colleges back in the 90’s. However, the locals and Chico State school board would like to leverage the lesser known facts –Chico produces most of the Western world’s rice, almonds and walnuts– to make our town a tourist destination.

The existing museums in Chico are relatively unknown outside of Chico but are regular destinations for local school field trips. The Bidwell Mansion the oldest home in Chico, which was owned by the founders of the city, seems to be nothing more than just a strange pink house near the college that can be seen from the busiest street in town. Our 5th graders probably know more about it than our adults.

Bidwell Mansion

The Sierra Nevada Brewery has received so much attention in recent years that their brew-house restaurant was updated less than a decade ago to include a glass wall in the waiting area which allows patrons to view the beer as it is being made.

This became such a popular feature and tour times have been in high demand, prompting the renovation of the brewery. It now includes a beautifully done two story wing made entirely of glass and wood in the Art Nouveu style where brew techniques can be viewed through glass walls and explanatory plaques are placed intermittently to allow the guest to embark on a self-guided tour. Most people use them to further their knowledge as they wait for the guided tour to begin, which is referred to with drunken wonderment as the equivalent of going on a “big kid’s tour” of the Willy Wanka Chocolate Factory, complete with platforms that extend out over the vats, allowing you to be completely immersed in the room.

Sierra Nevada Interior Tour

 

Although a museum addition wasn’t originally intended by the brewery, they stepped up to the demand of their patrons, and the Sierra Nevada Brewery is now known as the main destination for tourists and families coming to town to check out the college. What were the small agriculture and city oriented museums to do?

In a bold step, the city of Chico built a brand-new, state of the art natural history museum, called the Gateway Science Museum, in an abandoned lot next to the Bidwell Mansion to serve as an extension of Chico State. The juxtaposition of the old Victorian house sharing a parking lot with the brightly colored Modernistic Gateway Science Museum is a bit striking, making both stand out from the street, rejuvenating the centralized area only a few blocks from the oldest church in town, the Bidwell Presbyterian Church, and the entrance to the closed off Chico State campus. Still focused on school aged children, the Gateway Science Museum opened last Spring in time for summer camp to begin, and two of the kids I worked with last year as a youth leader claimed it was “Very cool.” (Which is actually a pretty big compliment if you’ve ever spent any time with bored 6th graders.)

Gateway Science Museum

Although this new museum is very well known now in the community, a bigger effort by the city is still somewhat under-wraps. Previously, I hadn’t known that other than the Bidwell Mansion, Gateway Science Museum and Chico Museum (whose existence is usually only noted by those stumbling down the street at early hours after the bars have closed because of it’s lack of advertisement or even signage in front of the building) there are 3 other museums in the city: an outdoor animal refuge, old rice factory and another piece of historic architecture. In an effort to demonstrate the history of Chico as more than just the partying college and home of good beer, the Gateway Science Museum was created to complete the museum circuit and renovations on the 5 existing facilities are underway. Instead of acting as 6 independent museums competing for attention, the City of Chico is hoping that visitors will appreciate a much broader, multi-locational museum experience with combined efforts, events and a single fee.

However, this was all made known to me through someone who is apart of the planning committee, and therefore, it’ll be interesting to see if they are actually able to advertise in the way needed to make sure this idea is successful. The Sierra Nevada Brewery museum is a hard act to follow, but hopefully this new focus on Chico’s history will lead to an grouping of sites which will be interesting to more than just school children needing time out of the classroom.

Kadie Yale

Xaviera Simmons: junctures

OFF/SITE: Xaviera Simmons: junctures (transmissions to) at the Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building

Although this show is now over, it was a great show to experience after our discussion on technology a couple of Mondays ago.   About being private, yet someone public.

“Over five weeks of junctures (transmissions to), Xaviera Simmons will engage invited writers, academics, musicians, astrologers and others in a series of “micro-residencies,” embracing the collaborative and multi-genre nature of the OFF/SITE project. Participants including artist Brendan Fernandes, filmmaker Sophie Hamacher, landscape architect and surfer Benjamin Landers, singer/songwriter Austin McCutchen, and historian and singer Teresa Mora will join Simmons in a closed, site-specific wooden studio structure within the Wyoming Building. The studio will be equipped with a slide projector, digital projector, microphone, amplification system and commercial-grade copy machine; the gallery will serve as home to several live finches for the duration of the project. In the gallery, the artist and her collaborators will create an ever-changing installation of photocopies, projections, staged readings, sound recordings and ephemera reflecting the conversations and activity within the studio.”

Racini A.

