Community Museums

May 12th, 2014

Community Museums: Resisting the Institutional, Welcoming the Public

Ever since the words “Bilbao effect” entered the lexicon, museums have been competing in a game of architectural ingenuity or ‘newness’. While there is value in striking design, the search for the “wow factor” can lead museums away from their mission to connect to the public.

Community museums, which have a more local or regional focus, tend to focus less on enterprising architecture and more on the public. Their collections offer something authentic and unique to their locales and because they double as education centers, they are intergenerational in their programming. There is no pretense, no presumption that you ought to study the artists before you visit. They are not required to follow the standard museum formulas. These local museums have a strong commitment to showing work that’s relevant to the community and are often more open and friendly than their large institutional counterparts. For them, architecture is about helping reach out to the public.

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The three museums we are working with now all have permanent collections and occupy a range of locations, from urban to suburban. The GLBT History Museum, designed in collaboration with Steve Const, opened in 2011. It occupies a storefront space in San Francisco’s Castro district at the heart of the community it represents. It’s the first stand-alone museum of its kind in the country, with the mission of collecting, preserving, and interpreting the history of GLBT people and the communities that support them. Lectures and events complement the display of its extensive archives.

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As with many small community museums with limited budgets, strategic thinking came in handy. We worked with their staff to break the renovation into phases that reflected their budget. In the 1st phase, prefabricated exhibit structures donated by the de Young Museum. were repurposed and retrofitted to fit the space.

The second phase of the project will add a canopy structure that extends through the interior out onto the street. Because the museum is open until 7:00 PM most days, the illuminated canopy will make the museum even more visible at night, which is appropriate, because the museum chronicles the importance of the GLBT community’s nightlife.

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When we’re designing or renovating community museums, we’re trying to shape spaces that will help the museum become an even more vital gathering place. It’s about surprising and delighting visitors not only with information being presented, but also with the format that invites them to engage with the information and even interact with each other.

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Supporting the programming while still accommodating the display of objects is key, and finding that balance can be a challenge, as we found out in our work for the Museum of the American Indian in Novato, California.

This Museum’s mission is to provide the people of Northern California with programs and exhibits that deepen understanding and appreciation of Native American cultures. The Museum has been in operation since 1967 in a single family house that was located on a historical site of a working Miwok village in a public park in suburban Marin County.

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Initially, we were brought in to add a gallery to the rear of the existing building, which the museum had outgrown. In the existing building, programs and exhibits compete for space, with events having to take place in the middle of the exhibits. But after an in-depth analysis and evolving community process with the Museum and the City of Novato, we realized that all the necessary upgrades to the existing building  made it unrealistic to retrofit the old structure from a cost-benefit perspective.

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So we’re designing a new building to replace the existing facility that will allow for exhibitions, scholarly research and indoor/outdoor learning to happen all at the same time.

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When completed, the museum’s campus, organized around a new outdoor room, will provide rooms for exhibitions, offices, archival storage, a store and  education space. We designed the museum so that one quarter of the floor plate is technically outdoors, strengthening the connection to the park and creek. To make the structure feel contemporary while also giving voice to the traditions of the original native culture, we studied the assembly, scale, and expression of natural materials in traditional Miwok houses, known as kotchas, and sweat lodges. We also drew inspiration from the basketry for which the Miwoks are famous.

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Community museums can play a vital role in helping children (and adults) build connections with nature, especially in cities. The Randall Museum has been doing this since its founding in 1937. Located in a 16-acre park and owned and operated by the city’s Recreation and Parks Department, the Randall Museum offers youth and adult opportunities for active involvement and recreation in an integrated program of arts and sciences, with a focus on the cultures and environment of the Bay Area. Admission is free. The current building, built in 1951, offers great views of San Francisco, but needs upgrades to the existing facilities in order to provide the content for which is has become recognized.

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The Randall Museum received grant funding from the State of California. So our firm in Joint Venture with Pfau Long Architecture (PLA/KRA) was hired for the renovation of the existing museum. The building is poured-in-place concrete, which makes reconfiguration a bit of a challenge, but the redesign nearly doubles the amount of space dedicated to exhibits and programming, making much more of the collection accessible to the public. The expanded programming includes renovating the live animal room and adding new interpretive geology and zoology exhibits to deepen understanding of the natural world around us.

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In the Internet age, access to information is just a click away. But information on its own doesn’t necessarily provide knowledge. That’s why community museums are more important than ever—they provide an experiential quality that’s not replicable by any other means. The GLBT History Museum lets visitors view everything from Harvey Milk’s campaign literature to the glittering stiletto of a drag queen to documents from the long struggle for equal rights. The Museum of the American Indian connects visitors to an earlier time, offering kids and adults the chance to touch artifacts in the collection, play the same games as the Miwok Indians did long ago, and practice some of the same craft skills. At the Randall Museum, visitors have a chance to take a deeper look at nature, meet live owls, California tarantulas, and raptors face to face, learning about their habitats and habits.

Community museums have a crucial role to play in luring us away from the glow of our screens and bringing us together. Contemporary design can make sure that the experience of visiting community museums remains fresh, vibrant, and accessible, integrating the richness of the past with the immediacy of the present to highlight history’s continuing relevance. Times change, collections change, cultures change. The challenge for these organizations is to reinvent themselves while holding on to what everybody loves about them.

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