What’s Different about This Picture: Laying the (New) Groundwork for Design

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This article is part of the “Exhibit Planning in 2020: Thinking Now about Where We Hope to Be in the Future” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

Alissa Rupp, FAIA, Frame | Integrative Design Strategies

When helping museum leaders lay the groundwork for good design, we talk about how to get a project off to a good start: finding the right team; preparing your internal team for the path ahead; understanding design as an iterative process; and acknowledging that the building and site will be the setting for reaching your strategic goals and realizing your vision. Project teams work together to address questions about what to design, how much to build, and how to move a project forward in a prudent way given the huge number of variables.

Prior to March 2020, these questions simply represented a typical design challenge: designers using their “crystal ball” to determine what will best serve the organization, at least in terms of the physical space. But in this incomprehensible and ever-changing year, the crystal ball is foggy. We’ve found our immediate way forward through a lot of observing, re-thinking, and learning by doing in the short-term. Long-term, big picture thinking has been harder. As national and international crises play out, project teams are asking: What now? And what’s next?

Some days, the pandemic pause seems long and drawn out, but really, it’s been five minutes in “design time.” Capital projects can only shift so quickly. In the meantime, museums are working hard to respond in real time. The first design responses have shown up in logistics, circulation patterns, new equipment, revised operations, and modified service models. A lot of great work has happened, but the bigger thinking has just begun: examining what makes museums essential in our uncertain future.

In planning new museums and expansions, we are learning from existing ones. What is happening inside their facilities, and what is happening virtually? What is key to their survival? What have they changed?

DISCOVERY Children’s Museum in Las Vegas opened their empty temporary exhibit gallery as socially distanced remote schoolwork space for kids with limited internet access at home.  
KidsQuest Children’s Museum in Bellevue, Washington, doubled down on outreach, kits, toy libraries, and online resources for parents of preschool kids.  

Both museums acted quickly, finding funding for the programs only after they were underway. These museums are taking cues from their community, their elected and appointed officials, their members, and their boards. They are agile. They are reconfiguring and shifting strategies, learning as they go. Their responses go beyond stanchions, hand sanitizer, or thermometers at the doors, but include big moves that support their true work.

The medical aspect of this pandemic will be managed, eventually. But while COVID-19 has been called a “once in a lifetime” event, subsequent pandemics are possible, because as a society we are not yet doing what it will take to prevent them. To think intelligently about the future of hands-on, immersive, interactive museum experiences, designers and museum staff must key in on fulfilling the museum mission. Is the organization prepared to be nimble, in its offerings and messages?

Being resilient must be more that a catch phrase. In designing for the future, resilience should be a core value, link directly to other core values, to sustainably guide everything the organization does. Whether you are open, emerging, or just beginning, your values likely include:

  • Social justice: There is much work to do around diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and belonging in museums.
  • Sustainability: Climate change continues to impact the communities that sustain museums and undermine their stability.
  • Ethical practice: Museums must be good workplaces and good corporate citizens.

These key values cannot be addressed successfully by organizations that do not have a solid grip on their own financial, operational, and environmental sustainability. They require resilience.

The growing interest in outdoor space now holds even greater appeal.

Outdoor space is often the least expensive way to build usable program, exhibit, and visitor service spaces. Providing distance between people and groups may be easier outdoors. But even these spaces require organizational flexibility. Inclement weather of all types—now including air quality concerns that affected so much of the Western United States this summer—significantly affect the utility of the space. Design for resilience: instead of designing around rain or extreme heat or cold temperatures, these weather variables can become part of an outdoor exhibit when they occur.

The country—and specifically the experience economy—is experiencing a crisis within a crisis within a crisis involving social, political, economic, health, and environmental issues. What does this mean for museums in the future? No one knows for sure, but it could mean that, as communities emerge and recover from these crises, people will need what museums offer more than ever. Before launching—or even continuing—a new design project, ask:

  • Which of our short-term responses might have long-term application, or be held in reserve for future crises?
  • How can the museum best use each space, and can those spaces be designed to be more flexible in the future?
  • Can communities who are currently underrepresented in the museum audience be invited to participate more fully in its offerings?
  • Can our income stream be further diversified to include operating income, sponsorships, corporate giving, major gifts, individual contributions, and an endowment?

Designing for resilience does not mean building “generic” spaces, or galleries that are so flexible they blur your identity. On the contrary, each museum’s solution must enhance its connection to its community and strengthen its relationship to its place. Design for spaces that allow you to highlight unique offerings and support essential services. Create a museum that belongs firmly in its geographical, historical, and cultural setting, so that it is easy for your audience to feel a sense of belonging there.

Design with a hard look at future audiences, both the near future and beyond. Will you serve tourists anytime soon, given the drastic reductions in family travel this year? Once things calm down, which visitors will return first, and who will come consistently? Has your core audience recovered financially, or are they still reeling from the shrinking service economy?

As we imagine the ways in which children’s museums will be needed going forward, we can respond by designing spaces that will add value in the future, and we can look at how to monetize them, either through operations income or targeted giving. The design task right now is to focus on what carries the field forward, instead of “waiting it out” until we can go back to where we were before. That return may not happen, and in many ways, we may not want it to.

As design professionals, it is hard to say “we don’t know yet” when asked about future of museums and what it means for our projects. Especially when we are laying the groundwork right now for a new or expanded museum. But we are learning, and we are hopeful that museums will fill an essential space in our communities going forward. Capital projects are intense and exhausting in the best of times. Optimism is an important tool in the toolbox for anyone thinking about a new exhibit, a new museum, or an expansion. But the work is important. Determine what makes you essential and design like your museum depends on it.

Alissa Rupp, FAIA, is the founder of FRAME | Integrative Design Strategies, which focuses on the design of places for community building, informal education, and lifelong learning.