"Samurai: Art of Armor" at Los Angeles County Museum of Art
The American Museum of Natural History’s historic Northwest Coast Hall is the Museum’s oldest exhibition hall, which opened in 1899 to showcase the material cultures of Indigenous communities living along North America’s Pacific Northwest Coast. Curated by ethnographer Franz Boas, known as “the father of modern anthropology,” the exhibits were ambitious and laid the foundation for a new way of presenting cultures.
The histories, customs, materials, creative expressions and objects highlighted in the Northwest Coast Hall are those of living cultures. WHY’s renovation of the gallery restored and refreshed the displays to more conscientiously reflect that – intimately engaging Indigenous consultants and curators in the process and working closely with the Museum’s Exhibition department, which was responsible for the writing, graphic design, and multimedia. Together we ignited multimedia touchpoints and set the stage for nimble contemporary displays, all while preserving the immense architectural history of the original gallery.
Before beginning the design process, WHY first acknowledged the source of what we were designing. With the Museum’s Curator Peter Whiteley and others, Kulapat traveled to Alaska and the Northwest Coast of Canada to experience the geography, sense of place and ways of living of some of the Indigenous cultures represented in the Hall.
Throughout the project, the Museum worked closely with Co-Curator Haa’yuups, a Nuu-chah-nulth scholar and cultural historian, and a core group of nine Indigenous curators from eight of the communities. Our designs were born out of these experiences and conversations. We reinvigorated the Hall as a platform for showcasing the creativity, scholarship, and history of the living cultures of the Pacific Northwest, while elevating their histories and voices.
Reflecting a curatorial shift in how Indigenous material culture is presented, we refreshed displays and exhibit cases within the overall gallery to create a more fluid experience between the alcoves devoted to distinct cultures. Interpretation, developed by the Museum team with Indigenous curators, features names and terms in both English and Native languages. Illuminated signage sits on low-profile steel railings that merge form and function, keeping visitors gently cordoned off from the monumental carvings on display.
“It started with us listening. The strong voices of the Northwest Coast cultures are vibrantly amplified through the new installation of objects, presented in the round and with contextual relationships to one another.”
To create a more seamless exhibition experience, new pathways and connections were opened up between the distinct alcoves of the Hall; and a set of high-performance display cases were moved outward to deliberately overlap with the central thoroughfare, helping draw visitors into the exhibits.
Despite the changes implemented, we prioritized preserving the original architectural identity of the Hall by repairing and highlighting its standout elements – including refurbishing the vaulted ceiling and the building’s original, patterned ceramic tile floor.
The Hall’s 1899 façade originally featured rows of grand windows along both of its sides, though they were gradually concealed by subsequent Museum expansions. As a part of our renovation, we uncovered these arched openings and re-envisioned them as illuminated murals. These images reference the geographical context of the exhibits through illustrations of significant landscapes and landmarks of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
“The historic Northwest Coast Hall is revered by New Yorkers and beyond, so one priority was to maintain its spirit while setting the gallery up for more contextualized, contemporary displays. In coordination with the Museum, we approached a gamut of strategies, from color stories to technologies, but privileged the input of the Pacific Northwest communities for how our renovations would be in service to their cultures.”
The architecture of the Northwest Coast Hall is a relic unto itself, one that requires both memorialization and modernization to justify its authority within contemporary contexts.
While technology is a natural response to modernizing experiences within the exhibitions, intrinsic to our strategy was also a deference to the cultural modernity of Native communities. The Hall’s four corner displays feature a rotating program of contemporary art, new commissions, text-and-graphics, and digital exhibits.
These subtle changes to the flow of displays grant the gallery a newfound flexibility and firmly acknowledge that the Nations represented in its alcoves are kinetic, evolving, and actively producing new artworks, ideas, and other benchmarks of contemporary culture.
“As an architect, the opportunity to really spend time absorbing and conversing with the multiple cultures represented in our project has greatly informed how we were able to bring out a fresh design, one that provides clarity and sense of place while respecting and responding to the deep context and diverse stories that the meaningful art objects present.”