Simplicity is Key

After Monday’s lecture on technology within the museum, I saw this on a walk and it made me stop and think about the simplicity I seek within museum walls.  Everyday I walk (as I know everyone else in the class does too) past the light store- Filaments.  The store, located near Parson’s on 13th Street, is filled to capacity with light bulbs, stands, and shades. I know this is a stretch, but every time I walk past the store, I always think of the Hall of Biodiversity located in the American Museum of Natural History.  The Hall of Biodiversity is laid out in a similar manner, it is crowded, colorful, and completely attention-grabbing.  There is a very small presence of technology, making the visitor rely almost solely on the presentation of the plants and animals.

If I said I adored this area of the museum, it would be an understatement.  Every visit I am pleasantly overwhelmed by the information and models presented, and I always learn something new.  I really appreciate the simplicity of this Hall, and I find it refreshing that I find myself thinking of the museum when I see things as simple as a store front.

This is something museums must strive for-  a seamless transition between spaces.  Museum learning cannot stop once a visitor leaves the confines of the institution.  I applaud the Hall for it’s simplicity.  If it was only technological displays, instead of the appropriate combination that it does have, I doubt it would make as strong as impact on its viewers.

Ryan Massey

Guggenheim ‘Labs’

I recently found this article about the Guggenheim’s attempts to reach a wider, more diverse audience and I felt it really speaks to the discussions we have been having about museum transparency and community interaction.

YouTube- one of the most visited sites on the Web has joined forces with the Museum to allow participants a chance to be included in an exhibition… “It’s all motivated by the same thing, to make what is on the walls here more compelling,” said Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

The initiative is such a great way to not only reach out to communities, but act as a dialogue-starter to spark change. It’s very refreshing to see an institution as highly regarded and world-renowned as the Guggenheim taking a stance on urban living complications and joining forces with its “audience” to solve the problem.

In regards to the wide-reaching possibilities this represents, imagine if other museums began taking part in Web-based dialogue…  The Brooklyn Museum and others have lead the way in participatory conversation, and their efforts have allowed their collections to be accessed and (most importantly) enjoyed by a much larger audience.  If other museums took the leap and began interacting with their visitors, the exchange of information between visitor and institution would be so rich and culturally important.  Museums would loose the often pompous and stuffy connotations and become true transparent institutions.

Ryan Massey

Back of House

In the Fall 2010 semester the Lab will explore the essential functions of the museum with the aim of inverting the traditional museum program and identifying new ways of making its internal processes of collection, conservation and interpretation more accessible and socially engaging. As evident in a range of recent projects, museums are increasingly interested in making their internal processes transparent –even participatory– for their visitors through on-the-floor staff interactions, visible study collections, interfaces to digital resources and the use of social media. These techniques and technologies allow museums to explore and even to blur the boundaries between ‘front of house’ and ‘back of house’ functions and afford new ways for the museum to connect with its audience.

The American Association of Museums (AAM) defines the museum as being comprised as a set of specific activities that are conducted under a guiding mission. These include: collection, conservation, interpretation, education, and exhibition. Unless we are museum professionals working within an active museum, most of our attention as members of the public is traditionally focused on exhibitions, and perhaps occasionally on an educational event or program.  The first three activities listed represent for most of us that mysterious hidden world behind the gallery walls and are often misunderstood, or at the very least under-appreciated while the activities of collection, conservation and scholarship are essential to any museum. Some might even suggest that there is a subtle institutional progression implied in this list of activities that places them in a linear hierarchy with the first – collection – being somehow the most essential and the last – exhibition – being almost an operational burden.

It goes something like this: if you do not collect there is nothing to conserve. Scholarship and interpretation requires an object of study. If you do not have scholarship then you cannot teach and if finally you do not have anything unique to say then what will your exhibition hope to communicate to its visitors? That may be a bit rash but you get the point.

Historically the systems of collecting and interpreting natural, cultural and artistic heritage have indeed informed the development of a museum’s architecture, its exhibitions and public programs. As systems of collecting and the construction of knowledge have changed over the last two centuries, we have seen corresponding changes in museum architecture, exhibition and programming.  We will explore how these changes played out in the museum, what societal forces drove the changes, and how design and museum practices have responded. We will identify emergent approaches in a range of new and existing museums. We will look at architecture, exhibition, technology, media, and the role of the curator and designer in shaping museum experience.

I am in interested in weaving together a number of disparate threads that I believe are catalyzing in this shift toward making the museum’s ‘back of house’ increasingly visible and essential to connecting with their visitors. After a decade characterized by iconic museum buildings and expensive permanent exhibitions and the subsequent decline of philanthropic support due to the downturn in the economy, museums are now looking hard at ways of making more value out of their existing assets. Back of House aims to explore this trend across at least three modes of implementation: the physical, the personal and the digital.

