PRECARITY AND PLAY: What brings a museum to life?

“I was, I am, I will be” by Chanel Miller, the inaugural work in the new Wilbur Gallery at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco

After a year of #MuseumFromHome digital programming, we’ve all become masters at navigating museums online.

In the virtual museum, each visitor is an architect of their own experience: we select which works to look at, which conversations to enter, which spaces to click through to – seamlessly, with no waiting lines or circulation zones.


The Galleries of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and The Americas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The digital museum is self-curated to the needs of the individual. Now, more than ever before, physical museum buildings must offer something equally compelling: an architectural environment designed for the collective while empowering the individual. A living, embodied sequence of spaces experienced as changing rhythms and states of mind – spaces which make way for serendipitous encounters.

We asked Brian Butterfield, Director of the WHY Museums Workshop, to tell us about the museums where he has felt that vitality. It comes down to the fact that spatial experiences are wholly sensory – something you don’t get when crossing and re-crossing digital thresholds, however imaginative the online content.

The recognition of the museum as a whole-body experience has informed WHY’s approach to design for The Met, The Asian Art Museum, and the Academy Museum, among others. If museum fatigue results from feeling un-rooted or oversaturated, energy arises from immersion, orientation, and a sense of connection. But there’s also a spark of something different – a momentary discomfort, a sense of precarity and an invitation to play…



Brian Butterfield: “The design of a space changes the way we respond to artworks – and light, in particular, conditions the way we think and feel. There are museums and galleries where your whole experience is shaped by the play of light – I’m thinking of the Fondation Maeght in the South of France, designed by Josep Lluís Sert, and Alvar Aalto’s KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Allowing natural light into gallery spaces is controversial, given the potential damage to artworks, but Aalto understood how sunlight can be dispersed through a structure – you see it with his use of angled skylights and curved ceilings, minimizing the direct impact of UV rays. The presence of natural light allows you to witness the movement of time throughout the day, it brings you back to awareness. And an artist’s studio will likely be flooded with light – that’s the way the art was made, that’s the way it’s designed to be seen.”



“I love the bold use of color, texture, and pattern in the interiors of the Faaborg Museum in Denmark– and how all those elements come together to inform your relationship to the artworks. It’s a museum which really makes space to spend time with particular exhibits – and there’s a theatricality and a dreamlikeness to the architecture, with its narrow doors, enfilades, and barrel vaults. That sense of compression and expansion, combined with rich, immersive use of color, creates a mindset where you can appreciate the magic of the collection – it builds a realm where you want to linger and dwell.”



“Sound has a powerful impact on the way we understand our surroundings – whether we feel rested and attentive, or overwhelmed and disoriented. It also allows us to form spatial narratives – I remember the first time I went to the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, wandering the museum and the grounds as part of an audio experience by sound-artist Janet Cardiff – the audio led you to different spaces, it blurred the distinctions between past and future. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between architecture and sound a lot recently, especially while designing the Stories of Cinema galleries at the Academy Museum where we’ve been working with the composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Recreating the immersive sonic experience of cinema in the museum context is a fascinating challenge, and it’s changing the way I think about exhibit design.”



“It seems counterintuitive to talk about tactility in an environment when you’re not supposed to touch anything. But when touch is foregrounded in a museum or gallery context, our experience of an artwork is intensified. I’m thinking of the tiled floor in the Monet room at the Chichu Art Museum designed by Tadao Ando. There’s something miraculous about that space, accentuated by the fact that you have to remove your shoes before entering. You’re suddenly aware of your feet as sensors, as important as your eyes. Another example is the James Turrell installation, Pleiades (1983), at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. You enter a pitch black corridor, touching the walls to guide you. Your eyes start to adjust… And then, when you decide to leave, it’s the touch of a handrail which marks the end of the experience. When touch becomes prioritized, its often in spaces where we find ourselves vulnerable and all the more open to perception.”



“The longevity of a museum is dependent on its integration with its surroundings, how it is sited in relation to the natural and built environment – that’s why we work closely with the Landscape Workshop from the very beginning of project, interpreting museums as part of a larger whole. Again, the Louisiana Museum is a great example of how a cultural institution can generate a strong sense of place through constant interchange between indoor and outdoor spaces; the architecture mediates the relationship between the art and the landscape. And then there are art sites where landscape design shapes your experience in ways that invite you to make the place your own. Every fall, I hold a picnic at Storm King in New York when the color of the leaves start to turn. That connection between art and the land, guided by design, creates a powerful rhythm to the experience – it inspires ritual, it’s grounding and uplifting at the same time.”



“Grounding is important, but sometimes the feeling of disorientation can spark something new in the museum experience. I’m thinking of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London – that sense of trespass, of being invited into someone’s head – or The Museum of Jurassic Technology (close to our office in Culver City), or the City Museum in St Louis, a former shoe factory with exhibits of repurposed architectural and industrial objects. There’s a sense of precarity in these spaces which raises a feeling of existential anxiety – these aren’t museums which provide any guidelines for interpretation – instead, you’re thrust into new ways of wondering, risk taking, charting your own path. I went to school in St Louis, and visits to the City Museum would remind me how little it all matters – the stress and constraints of making your way through the world. Remnants of industry become invitations to play – like the multi-story slides which used to be shafts for shoes.”

We typically think of museums as zones for protecting and enshrining – you’re constantly aware of what you can and can’t touch, where you can and can’t enter, the right direction to reach your destination, or the correct information to decode an exhibit. But occasionally all this falls away, and the museum experience becomes less about feeling “cultured” and more about wonder and delight. Sometimes, the sheer capaciousness of a museum can allow for this – The Met, for instance. For all the thousands of words on the wall informing you how to understand or experience – you can also just go and get lost, get absorbed into the museum.

A museum is only as welcoming as its willingness not to be an authority – inclusive museums are more like good stewards, accepting the fact that interpretation and meaning is living and evolving – something precarious, and playful. An institution’s commitment to loosening the controls can be a starting point for the design and the visitor experience. An experience which becomes a microcosm of the world beyond.”


Article by Matilda Bathurst


KUNSTEN Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark
Chichu Art Museum, Naoshima, Japan
Fondation Maeght, Southeast France
Fondation Maeght
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark
Louisiana Museum
Louisiana Museum
Louisiana Museum
Faaborg Museum, Faaborg, Denmark
Faaborg Museum
Faaborg Museum
Sir John Soane's Museum in London, England
Sir John Soane's Museum
March 26th, 2021
Exhibition Design,  Interiors,  Museums,  Programming,  WHY Features
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