Themes and Threads

Architecture Inside Out
Over the last 50 years there has been a dramatic change in museum architecture. Long gone are the vaulted, naturally lit galleries of the early 20th Century and the ideals of symmetry, solid masonry walls, steep stairs and pillared portico entries. Modernism brought a disciplined rationality to buildings that were optimized for flexibility, flow and operational performance. Postmodernism was marked by what we might be called narrative architecture. These are buildings that are purpose-designed to a specific text and meant to convey a specific story. Now, at the culmination of a  museum building boom that lasted almost 20 years, there is a new trend emerging. In museums both recent and currently underway we are seeing an opening up of buildings, deconstructing the formality of the gallery, extensive use of glass and day-lighting, dramatic views both inside and beyond the walls of the museum, views into research areas, visible storage, study centers and high density collections displays, and a hybridization of traditional museum program or ‘nested’ programs where learning laboratories and other facilities are literally embedded within the gallery.  The Luce Foundation sponsored study centers at the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum or the Brooklyn Museum are examples of this approach. Another example might be the London Museum of Natural History’s new Darwin Centre­—a multistory, light-filled building attached to the original neo-gothic structure of this venerable museum, like a cocoon that opens to reveal the scientific research and collections functions of the museum to the visiting public.

Status of the Object
The second theme we will explore is the status of the physical object in museums.  While this will not be a class on materiality or material culture, we will explore the role of the museum collection as it relates to the function of the museum, conservation, interpretation, and exhibition. Recent publications such as Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects or historian Stephen Conn’s Do Museums Still Need Objects? explore the status of the analog object in the age that appears to favor the digital medium. The title of Conn’s book is striking. In fact it is almost alarming. Conn is a scholar and has spent a career rigorously mapping the changing topography of the museum as it responds to nuanced changes in society. The title is very direct and implies that an urgently needed, practical discussion will follow. The fact is that there are many, and perhaps even an increasing number of museums without objects. What is at stake in this trend?

Social Networks
The third theme concerns the advent of social networking applications and the integration of technology into the museum experience and the consequent “decline of the expert.” The ubiquity of social networking applications may be a symptom of society’s constant search for order and empathy that has been enabled and made visible by new technologies. At the very least, it reinforces the increasing importance we place in the definition of the Self as we seek to clarify and document our unique worldview, while at the same time atomizing into online micro-communities of like-minded individuals. We define ourselves by the connections we make in social space and the things we collect and give preference to. Museums have also traditionally facilitated this. The boundaries between traditional roles, responsibilities and authorities have shifted. We are now simultaneously content producers, curators and consumers. Museums are exploring ways to incorporate user-generated content and participatory experiences where the visitor becomes integral to the production of the experience. The scholar’s voice is just a starting point. In some cases it does not exist at all. The visitor’s voice joins a cacophony of others to form an infinite number of meanings where the project of interpretation is never finished. Nina Simon’s new book The Participatory Museum explores these ideas in depth and is sure to become a staple for museum professionals for the years to come. Other projects like steve.museum explores ways that social tagging can enhance the public assess and use of museum resources. What do these new social networking tools and digital assets provide to museums as they seek to communicate with our public? What does this mean for the role of the curator, scholarship and education in the museum?

Museum as Muse
Lastly, and more so than any architect or museum design professional, I am deeply motivated by a number of artists who actively use museum architecture, collections and processes as a site for their art. David Wilson’s LA-based Museum of Jurassic Technology; Ilya Kabakov’s immersive, and sometimes intentionally unfinished art gallery installations; Sophie Calle’s documentary approach utilizing photography and objects as evidence of a grand narrative; Andrea Fraser’s unauthorized, although seemingly ‘official’ museum tours; Mark Dion’s use of traditional archeological and forensic sciences and mock expeditions in unexpected places; filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s “100 Objects to Represent the World” and interactive room-sized talking painting “Wedding at Cana” at the last Venice Biennale; are just a few that come to mind. We will explore these works of art and see what they might teach us and ways of visually expressing the essential activities of the museum.

Pop(up) Art Museum on the Mall

Hirshhorn Museum Transformation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro Architects

This is a truly great project, a spectacular transformation of an already iconic museum building, bring it new life, it is conceptually clear, technically genius, brilliant that it can be performed annually like a circus coming to town. Washington D.C. needs more of this. Bring it on.

Ouroussoff’s review here.